St Bride's: Sermons

Greater love hath no man

Greater love hath no man

On 10th July 1943 in the middle of World War II Fl Lieut. Tony Snell was shot down over Sicily. Trying to avoid capture he was found by a German patrol and ordered to put his hands up. Without warning his captors rolled a hand grenade towards him but he managed to jump clear and run off. He hid in bushes, realized he was in the middle of a minefield, and blundered out onto an airfield, where he was promptly recaptured. The Germans decided to execute him as a spy and ordered him to kneel. Seeing their intention he jumped up and ran off as they fired. He was badly wounded in the shoulder but he managed to escape.

Once again he tried to reach Allied lines but was captured for the third time, and although threatened with execution, this time he managed to prove he was a British RAF officer. He spent two months in hospital and was then put on a train for Germany and a prisoner of war camp, but as it slowed at a junction he jumped off, headed south, joined Italian partisans and eventually made it across the mountains into Switzerland and freedom: He lived to the grand age of 91, and was given a recent obituary in the Daily Telegraph.

It's an extraordinary story, one of many of a truly remarkable generation who are now dying out. As we read their obituaries in the papers we can only wonder at these often unsung heroes and their remarkable feats of adventure, courage and heroism.

Here's another story. On 9th April 1945 a Christian minister was hanged for treason against the Third Reich. His name was Deitrich Bonhoeffer. He was a Lutheran minister who watched with increasing unease as his church in Germany began to compromise with Hitler's Third Reich in the 1930's. With others he set up the Confessing Church which stated that it was the duty of the Church to follow Jesus Christ, and no-one else.

Bonhoeffer spoke out against the government's policy towards the Jews and friends urged him to escape from Germany to America while there was time. But in 1939 he felt he had to be with the Church in Germany. Disillusioned with the compromises which his church was making with the regime, he came to believe that if civilization was to survive, the government had to be brought down, so he became involved in a plot to kill Hitler with a bomb. The plot failed and in 1943 Bonhoeffer, along with others, was arrested and sent to Flossenberg Prison. In April 1945, only days before Allied troops arrived to liberate the prison, he was executed.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer remained true to his Christian beliefs and his moral values. He saw the evil, hatred and prejudice at the heart of the Nazi creed; he knew that it is futile to ignore evil and simply hope it will go away. "When good people sit back and do nothing", he said, "then evil people have a free hand to do whatever they like."

People like Fl Lieut Tony Snell and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer need to be remembered because their examples can continue to inspire us. They remind us of the basic values of courage and, determination, of heroism and self-sacrifice. They remind us to keep our Christian eyes open and challenge us not to compromise our values. And that's because of the third story, the Christian story, the story of God's love for humankind, his costly self-giving love made real in Jesus: "greater love has no man than this - that a man lay down his life for his friends".

Every week we meet to tell that story and name the name of Jesus Christ, because as we tell the Christian story, so we become part of it; we are encouraged and challenged to make the values and the spirit that energized Dietrich Bonhoeffer our own.

Tony Snell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, they remind us that we must continue to tell their stories and those of countless others who gave their lives for freedom, justice and righteousness. Remembrance Sunday reminds us that terrible things can and do happen in the world, that evil must be resisted. And that all this comes at a cost, the cost of human lives lost in war, especially the two world wars of the 20th century and subsequent conflicts.

Edward Thomas, the poet and countryman went off to the Great war in 1917 and was killed at Arras on Easter Monday. Two years earlier he had written a poem called "In Memoriam":-
    "The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
    This Eastertide call into mind the men
    Now far from home, who with their sweethearts, should
    Have gathered them and will do ne'er again",

For Edward Thomas Easter flowers, for us red poppies, are a reminder of all those individual stories that lie behind this day of Remembrance. We must continue to tell their stories so that their deaths are not in vain, and so that we will remain fearless in our loyalty to goodness and truth and freedom for all in our own day. And we tell the Christian story, the old old story of Jesus' and his love, because when human heroism, courage and self-sacrifice fails, or runs out- God's love remains, the oldest and best story of all, because in Him is our ultimate fulfillment and salvation. Amen.

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