Sermon: Anzac Day Service – 26th April 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   Acts 4:5-12;  Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24;  John 10:11-18

Just before dawn, one hundred years and one day ago, the first of the Anzac forces rowed ashore to begin the Gallipoli campaign, about which we have heard so much over recent days. Many of them never even made it to shore alive, and over the following eight months more than 8700 Australian troops lost their lives at Gallipoli. A terrible cost. And as our Prime Minister has observed, it really ended in defeat with the withdrawal that took place just before Christmas 1915, after months of stalemate.

Of course, many of the survivors of Gallipoli then found themselves serving on the Western Front, perhaps an even more hellish experience, with a huge cost in human lives. However, it was there that our forces played a significant role in achieving victory for Britain, its allies, and its empire.

It is only in recent years that we as a nation have begun again to pay significant attention to the service and sacrifice of our soldiers on the Western Front, as our active interest in Gallipoli revived towards the end of last century. Sarah and I, like many Australians, have had the opportunity to visit the battlefields both of Gallipoli and the Western Front, and it was a powerful experience for us both.

It is often said that Gallipoli almost established us or defined us as a nation; that it was here that we came of age as a young nation; that it was only through the experience and service, the struggles and the suffering of the Great War, that we came together as a nation, and showed the world who we really are.

It seems ironic that our attention to the Gallipoli campaign focuses on what was such a costly defeat. My understanding is that the defeat was linked much more to poor decisions from higher up that any failure from the ordinary troops themselves: others better qualified than I can assess the truth of that impression. But it does seem that the colonials from the antipodes did their job with great skill, determination and camaraderie: they gave their best to the task assigned to them, at huge cost, and they acquitted themselves with great honour.

Yes, there was a larrikin side to their outlook: British traditions were not going to become a straightjacket to them, and they weren’t going to be bogged down by unnecessary formalities.

We honour them as ordinary Australians who left their homes to serve their country and their empire – ordinary people, so many of whom gave their lives in an unknown land on the other side of the world.

Was it worth it? Well, eventually in another place the victory was won – but at terrible cost. And surely we are reminded that war must always be seen as the very last option of a responsible government. War should never be rushed into: it should never be easily entered. It is always evil, even if it may sometimes be seen as a necessary evil. It is not glorious. In our best moments we will commemorate it, but not celebrate it. Hopefully we will learn from it. And yes, we must remember and continue to commemorate those who served, those who gave their lives, and also to remember those who lost loved ones, or who lost the loved one they had known when a very different, sadly changed person returned from the war. We must never take these people and their sacrifice for granted.

Yes, our country did gain a sense of identity from its involvement in the Great War, and in a special way from Gallipoli, failure though it was. And in that sense we might say that even the sacrifice of Gallipoli was not totally wasted.

And it seems appropriate that sacrificial death is a significant theme of our scripture readings for today.

In our reading from Acts, we hear Peter telling the Sanhedrin that Jesus had been crucified, but God had raised him from death. He was like the strange-looking stone rejected by the builders, but which turned out to be the very one which enabled the whole building to finally fit together. The events of Good Friday seemed a terrible defeat for Jesus and his followers, but that defeat was turned into victory by the Easter events. And of course the sacrificial death of Jesus led to healing and salvation for many.

Mind you, this was a risky thing for Peter to say. He could have soft-pedalled his message. He could even have denied Jesus once again. But Jesus had not only forgiven him: Jesus had commissioned him to lead his apostles as they made known the message of the crucified and risen Saviour. So Peter was willing to risk imprisonment and even to risk his life to give due honour to Jesus and to the message of the Gospel. Jesus loved him enough to die for him: Peter must faithfully live as his servant, whatever the costrather – even rejection, imprisonment, death itself.

And we have our Gospel reading, with its beautiful words in which Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd: the one who is no thief and does no harm to the sheep – the one who is not just a hired hand who runs away from danger, but will face it faithfully – he is the one who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.

And of course that is exactly what Jesus the good shepherd did. He sacrificed his life on the cross to save his sheep, his people, from spiritual death, from the power of the evil one.

And then we have words from the First Letter of John: words about love. Jesus showed his love by laying down his life for us. A statement that echoes those famous words of Jesus, often read at this time of year: “greater love has no one than this: that a person lays down his life for those he loves”. Jesus loved: Jesus laid down his life.

But let’s notice the conclusion John draws from this. “We ought to lay down our lives for one another”, he says. Faith means following in the footsteps of Jesus. And so John goes on to say that love means helping a person in need in whatever way you can: providing whatever you have that will meet their need. Practical help: we’ve seen a good deal of that this week, as neighbours have helped each other, as volunteers have gone to storm-ravaged areas to assist with their time, their skills and their effort. As John says, love is not just about the nice words you say: it is about our loving actions, our generous deeds. Love is generous. Love is active. But love is also sacrificial.

And so this week, we remember those who have shown love to their country and their comrades in serving and suffering and dying in battle. We give thanks for them and acknowledge what they have done. And we take seriously the challenge to follow their example of generous sacrificial love for the good our others, the good of our community, the good of our nation, and the good of our world.

But this day we also remember one other who gave his life for those in spiritual need – and that is all of us. It looked like a terrible defeat: but God has the habit of bringing good out of evil. And so it was that God raised Jesus from death itself, and brought life not only to Jesus, but new life to the world.

We remember Jesus as we gather around his table to give thanks in the Eucharist. But we also honour him by following in his footsteps, and responding to his challenge, that challenge echoed in the words of John: to love one another and to show love to others, not only in words but in deeds of active love. Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver