Greater than life: a reflection on Remembrance

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"We will remember."

At 11 am yesterday, Britain stood still for two minutes to commemorate the lives lost during the First World War and subsequent conflicts. The annual ceremony demonstrates the respect that the nation still has for the members of the armed forces, despite their now decade-long engagement in an increasingly unpopular war.

It is perhaps easy to account for the reasons why people join the military—the chance of adventure, the provision of a structured lifestyle, or simply the prospect of a stable job. But that does not explain why someone who has joined may later, under enemy fire, run into the open to drag a wounded civilian to safety, or jump on to a nearby live grenade to shield his comrades from the blast.

This type of selfless commitment helps explain why there is still so much respect for our armed forces, even though many of us have moral qualms about what they are trained to do. Some may say that that those selfless acts are brave; others may say that they are foolish. Yet I believe that it is neither bravery nor foolishness that drives people to commit these selfless acts, but passion—specifically, passion for something that is greater than one’s own life. Whether that passion is for God, country, duty, a mate, or even a random stranger, soldiers have often done things on the battlefield that contradict the natural instinct of self-preservation. In the heat of battle, the soldier displaying selflessness often put their own lives under great risk.

The ideal of living—and dying—for passion in something greater than oneself is cherished in the Bible. David claims in Psalm 63:3 that God’s love is greater than life. Jesus says in John 15:13 that greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jesus’ own life was about denying the self in the service of others). Other religions, in their own ways, also preach the virtues of self-denial. There are, of course, limits to the benefits of a self-denying act, especially if the same act denies others of certain rights, as a suicide bomber would be doing. But the mentality of self-denial is still a laudable and attractive one. This simultaneously explains why the nation is happy to take two minutes out of its busy life each year to commemorate its fallen, and why there seems to be a limitless supply of suicide bombers to create more fallen for the nation to commemorate.

Talking about dying for others may be a bit morbid, but the other side of the same coin is talking about the living for others. While we are alive, are we passionate in living for something greater than ourselves? It doesn’t have to be grand; it just means that whatever we are doing, we are doing it for more than just ourselves—for our partners, friends, family, employers, employees… Selfless commitment has always been a difficult lesson for humans, a self-preserving race, to learn. But on the occasion of Remembrance week, let us not only remember those who have paid the ultimate price for us, but reflect upon what we can do for something that is greater than ourselves, even our lives.

Christianity: it doesn’t get simpler than this

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Jesus calls Zacchaeus

"I've come, I've sought, and now I shall save."

Different people have different ideas of what being a Christian entails: going to church every Sunday; getting baptised; following the ten commandments; subscribing to creationism; being pro-life; listening to the Pope…Hm. It seems to go on.

For me, Christianity is a very, very simple idea. In fact, it is so simple that it slips out of my mind far too often. Yet whenever I am reminded of it, its power is still so raw and so awesome that I feel like I’ve been hit with a tonne of bricks – again.

Today’s sermon served me such a reminder. The passage is from Luke, easily my favourite Gospel:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ “

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:1-10)

And here we have it – the single, most powerful idea of Christianity: the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost. It wasn’t by accident that Jesus went into Jericho. It wasn’t by accident that he stopped by the fig tree that Zacchaeus was on. Jesus looked up, called out to Zacchaeus, and demanded to enter his life – on purpose.

And the response of Zacchaeus was to conduct an about-turn from what he had been before. The moment Jesus accepted him, he turned from corrupt swindler to humble philanthropist.

The idea of Christianity is so simple, yet it is so much more – it is a truly amazing, life-changing idea. A person who has been touched by Jesus should have executed a 180-degree turn in the direction of their life. Have our lives been touched by Jesus? Have we made a U-turn and turned to face God?

The Living Water of life

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Is there anything in our lives that we know are wrong, but seem impossible to get rid of because they provide instant satisfaction? Perhaps you’ve tried to kick a bad habit, only to fall helplessly back into its grip after a while? You are exasperated. You begin to look for someone/thing to blame: God, your parents, genes, society… “At least I tried,” you say. “What else can I do?”

Jesus teaches us how we can kick a stubborn bad habit. Outside Sychar, he meets a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water from a well. He compares the well water to the relationships in the woman’s love life: she would thirst again no matter how many times she drank the water, just as she has never found fulfilment despite constantly changing partners.

But Jesus offers her himself as the living water of life. He says: “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14). The woman realises that she had just met the Lord of her life, so she leaves her jar by the well and goes into town to tell the others whom she has met, bringing them back to meet him.

Solomon said: “Death and destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man.” (Proverbs 27:20). No matter how many times we drink from the well, our desires will never be satisfied, drawing us back to the same well. On the other hand, the living water of Christ will not only sustain all our needs in this life, but allow us to drink into eternity. When we encounter Christ, we can give up whatever well we have been drinking from – all those stubborn bad habits – and enjoy his never-ending spring of living water.

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