A sermon by Steve Cooper
Yesterday (25 April) was ANZAC Day – in fact a special ANZAC Day, for it marked 100 years ago when Australian soldiers launched their ill-fated landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The battle and eventual defeat in faraway Turkey has become the single most defining event in Australia’s war-time history. It continues to echo through the generations and characterise many of the qualities of bravery, courage, mateship, sacrifice and endurance which we hold dear today.
There’s been a lot of focus this year on ANZAC Day – books, TV series, movies, newspaper, radio and social media discussions. Today it’s appropriate to continue our reflection on what ANZAC Day means. I want to highlight the connection between ANZAC Day and Easter, and how the wounds of Jesus bring comfort to us as we ponder the sacrifices of all who serve (and still serve) in times of war and peace.
Many years ago I had a memorable encounter with a man who suffered from war injuries. I was the new Pastor of a church in Sydney. I developed a friendship with an elderly Dutch couple who had lived in Indonesia for many years. During World War II, when Japanese soldiers invaded Indonesia, this man was captured and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp.
One day when I visited him I asked him what it was like to be a prisoner in that situation. He gave a brief and evasive reply, and changed the subject. Next Sunday his wife came to church and asked me never to mention that subject to him again. She said that after I left he became upset, and his sleep was disturbed by nightmares. He never spoke to his wife, family, or anyone about that terrible period of his life in the prisoner-of-war camp. I apologized to her, and make sure I never raised that subject with him again.
The experience made me profoundly sad. Here was a man who had suffered so badly 50 years before. Yet he had never received any proper debriefing or counselling. He kept his painful memories locked up in his head, and those mental scars were still causing him damage all those years later.
Some suffer in war from being killed or physically injured. Yesterday we remembered the 25,000 Australian casualties during the eight months of the Gallipoli campaign, including 8,700 who were killed, or died of wounds or disease. Some make it home with physical injuries which make it hard to return to normal life, or find employment. Loved ones suffer as they wait for news and hear the devastating information about death or injury. Others, like my Dutch friend, suffer from memories, depression, guilt, regret, mental breakdown, disturbing nightmares, and struggle to adjust to normal life in peacetime.
It’s important, on ANZAC Day, to honour those who have suffered and sacrificed in wartime for the good of others. It’s also appropriate that often ANZAC Day comes close to Easter. At the Easter season we honour another sacrifice to set people free: the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s a significant connection. The death of Jesus makes it possible for us to know peace with God and forgiveness for our sin. The resurrection of Jesus means he is now the victorious King over all, who rules over the nations and has defeated sin and death. Those who suffer from the wounds of war can find healing and wholeness as they trust in this Lord Jesus who died and was raised for us. My conviction is that there is no wound too hurtful, no suffering too deep, for the healing love of God in Jesus Christ to make a profound difference.
There’s a moving story in John’s Gospel which speaks to our wounds and hurts. On the first Easter Day the risen Christ appears to his disciples, and ‘he showed them his hands and side’ (Jn 20:20). The Apostle Thomas was missing from that meeting. Thomas heard the story, but remained unconvinced. He insisted that he would only accept Jesus’ resurrection if he had personal and concrete evidence. The following Sunday Thomas had his encounter with the risen Lord. Let’s hear what happened after this song.
Today we’re continuing our reflection on ANZAC Day, especially the connection between ANZAC Day and Easter. The risen Lord Jesus appeared to his disciples, including Thomas. Let me read what happened from John’s Gospel. ‘Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”’ (Jn 20:26-28)
Here is a strange thing – Jesus ‘showed them his hands and side’ (v.20) and went out of his way to show the same to Thomas. What does this mean? It showed that the risen Christ is not a ghost or an imposter pretending to be Jesus. Only one person had received these wounds in his hands (19:18) and his side (19:34). This is really him, Jesus. This showing of his wounds also made it clear that the risen Lord is the crucified Saviour. That fact that Jesus was raised from the dead means his sacrifice on the cross is accepted by God as the full and final payment for our sin.
But these scars also have another dimension. They mean Jesus has credentials to show us that he has entered into our experience of scars and wounds. He understands. He is able now to be present with us as we struggle with our sufferings. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: ‘Because he himself (Jesus) suffered … he is able to help us when we suffer … he learned from what he suffered …for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (Heb 2:18; 5:8; 4:15). When we are suffering from our wounds and scars, we look at Jesus on the cross, see his suffering for us, and we are reassured about God’s love for us.
Edward Shillito was a poet who wrote in the wake of the First World War. The world had witnessed so much violence and bloodshed, when an entire generation of young men were mown down by machine guns and artillery in the endless trench warfare that marked the conflict. Shillito composed the poem, ‘Jesus of the Scars.’
‘If we have never sought, we seek Thee now; Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars; We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow; We must have Thee, O Jesus of the scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm; In all the universe we have no place. Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm? Lord Jesus, by Thy scars, we claim Thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near, Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine; We know today what wounds are, have no fear, Show us Thy scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, and not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.’
Yesterday, on ANZAC Day, we honoured those who sacrificed and suffered in answer to the call of their country. Today, we honour too our Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle John wrote: ‘This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 Jn 4:10).
Like countless numbers of others, I have visited the magnificent Shrine of Remembrance near the centre of Melbourne. Set in the centre of the sanctuary is the Stone of Remembrance. It is set into the marble floor so that all who look at it lower their heads in an act of homage.
At 11 o’clock on 11 November (the time at which hostilities ceased in World War I), a ray of light from the sun shines through an aperture in the roof and passes over the stone. It takes four minutes to cross the stone and at exactly 11 o’clock the ray rests on the word ‘Love.’ It’s the key word in the five words engraved there from John’s Gospel, chapter 15, verse 13: ‘Greater love hath no man.’ They are the words of Jesus Christ. The full text from the Authorised Version of the Bible is: ‘Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.’
Here is a great principle of life which applies universally. It may be illustrated from heroic acts in wartime when men and women have given their lives in the cause of justice, freedom and peace. I suppose that is the reason this text is used so often at ANZAC services, lest we forget. It applies in a special way to Jesus Christ himself. In effect, Jesus is saying to his disciples: ‘I couldn’t demonstrate my love to you in any better way than voluntarily to lay down my life for you.’
The great cost to Jesus Christ of our rescue and deliverance from sin and death must always remain in our memory. His suffering and death dealt with the whole problem of sin and selfishness which brings about wars between nations and hatred between persons. At his institution of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion he said: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
There’s one other connection between the Gallipoli campaign and Easter. They both seem at first like a defeat, but out of the defeat comes victory. When the ANZAC forces from Australia and New Zealand first arrived at what became known as ANZAC Cove, they were met by snipers and machine guns from the heights of the hills. Hundreds were killed. The ANZAC troops moved forward so slowly.
A few years ago I visited the Gallipoli Peninsula, and was surprised at how close ANZAC Cove and the Lone Pine Hill are. So many died from being shot, or from wounds, or disease, or frostbite as the winter came on. The whole campaign was a fiasco of bad management. In the end, after eight months, the ANZACS left the Peninsula. The strange thing was that the campaign was not seen as a defeat. It was honoured as a time when the qualities we admire in Australians were seen – bravery, perseverance, sacrifice, and loyalty to mates.
In a similar way what looked like a terrible defeat on Good Friday – the death of Jesus – was seen after Easter Sunday as a glorious victory, with Jesus alive forever as the Saviour and Lord.
Jesus suffered, just like those who suffered during wartime. Now he is alive forevermore. Our sin is paid for by his sacrifice. He presents to us his wounds and scars. His scars reassure us of his ability to understand our wounds, and to bring his transforming love into our darkness and pain. Today, if you are conscious of wounds and scars, bring them to the Saviour who is the risen Lord and King. Confess with Thomas those personal words to Jesus Christ: ‘My Lord and my God!’ (Jn 20:28).
‘Merciful Lord, we are so grateful that you are the wounded, suffering God. You know what wounds and suffering are like. We bring to you our hurts, bitterness and wounds. Touch us today with your healing love and life-giving presence. Help us forgive those who have hurt us. Restore us and renew us in your love and mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’