Today we can be thankful that since then our continent has been spared armed conflict on this scale. We must not be complacent about this. The Balkans and Ukraine showed that war can erupt along forgotten fault-lines without warning. Global terror poses new threats to peace and stability. Our democracies must be vigilant in the face of far-right neo-fascist movements that reawaken old hatreds. We must keep alive the vision of our common European home where our peoples are learning to live together as a community and heal past memories. This vision ought forever to have laid to rest any thought that we could ever be at war again. You cannot stand in the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral, or in the Frauenkirche in Dresden, or in the Marienkirche in our partner city of Lübeck where the shattered bells still lie where they fell during the allied bombing raids of 1942 without recognising this. Each human life that was lost in the war on either side was unique and precious. We do not forget that today. Because of this attrition, our nations have invested in peace. The memory of sacrifice demands it of us. The work of reconciliation is how we best honour the fallen.
What is a Christian take on today as we look back to the 8 May 1945? In our church, the same day is kept as the festival of one of our most remarkable saints. Her name was Julian, and she lived in the fourteenth century. She devoted her life to prayer walled up in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich. You can see a rare example of a surviving anchorite cell just up the road at the beautiful church of Chester-le-Street. Many people came to her for spiritual guidance. She was famous for the visions she received, her ‘showings’. Julian wrote them down in her book Revelations of Divine Love, to this day one of the most treasured classics of English spiritual writing. She said, you might almost think for VE Day: ‘He did not say, you shall not be troubled, you shall thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased; but he said, you shall not be overcome.’ It came out of the profound assurance that whatever life’s circumstances, whatever the trouble or difficulty or pain, whatever the hardships and sufferings, nevertheless God’s nature and God’s name is love. So she wrote: ‘all shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.’
It is a promising saying for this day. On 8 May 1945, the message was that despite all that war had inflicted, people dared to look forward. They dared to hope once more, dared to believe that all might ‘be well’. After the pain, there was the prospect of healing; after the conflict, reconciliation; after the passion, resurrection; after death and destruction, life and love. No doubt it felt hard to say this out of the ashes of war. No doubt it was hard to say it in Julian’s time: the middle ages were a cruel and dangerous era for most ordinary people. There are times for all of us when it is still hard to say, and harder still to believe. Yet Easter requires us to take this massive step of faith. For the first dawning of Easter faith was a hoping against hope that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead. Easter faith dares to believe that God’s purposes of love can never be thwarted: all shall be well.
This is our faith in this eucharist as we gather together on the first day of the week to give thanks once more that God raised Jesus from death and that he is alive forever in our midst and in the life of our world. Thursday is Ascension Day when we acclaim that he is Lord of all things. He fills heaven and earth with his presence, for as the psalm says of the Son of Man, ‘God has put all things under his feet’. That means all nations and rulers, the world empires, every human family and institution, even, in the New Testament, the demonic powers of the air. His reign gives us the strength to do his work on earth. He is the Prince of Peace, so we make peace in his name. He is the righteous Servant, so we establish justice in his name. He is King of creation, so we care for the environment in his name. He is King of kings, so we bring hope in his name. And because this Lord of glory bears the wounds of the passion, we stand with all who suffer, in his name.
Our world is more broken than ever: the reign of the risen and exalted Christ is not realised yet. That is to come in God’s time, be it soon, be it late. But the resurrection invites us into the movement of God’s eternal love for the world to play our part in embodying and living it in our own love for the world and our service of humanity. It is as clear as the day in this morning’s gospel: ‘this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ The greater love of a friend for a friend, of a comrade for a comrade, of one human being for another is the love of the Saviour for his people, of an incarnate Son for those whose lives he comes into our world to share. The laying down of our lives for our friends delineates the cross-shaped character of our humanity as the Spirit of Jesus is re-making it in his own image. It is the self-emptying, self-giving sacrificial character of God himself. It is how love manifests itself in the myriad ways whose truth and beauty we see all around us when people are good, and merciful, just, and kind, that is to say, when they act out of their true God-given humanity and recognise, with Julian, that in all things, ‘love was his meaning’.
We have just emerged from an election. Our freedoms to speak, debate and vote are central to VE Day, because the war was fought precisely to resist the tyranny that overwhelmed Europe in the 1930s. Now our politicians must turn their thoughts to building a society where people flourish, the common good is honoured, and all are treated with justice and compassion. Peace-making and the quest for a better world order, about which we have heard far too little in the campaign, require that the voice of the weak is heard, refugees are cared for, the despairing are given hope and the poor are not forgotten. But the lesson of the last war is that nationhood, like patriotism, is not enough. Our flourishing happens as we play our part in the family of nations to whom it falls to care for the world and for humanity. This was the vision that sustained those who fought and fell in the war, and the architects of the peace that followed seventy years ago.
Mother Julian gives us the inspiration to turn our hope into the prayer that all may be well because ‘love is his meaning’. She says: ‘See that I am God. See that I am in everything. See that I do everything. See that I have never stopped ordering my works, nor ever shall, eternally. See that I lead everything on to the conclusion I ordained for it before time began, by the same power, wisdom and love with which I made it. How can anything be amiss?’. This is what we see with our own eyes at Golgotha in the greater love God shows us as he lays down his life for his friends.
Durham Cathedral, 10 May 2015. 1 John 5.1-6, John 15.9-17