The power of reconciliation

We live in a world in which retaliation and retribution are normal. If someone injures us, or damages our property, we feel entitled to retaliate. If we see someone wronging another person we feel that retribution is appropriate. Sometimes retaliation and retribution take place at a personal level, but they also happen through terrorist atrocities or the use of cruise missiles. People feel that retaliation and retribution are just; people are getting what they deserve.

At Easter Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was very different from us. For 3 years, he exercised a wonderful ministry of teaching and compassion. He healed people who had all kinds of diseases; the paralysed, the deaf and the blind. He set people free from the bondage of evil spirits and raised the dead. His ministry seriously angered the religious leaders, who were envious of him, and they plotted to have him put to death.

They paid one of his close disciples to betray him so that they could arrest him at night. They tried him on false charges and treated him shamefully. He was handed over to the Romans, who condemned him to die. The mob called for him to be crucified. The soldiers mocked and beat him and then nailed him to a cross. As he hung on the cross, in great pain, people came to mock him. His disciples had fled in fear; he was humanly alone.

Yet, his response to all he suffered was amazingly different. It was powerful. The first words he spoke as he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world, including the very people who caused his pain. One Easter hymn says, “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? The message of Easter is about reconciliation; about how we can experience forgiveness and find peace with God. Reconciliation, not retaliation and retribution, changes our hearts and our world.

Fighting the hate that killed Jo

The response of Jo Cox’s family to her tragic death has been deeply moving. Her sister Kim said, “For now, our family is broken but it will mend in time, and we will never let Jo leave our lives. She will live on through Brendan, through us and through her truly wonderful children who will always know what an utterly amazing woman their mother was.” Jo’s husband, Brendan, said, “Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.”

Evil and hatred are a very real part of our life in this world. The cold-blooded murder of a young mother and MP, in a small Yorkshire community, is one example of this evil. So are the events in Syria in which the daily fighting and bombing claim the lives of ordinary men, women and children. Jo campaigned passionately for the people of Syria and other needy nations around the world. In the face of evil people, and the finality of death, we all feel our helplessness but, nevertheless, are determined that evil, in all its forms, must be defeated.

The death and resurrection of Jesus give us grounds for real hope and confidence that evil will not triumph. The ministry of Jesus brought great blessing to the lives of many people as he healed the sick, cast out evil spirits and raised the dead. Yet, those in authority hated him and determined to destroy him. He was betrayed by one of his disciples, arrested, falsely accused, mocked and condemned to die. He died in deep agony and pain on a Roman cross. His disciples and family were devastated and helpless. They were unable to do anything to change the course of events.

On the morning of the third day after he died, however, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, who struggled to realise that he really had conquered death. By his resurrection Jesus triumphed over sin, evil and death. His triumph gives hope to the people of our sad and troubled world because he has “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Heaven is real. God has also set a day when Jesus “will judge the world with justice” and will make all things new. Love and justice will indeed triumph.

Queen Elizabeth II is 90

Queen Elizabeth II has celebrated her 90th birthday and there have been many television programmes, articles and photographs of her long life and reign. The Queen is much loved, not only in Britain, but also in the 53 countries that belong to the Commonwealth. She is the Queen of 16 of those nations. When Australia held a referendum in 1999 about becoming a Republic, with an appointed President as the head of state instead of the Queen, 55% of the people voted to continue as a Constitutional Monarchy.

One of the outstanding features of Queen Elizabeth’s reign has been her total commitment to fulfilling the oaths she made at her Coronation in 1952. Throughout her long reign she has maintained a busy schedule of commitments and travelled extensively. One of her oaths was, “Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?” Her clear moral convictions, gracious character and evident love for her people have characterised her reign.

The Queen has also spoken of her personal faith in Jesus Christ. In her Christmas Day message in 2000 she said, “To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me, the teachings of Christ, and my own personal accountability before God, provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.” It is very unusual today to hear great leaders acknowledging that they, like us all, are personally accountable to God.

We all need consciously to live under the gracious rule of a divine monarch. In the Bible Jesus is called “the King of kings and the Lord of lords.” A children’s catechism asks, “How is Christ a king?” The answer is, “He rules over us and defends us.” The next question is, “Why do you need Christ as a king?” The answer is, “Because I am weak and helpless.”

Living under the kingship of Jesus is a great blessing. Obeying his teaching brings true happiness. His divine power also defends and protects us. We are weak and helpless and there are many dangers, both physical and spiritual. A translation of a Welsh hymn says, “Lead, Lord Jesus, my frail spirit to that Rock so strong and high, standing sure midst surging tempest, safe when pounding waves are nigh. In the Rock of Ages hiding, come there flood or fiery blaze, when the whole creation crumbles, Rock of Ages, Thee I’ll praise.”

The Light shines in the darkness

In her Christmas Message the Queen quoted John, Chapter 1, verse 5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” She described it as a verse of great hope. John was speaking of Jesus, God’s Son, who came into the world. John also says of Jesus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” In a world where there are an increasing number of what the Queen called “moments of darkness” we need One who brings light into our lives, and who is invincible. Jesus is that Person.

Jesus was born into a violent world. Soon after he was born King Herod tried to kill him. Herod had been appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate more than 30 years before Jesus was born. He was a ruthless tyrant; he murdered his wife, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others he suspected of treachery. When the Wise Men told him they were seeking the one who had been born King of the Jews, Herod was determined to kill him and ordered his soldiers to kill all the male children under 2 years old in the town and region of Bethlehem.

But Herod’s evil plan failed because God had already warned Joseph and told him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Within a short time Herod was dead and it was safe for Joseph and his family to return to their own town of Nazareth. It was the first example of Jesus, the Light, triumphing over the darkness. Throughout his ministry Jesus faced increasing hostility which culminated in his death on the Cross, yet on the third day he rose from the dead. Once again darkness had been defeated and Jesus had triumphed.

Today Christians and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq are experiencing fierce persecution. Men, women and children are being killed. Many have fled their homes in search of safety. We remember them and pray for them. We are also confident that Jesus is still the Light which shines in the darkness and that he will triumph. Like the mighty Roman Empire, the evil movements of today, which seem so powerful, will all fall and pass away and the evil tyrants who lead them will stand before their Judge. None of them ultimately triumphs because Jesus, the Light of this dark world, will execute perfect justice for those who are poor and powerless.

The God who reconciles us to himself

At 2.54am on 12 October 1984 an IRA bomb exploded in The Grand Hotel, Brighton. It was the week of the Conservative Party Conference and the intended target was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was not injured, but 5 people were killed and 34 were taken to hospital. Margaret Tebbit, the wife of Norman, was left paralysed. She spent nearly a year being treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and another year at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore before returning to her home. For the past 30 years she and her husband have lived daily with the devastating personal consequences of that bomb.

The Brighton bombing and more recent events in Iraq and Syria remind us of the potential for great evil in human beings. The bombers carefully planned the atrocity in cold blood; just as Alan Henning was executed by IS militants in cold blood. The IRA statement claiming responsibility for the Brighton bombing said, “Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.”

The reference to “getting away with it” implies that people have a right to commit any kind of atrocity as “pay back” for the actions of those whom they hate and in pursuit of their cause. It fails, however, to recognise that God has created us all as morally accountable beings. None of us ultimately “gets away with it.” Death does not pay all debts. The New Testament says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

The survivors of acts of atrocity are sometimes asked whether they can forgive the perpetrators. Norman Tebbit, in a very moving article about his and his wife’s experience over the past 30 years, has said that forgiveness is not possible because the bombers have not repented and justice has not been done. This takes us to the heart of the Christian message. In his Son, Jesus, God reconciled a sinful world to himself. His divine justice was satisfied when his Son died for our sins and so opened the way for each of us to repent and be forgiven. As one hymn says, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

Amazing Grace!

The trials of high profile people found guilty of child abuse have revealed a dark, hidden side to their character. They have been called to account for crimes committed many years ago. Their previous good reputation has been destroyed. The book of Proverbs tells us, “Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.”

These cases remind us that the wrong things we do really matter, even when they happened a long time ago. Those who have been found guilty of abuse have done many good things and have helped people who are in need. They have been kind to their families and friends, but all this is now of little consequence because of the sins they have committed. No amount of good actions can compensate for the wrong things they have done. They will not be remembered for the good things they did, but for the evil deeds they perpetrated.

There is a deep sense in each of us that those who do wrong should be punished. We identify with the victims who have suffered greatly for many years because of the abuse done to them. We want the truth to come out and justice to be done through long prison sentences.

This raises important questions for us all because throughout our lives we have done wrong things. Will we one day have to give an account to the God who made us for how we have lived? Will it be enough for us to say that many of the wrong things we did happened a long time ago and that the good things we have done outweigh the bad things we have done?

Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came into the world to be the Saviour of sinful people like you and me. He came not for self righteous people, but for those who know they have sinned and want to find forgiveness. Isaac Watts wrote, “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed, and did my Saviour die? Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I? Was it for crimes that I had done he groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree! Thus might I hide my blushing face while his dear cross appears, dissolve my heart in thankfulness, and melt my eyes to tears. But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe; here, Lord, I give myself away, ‘tis all that I can do.”

The Judge of all the earth will do what is right

The trials of high profile men who have been accused of historic sexual abuse are in the news. Some accusations go back more than 40 years. Children and young girls were abused by powerful men who told them that, if they reported the abuse, no one would believe them. As a result, many have suffered in silence, while the abusers have enjoyed successful careers and big salaries. But the past crimes of their abusers, now elderly men, have come to light and justice is being done.

Many, however, are troubled that some of the most serious abusers of children have died and escaped justice in this life. They seem to have “got away with it.” But, is this true? Can we escape the consequences of our sins by dying? Something in the very depth of our being says that this cannot be right. The wicked acts of those who, for example, sexually abuse young children or torture and kill innocent people must be called to account. The Bible teaches us that, after we die, we must all appear before God. He “will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.”

Justice is something to be admired. The wisdom of King Solomon was widely known. One day two prostitutes came to him. They lived in the same house and each had a baby boy of the same age. One night, when they were asleep, one of the women lay on her son, without knowing it, and he died. When she realised what had happened, she took her dead son and put him next to the other woman, then took the live baby as if it were her own. When the other women awoke, and saw the dead baby next to her, she knew it wasn’t her baby. She came to Solomon in the hope that he would give her justice.

After listening to both women Solomon said, “Bring me a sword. Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.” One woman said that seemed fair, but the other said, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!” Solomon said, “Give the living baby to her; she is his mother!” Everyone who heard what Solomon had done held him in awe because of the way he administered justice. We, too, should hold God in awe because he is the Judge of all the earth and he will do what is right.

Maureen Greaves prays for her husband’s killers

The murder of Alan Greaves in Sheffield on Christmas Eve 2012 was described by his parish priest as “senseless and evil.” Alan was a retired social worker and an Anglican lay reader. He was on his to play the organ at the late night Eucharist service at St Saviour’s Church when he was attacked by two young men. They used a pick-axe to inflict catastrophic head injuries on Alan. His wife, Maureen, a Christian outreach worker, spent Christmas praying by his bedside, where he was on a life support machine. He died 3 days after the attack. At a service of remembrance for Alan Maureen said, “I have not stopped crying for him and I know you have not stopped either. I have wept over the evil that has been done.” Soon after the attack his killers were seen laughing in a nearby park.

Following the trial of the men who killed Alan, at which both were found guilty, Maureen spoke outside the court. She said, “Alan was a man driven by love and compassion and he would not want any of us to hold on to feelings of hate and unforgiveness. So, in honour of Alan, and in honour of the God we both love, my prayer is that this story doesn’t end today. My prayer is that Jonathan and Ashley will come to understand and experience the love and kindness of the God, who made them in his own image, and that God’s great mercy will inspire them to true repentance.”

Maureen’s prayers for the men who killed her husband are a great testimony to the transforming power of God’s grace. She did not minimise the seriousness of what they had done or say that they did not deserve to be punished. But, she knows that justice and punishment are not the whole story because, in Jesus, it is possible for us all to find forgiveness for our sins, however great they may be. On the Cross Jesus died in order to satisfy the righteous demands of God’s justice against our sins. He did this so that through him we might experience forgiveness and find peace with God.

Many hymn writers have focused on the Cross of Jesus. Paul Gerhardt wrote, “Thy grief and bitter passion were all for sinners’ gain: Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain. Lo! Here I fall my Saviour: ‘Tis I deserve thy place; Look on me with thy favour, vouchsafe to me thy grace.”

Love your enemies

Some people try to justify their evil actions by quoting the principle “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This legal principle is known as “lex talionis”; the law of retaliation. The principle was given by God to Israel through Moses. It did not give people an excuse for vicious personal revenge, but limited the extent of retaliation. It established the principle of justice. The punishment must fit the crime. It did not authorise either excessive revenge or personal mutilation of the person who had committed the offence.

God gave Moses examples of its application. “If an owner hits a male or female slave in the eye and the eye is blinded, then the slave may go free because of the eye. And if an owner knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave, the slave should be released in payment for the tooth.” So the lex talionis provided protection for the weak and vulnerable, for women as well as men. When they were mistreated they were entitled to legal protection and compensation.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out much more radical principles. There is to be no retaliation and revenge in his Kingdom. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven.”

The teaching of Jesus is a challenge to us all. Retaliation and revenge, whether committed by individuals or governments, are not a sign of strength, but of weakness. The experience of God’s sheer love and grace in Jesus, of which none of us is worthy, creates the context in which loving our enemies becomes a possibility. I remember meeting with a group of Iranian Christians to study the parable of Jesus about the Good Samaritan. In the parable a Samaritan man saves the life of a wounded Jewish man, even though Jews and Samaritans were enemies. One of the Iranians said, “If we are to obey the teaching of Jesus in this parable then it means we must love Iraqi people!”

When bad things happen

Dealing with the past is not easy, especially when bad things have happened. In recent months people who were abused as children and teenagers have come forward. It is clear that they are still traumatised and are struggling with the pain of what happened to them. In some cases, those who abused them have died, which makes investigating the accusations and bringing justice impossible.

Many of us have had bad experiences in life because people have done wrong things to us. When these experiences cannot be dealt with and resolved we may struggle with ongoing pain and anger. As a result our lives may be crippled for many years and there may seem to be no way of moving forward.

Jesus suffered unjustly and was condemned to death on false charges. He was a good man who had healed the sick, set people free from the power of evil and even raised dead people to life. His teaching brought blessing to many people. But his life and teaching were a challenge to those who were in power and so they plotted to have him put to death. When he was condemned to death, at the age of 33, he had to cope with an injustice to which there could be no remedy in this life. His condemnation and death were a gross abuse of power.

So how did he deal with this? When he suffered, “he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” He committed the whole situation to God, his Father. He knew that a time would come when God will call us all to account and judge us in perfect justice. No one ever really escapes justice. So we, too, can leave issues which we have not been able to resolve with God and try to move on. He will deal with us all justly.

But Jesus also gives us an amazing example. As he hung on the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He did not want those who were responsible for his death to be condemned but to find forgiveness. So, too, God can give us grace and strength to forgive others for what they have done to us. Hatred and the desire for revenge can consume us. The wonderful experience of God’s forgiveness for our sins creates in us the desire that others, too, may find his forgiveness.