Who is my neighbour?

Through the news media and internet we receive amazing insights into events around the world. On-the-spot reports and photographs enable us to see the people and their situations closeup. Sometimes the newsreader gives a warning that some of the images may be distressing. This weekend I saw a photograph of Rohingya Muslims crossing the Naf river to escape from Myanmar into Bangladesh. About fifty desperate men, women and children were crowded on a raft made of plastic containers that looked as if it was almost sinking.

Other photographs showed Rohingya women and children with wounds and burns received when they were attacked by soldiers and their houses were set on fire. They had escaped, but husbands and brothers had been killed. It is estimated that there are 1 million Rohingya Muslims refugees in Bangladesh in need of food, shelter and medical care.

Recent media reports from Yemen also show a terrible humanitarian crisis. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis rebels has caused massive shortages of food and water. It is estimated that 3.2 million people are at risk of famine and 150,000 malnourished children could die in the next month. In both Myanmar and Yemen the conflict is caused by people who hate their fellow human beings.

An expert in the law once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered the man by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was a long standing bitter rift between Jews and Samaritans. They had nothing to do with each other. In the parable a Jewish man was attacked and robbed on a lonely road and was left half dead. Two Jewish religious leaders passed the man and did nothing to help him. Then a Samaritan saw the man and took pity on him. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him. The next day he left the man in the care of the innkeeper and promised to pay whatever it cost.

Then Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” God commands us all to “love our neighbour as we love ourselves.” God expects us to love all people, even those who may be our natural enemies, and to show that love in a practical way.

She has saved me

Sergeant Alexander Blackman has been released from prison and has been reunited with his wife, Claire, who tirelessly campaigned for him to be freed. On being reunited with his wife, Sgt Blackman said, “She has saved me. Her determination to keep on fighting for me has been incredible. You just can’t imagine anyone cares for you that much.” Sgt Blackman was a Royal Marine and served in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. He and his troops manned an outpost deep in hostile territory that has been described as “the most dangerous square mile on earth.” They served in stifling temperatures of 50C, under intense psychological pressure, knowing every step might trigger a land mine.

One day Sgt Blackman shot a severely wounded Taliban fighter whom they had captured. What he said and did was recorded on video. In December 2013, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was the first time a British soldier had been convicted of murder on the battlefield. Last month, after a sustained campaign spearheaded by his wife, Sgt Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The appeal judges recognised he had combat stress and reduced his sentence to 7 years, paving the way for his release.

It will take some time to adjust to his new life. He has been dismissed from his beloved Royal Marines and has been offered a civilian job. He said, “Being out of prison is an immense feeling, but I am very conscious that my sentence is not complete. I have been released on licence, and there are certain conditions which I must – and I will – respect.”

All of us have done things that we deeply regret, but cannot change. We feel guilty and long to find forgiveness. The Christian Gospel tells how Jesus, God’s Son, came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins. He lived the perfect life we have failed to live and died on the cross bearing the punishment we deserve. How amazing that anyone could love us so much as to die in our place! When we know Jesus as our Saviour, we are set free from guilt and experience the joy of being forgiven. God’s forgiveness is complete and final; there are no conditions. When we experience God’s love in Jesus we, for the first time, truly love God from our hearts and cannot stop thanking him for what he has done for us; in Jesus, he has saved us!

The best news ever!

Like many people around the world I like to follow the news. Every morning I listen to the radio to hear what’s been happening. Most news stories are bad news. Reports cover economic uncertainty, corruption, child abuse, refugees, unaccompanied children, violence, conflict, crime, terrorism, pollution, climate change, disease, earthquakes, drought and famine. For many of us the stories are about what is happening to other people in other parts of the world, but for millions of people the stories are about them and the troubles and sorrows they face in their daily lives.

The message of the New Testament is called the “Gospel”, which means “Good News.” It is a message about what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ. This message speaks into the real experiences of our broken world and of our daily lives. It is a message about reconciliation, peace and hope for the future. It lifts us out of despair. It is a true message. When people want to emphasise that they are telling the truth they sometimes say that they are speaking the gospel truth. Today we hear about fake news, but this message about Jesus is absolutely genuine.

Strangely, perhaps, one of the great themes of the Good News is sin. This is an unpopular word to many, yet the daily news stories are full of the sinful actions of people. It is the greatest problem the world faces. We all sin every day in our thoughts, words and actions. However hard we try, we cannot stop sinning. We sin when we break God’s moral commands. We misuse God’s name, dishonour our parents, hate and kill, commit sexual immorality, steal, lie, and covet what other people have. Our sinful behaviour brings great sadness to us and to others. It spoils everything.

The solution to the problems we face is not religion, but reconciliation. We need to be reconciled to God. In a letter to Christians living in Corinth the apostle Paul explained the heart of the Good News in this way, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” This is the best news ever!

The beauty of forgiveness

Beautiful things sometimes arise out of dark and ugly events. The brutal murder of 9 black people at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was a wicked act. The murderer hates black people and believes white people should be supreme. He attended a Bible study and prayer meeting at the church and was there for an hour before pulling out his gun and killing 9 defenceless people, including the pastor of the church. While he sat in the meeting he nearly changed his mind because the people were so nice to him.

When the man appeared in court some of the relatives of the nine people whom he killed spoke to him and told him they forgave him. Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, said, “I just want everybody to know I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you, and I forgive you.”

Anthony Thompson, the husband of Myra Thompson, said, “I forgive you, and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Jesus, so he can change it, and change your ways no matter what happened to you and you’ll be okay through that. And better off than how you are right now.” Alana Simmons spoke on behalf of her family, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

The amazing responses of these Christian people are a clear reflection of their Saviour, Jesus. When he was nailed to the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.” Two criminals were crucified at the same time as Jesus. One of them experienced a dramatic change of heart. He said to the other criminal, “We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your Kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” So heaven is real and, because Jesus is King, love, not hate, does win!

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.”