Blessed are the peacemakers

Last weekend was the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bomb. At 10.43am on 8 November 1987, as people were gathered at the town’s cenotaph for the Remembrance Day service, the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb. The explosion killed 11 people and injured 64. One of those who died was a 20-year-old nurse, Marie Wilson, who was with her father Gordon. As they lay buried under rubble Gordon held Marie’s hand as she told him, “Daddy, I love you very much.”

In an interview soon after the bombing Gordon Wilson said, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” One historian said, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”

Gordon also pleaded that no Loyalists take revenge for Marie’s death and, until he died in 1995 at the age of 67, Gordon campaigned for peace and an end to the violence. When he was voted Man of the Year by the BBC’s Today programme, ahead of world-famous figures, Gordon said, “I’m not worthy of it. The others are very important people. I’m not in their class. I’m just an ordinary guy.”

We still live in a violent world and, at times, it may seem as if the terrorists have the power, but in reality it is extraordinary “ordinary” people like Gordon Wilson whose example and influence will ultimately triumph. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Gordon’s personal faith in Jesus as his Saviour and Lord was the source of his strength and his hope. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. When he died on the Cross he made a way of peace for sinful people like us all. In that apparently weak act God reconciled the world to himself and provided the way in which we can all experience forgiveness and know peace with him. Gordon was right. He and Marie have indeed been reunited in heaven in the presence of Jesus who has wiped every tear from their eyes.

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.

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!

Peace with God

Easter is a special time for Christians all over the world as we remember the death and resurrection of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. We know that the death of Jesus, on a Roman cross, has reconciled us to God, and his resurrection, on the third day, has given us a sure hope for the future. The message of Easter speaks to our sad and troubled world as much as it ever has. Every day evil people perpetrate their wicked deeds. Personal integrity is at a low ebb in every part of society. Millions of people face a very uncertain future. We all need to experience forgiveness and to find hope for the future.

Jesus died when it seemed his popularity was at its height. Just a few days before he died, thousands of people in Jerusalem hailed him as their King. It was the culmination of his remarkable ministry. For three years he had travelled throughout Israel teaching the people, healing the sick, casting out evil spirits and raising the dead. He had transformed the lives of many people. Yet his life ended in rejection and seeming disgrace. The fickle crowd turned against him because he had not fulfilled their hopes for a military and political leader. However, his death was not a defeat but a glorious triumph.

Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came from heaven to deal with our biggest problem – our sin. On the Cross he paid the price of our sins when he suffered the punishment we deserve. Through the centuries people had offered animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. Hundreds of thousands of sacrifices had been made. Jesus came to offer one final sacrifice. On the Cross he became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Down through history people from every nation have found forgiveness and peace with God through Jesus.

In Jesus we can all find forgiveness for our sins, whatever we have done. When we face up to the truth that we have broken God’s laws and need his forgiveness, there is always hope. A man, who was crucified on the same day as Jesus, found forgiveness even as he was dying. He knew that he was being justly punished and was getting what his deeds deserved. He also knew that Jesus had done nothing wrong. So he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

This week many people around the world will remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three of the people in the world professes to be a Christian and many others will join them in singing carols and hearing Bible readings about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. The message about Jesus is a message for our world today.

The message of Jesus is for all people. The infant Jesus was visited by Wise Men who came from the east. They had travelled hundreds of miles from Mesopotamia, which included modern Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Iran. They had seen a special star which indicated the birth of a great King and were guided to the place where Jesus had been born. When they saw the child they bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The message of Jesus speaks to the peoples of those troubled lands today and to people all over the world.

The message of Jesus is a message of of peace. Jesus is the “Prince of Peace.” The shepherds heard the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.” Jesus came to bring peace between God and the people of this world. His death for our sins reconciles us to God so that we have peace with God and know his favour resting on us. When we are reconciled to God, we are also at peace with ourselves and with all other people. The message of Jesus speaks peace to our conflict-torn modern world. Jesus changes hearts and reconciles people from all nations to one another.

The message of Jesus is a message of joy. When the Wise Men arrived at Bethlehem they were overjoyed to have found the new born King. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” Recently some Christians in eastern Ukraine were giving out food at a bus station to people who had fled their homes because of the conflict. There were also a few Bibles on the table. A lady came up to them and asked, “Is that your book of hope?” The Christians said it was and the lady said, “Please could I have one, because there isn’t much hope in Ukraine today!” The coming of King Jesus brings joy and hope to our sad and needy world. His birth really is something to celebrate!

The Prince of Peace

The coming of Jesus Christ has made a real difference to this world. In the days leading up to Christmas this year there was a real sense of joy as Christmas carols and music were played in many places. Jesus has brought joy and peace to countless people. He lifts us above the struggles of our daily lives and the troubles of the world. Christmas has now passed but the blessings that Jesus brings to our lives continue.

One of the greatest blessings that Jesus gives is peace. The angel of the Lord announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds saying, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Then a great number of angels appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

Jesus came to bring peace and reconciliation between God and us. By nature we all rebel against God and assert our right to go our own way. This is the root cause of all our personal problems and the many conflicts in the world. We need to find forgiveness, peace with God, and new life in Jesus. One carol rejoices in this, “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the new born King! Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.’”

When people come to faith in Christ their lives wonderfully change. On my recent visit to the Hupla people in Papua I saw many men with spears and other weapons. In the past they were always fighting with each other and with neighbouring tribes, but they don’t do that anymore because they have come to know Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.

The Christmas Truce in some parts of the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914 is an example of the remarkable influence of Jesus Christ on ordinary people, even those caught up in a terrible war between “Christian” nations. The British and German soldiers agreed to maintain a truce on Christmas Day and some met each other in No Man’s Land between the respective trenches. They exchanged gifts and souvenirs and sang Christmas carols in English and German. The following day the battle resumed! Let us pray that in the coming year we, and the peoples of the world, will know the true and abiding peace which only Jesus gives.

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.”

Eric Lomax – “The Railway Man”

Eric Lomax, “The Railway Man”, served with the British Army during World War II. When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 Eric, then aged 22, became a prisoner of war. He worked on the Burma-Siam railway which was known as the “Death Railway.” More than 16,000 men died in the construction of that railway mainly from sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion.

In August 1943, a radio Eric had built was discovered. He and 6 others were severely punished. Two died, but Eric survived, remembering the crack of his own bones snapping and teeth breaking. As the ringleader, he was taken to another camp where he was water boarded and left to die in a small cage. One young officer, Takashi Nagase, stayed in Eric’s mind. He was an interpreter and told Eric, “You will be killed whatever happens.”

After the war Eric suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He married Patti in 1983 and she encouraged him to seek help. Halfway through his counselling sessions, Eric received a letter from a friend with a cutting from a Japanese newspaper. There was a photograph of Takashi Nagase and an article describing Eric’s tortures, and an experience Nagase had had that made him feel he had been forgiven for his sins. Eric was very angry.

Patti, with Eric’s permission, wrote a letter to Takashi asking him how he could possibly think he was forgiven. To her surprise, Nagase replied, expressing deep apologies and asking if he and Eric could meet. After 2 years Eric felt able to do this and, in 1993, went back to Thailand. On the bridge over the River Kwai two grey-haired men met and tentatively shook hands. Nagase bowed and humbly apologized for the suffering he had caused Eric, who simply nodded and said, “Thank you, thank you.” Up to that time Eric had not intended to forgive Nagase, but to kill him. He was still fighting the war and wanted revenge. Eric and Nagase became friends. The final words of Eric’s autobiography, published in 1995, are, “Sometimes the hating has to stop.”

We are all capable of committing evil acts which cause great pain to others. Guilt, anger and bitterness can consume us. In Jesus God, against whom we have sinned, draws near and offers forgiveness and reconciliation. John Newton, who had experienced God’s forgiveness for his wicked life, wrote, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear, it soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drive away his fear.”

Nelson Mandela – a man of peace and reconciliation

Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. He was the dignified figurehead of the struggle against the evils of apartheid in South Africa. He led a peaceful transition of his country in a way which won the admiration of people around the world belonging to all sections of society. He was, for so many, an inspiration and a figure of hope. In June 1964 he was found guilty of sabotage and given a life sentence which he served initially on the notorious Robben Island, off Cape Town. When he was released, after 27 years in prison, he demonstrated a remarkable spirit of forgiveness and led a powerful movement for peace and reconciliation in his beloved South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If that man wasn’t there the whole country would have gone up in flames.”

Nelson Mandela experienced hardship and struggle throughout his life culminating in his long years in prison. Yet those years changed him in an amazing way. The authorities intended to destroy him but instead he emerged as a man of great dignity and towering stature. Desmond Tutu said he needed that experience to transform him from being an angry man into the man of peace and reconciliation he became.

Nelson Mandela believed passionately in the equality of all people but also knew that this could only become a reality for people in South Africa if he won the support of all sections of their deeply divided society. At his inauguration as President he said, “Never, never, never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

In the Bible Joseph suffered greatly at the hands of his brothers and other people. His brothers nearly killed him before selling him as a slave in Egypt. There he was unjustly imprisoned and forgotten. When he was released he became the Governor of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh. Like Nelson Mandela he emerged from prison as a man of great wisdom and forgiveness. Later he said to his brothers, “Don’t be afraid. You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish the saving of many lives.” There is a far greater strength in the willingness to forgive than there is in a spirit of hatred and vengeance. The supreme example of this is Jesus who taught us to love of enemies and on the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”