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 forgiveness

When the Allied forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, Tony Lucas, who died recently, was one of 80,000 troops who became prisoners of war. For the next three and a half years he, along with many others, were slave labourers on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. Tony was one of 17,000 PoWs packed into Selarang barracks, which was designed to take 800, with all water supplies, barring one tap, disconnected to compel them to sign a pledge not to escape.

Tony was transported by rail to Thailand. Thirty prisoners were locked into each airless steel-roofed truck, in toxic heat. The journey lasted five days. Lucas thought he would die; several did. In Thailand, hacking out the 258-mile railway line, reveille was at 4.30am, followed by a three-mile march through the jungle to the area the Australians named “Hellfire Pass”. Men worked in pairs, alternately swinging a 7lb hammer and holding a 3ft iron bar. They never returned before 10.30pm.

He and the other prisoners survived on a daily ration of a cupful of degraded rice. Tony suffered dysentery, malaria and jungle ulcers; his weight dropped from 11-stone to 6. On his twenty-first bout of malaria, an Allied doctor gave him a massive dose of paludrine. After that he remained free from malaria, but contracted cholera whilst helping carry corpses out for burning. On one occasion a guard, who was nicknamed “The Undertaker” because he had killed prisoners with an iron bar, attacked Tony and knocked out 3 of his teeth.

After the war, Tony suffered nightmares and terrible bouts of depression. Understandably, he at first despised the Japanese. However, as he understood more he realised that it was the military in Japan and not the wider civilian population who were responsible for the atrocities. Later, in his work with an associate company of ICI, he visited Japan on business and showed a remarkable capacity to forgive the extreme suffering he experienced. A forgiving spirit is much more powerful than a spirit of hate and vengeance.

Tony was a private person who had a very deep Christian faith. His father was an Anglican clergyman and, from childhood, Tony had been taught about Jesus and his great love for a sinful world. Tony often prayed the Lord’s Prayer including the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He also knew that when he was dying on the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I am with you always

Many people in the UK today live on their own. In 2016, there were 7.7 million one person households; 54% of whom were women and 46 % were men. Between 1996 and 2016 the number of one person households increased by 15% for those aged over 65 and by 51% for those aged 45-64. In contrast, during that period the number of one person households fell by 12% amongst those aged 25-44. Some younger people are living with their parents longer than in previous generations and others are sharing accommodation with friends. In wealthy societies increasing numbers of people are choosing to live alone. In Scandinavia, for example, nearly 50% of the adult population live alone.

Not everyone who lives on their own is lonely, but many are. Those who have experienced the pain of marriage breakdown and those who have been bereaved feel it acutely. For them, living alone, eating alone and returning to an empty house at the end of each day is something they never really get used to. Communicating with “friends” through social media may help, but is not the same as human companionship and sharing the ups and downs of daily life with someone we love. It is good to have to consider someone else’s needs as well as our own. An elderly widow who lived next door to us told us that living on her own meant she could be tempted to be very selfish.

Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he died on the cross. On the night before he died he told his disciples, who had been his close companions over the past 3 years, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” Yet, the next day, as he suffered on the cross, he experienced total aloneness as he paid the price of our sins. Out of the darkness he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Later, as he prepared to die, he knew the Father’s presence again. His last words were, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.”

One of the great promises Jesus made to his disciples, as he sent them out into a hostile world to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, was “I am with you always.” Knowing Jesus as Saviour and Lord means we are never alone because, through the Holy Spirit, he really is with us.

Christ is risen!

The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?

The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.

I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.

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 ministry of angels

Last summer Stephen Parker and his two sons, 17-year-old Mason and 8-year-old J.T., were working on a Toyota Prius at their home in Sugar City, Idaho. Mason had cut his hand and had gone into the house when the car collapsed on Stephen. He called out to J.T. to jack the car up quickly. Stephen was totally trapped and soon passed out. He thought he was going to die because it seemed impossible for J.T., who weighs just 50lbs, to jack the car up. It had taken both Stephen and Mason to jack the car up the first time.

But J.T. first adjusted the jack and then began jumping up and down on the jack’s handle. Slowly the car began to rise, freeing his father and enabling him to breathe. Then J.T. ran to get Mason, who called 911. Stephen, who was in a critical condition, was flown to hospital by helicopter. He had 13 broken ribs, but no internal damage. The American Red Cross of Greater Idaho has awarded J.T. one of its “Real Heroes” awards for 2017. When he returned home from hospital, Stephen asked J.T. to try to jack up the car again, but he didn’t have the strength to do it. When he asked J.T. how he had done it before, he replied, “Angels!” J.T.’s mother, Jodi, says, “This whole thing is a miracle.”

The Bible clearly teaches that angels exist; they are personal, supernatural heavenly beings. When Jesus was born, a heavenly angelic choir appeared to the shepherds. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prepared to die on the cross, “an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him.” After the resurrection of Jesus, an angel rolled the stone way to reveal the empty tomb. When the apostle Peter was imprisoned for preaching the good news about Jesus, an angel of the Lord led him out of the prison.

Angels are one of the ways in which God cares for his people and gives strength to face the big problems and challenges of life. The Bible says, “Angels are only servants – spirits sent to care for people who will inherit salvation.” Jesus taught that we all need to learn from the childlike faith of young children and their straightforward trust in God. When we are facing things that are just too hard for us, like J.T., we can ask God to help us. J.T. knows that his father, whom he loves dearly, is alive today because God sent his angels to take care of him.

In the right place at the right time

One day in 1981 paramedic Denny Welsh was flying in an air rescue helicopter near Tucson in Arizona. As he looked down at the State Route 86 highway he saw a car sliding on its roof. Suddenly something flew out of the windscreen and Denny realised it was a car seat. The pilot landed the helicopter and Denny ran to the car seat and found an 18-month-old baby in it. The little girl, Misty, wasn’t breathing, so Denny resuscitated her. Denny put the mother and her baby girl into the helicopter and took them to the hospital. In the helicopter Denny resuscitated the baby girl again. Misty was treated at the hospital and recovered.

A few weeks ago Denny, who is now retired, met Misty for the first time since the day of the accident. She had been told by doctors that because of injuries to her pelvis, caused by the accident, she would never be able to have children, but she has a son. It was an emotional meeting because, until she met Denny, Misty hadn’t realised how close to death she had come that day. If Denny and the rescue helicopter hadn’t been on the scene so quickly she would certainly have died. Denny said, “It was just a miracle that we happened to be there at the right place at the right time. Misty made it by the grace God.”

Jesus told his disciples about the amazing way in which God cared for them. He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” He also spoke of God’s special concern for little children, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Every Christian knows that they have received eternal life only because Jesus saved them by dying on the cross for their sins. They can never thank him enough for his amazing love. One hymn says, “It was a lonely path he trod, from every human soul apart; known only to himself and God was all the grief that filled his heart. Yet from the track he turned not back, till where I lay in want and shame, he found me – Blessed be his name!”

Death has been swallowed up in victory!

The debate on the Assisted Dying Bill provoked strong views on both sides. The Bill proposed giving people the “right-to-die”. If the Bill had become law then terminally ill patients in England and Wales with less than 6 months to live, who understood the alternatives, would have been able to make a choice about the time of their death. Doctors would have been able to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs which the patient themselves would have administered. After a full, and often emotional, debate the Bill was defeated by 330 votes to 118.

Death is a fact of life. All of us will one day die, but we don’t know either the time of our death or the way in which we will die. Recently I visited the place where a friend who died at the age of 80 is buried and nearby was the grave of the baby daughter of some friends of ours who died when she was just a few hours old. I have ministered to people struggling with cruelly disabling conditions such as multiple sclerosis and motor neuron disease and also those dying of cancer. I have felt the pain of families watching a loved one dying and have also seen the amazing love and care with which the dying people have been surrounded. The love of the family, and the dedicated care of nurses and doctors, has meant so much to the dying person.

It is right for us to ask questions about death and dying. Anyone who has watched and cared for a loved one who is dying has asked the questions death raises. What is the meaning of life? Why do we die? Is there hope beyond death? Is heaven real?

The answers to all the big questions of life are found in Jesus. He is the eternal Son of God and came into this world to give us hope. He lived a perfect life and then, in love, gave up his life when he died on the cross to take away the sins of the world. His resurrection on the third day was the glorious affirmation of the decisive victory he had won on the cross. The apostle Paul wrote, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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!

The Lord is risen!

The wonderful message of Easter is “The Lord is risen!” After the crucifixion the disciples were devastated and despondent. The Lord whom they loved, and in whom all their hopes were centred, had died in the most terrible way. Early in the morning on the third day after Jesus died, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where his body had been laid. She was horrified to find that the stone had been rolled away and assumed that someone had stolen his body. As she was weeping outside the tomb Jesus appeared to her and spoke her name, “Mary”. She was overwhelmed with joy to see her Lord again.

Although Jesus had told his disciples that he would be killed and on the third day be raised to life, they did not remember his words. None of them was expecting him to rise from the dead. After his resurrection, however, Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of 40 days and gave them many infallible proofs that he was alive. They did not simply have a general feeling that he was with them, or that all he had taught them was still relevant, they knew that just as he had really died so also he had really been raised bodily from the grave.

The resurrection of Jesus was a decisive event in the history of the church. Knowing that Jesus had overcome death, and seeing him alive, transformed the disciples. Now they were ready to go into all the world and preach the good news of Jesus. When they faced terrible persecution, and even death, they were not afraid because they knew he was with them and that when they died they would go to be with him in heaven. Millions of people in every nation on earth have found that same hope as they have received Jesus as their Saviour.

One thing that is certain for us all is that we will die. We don’t want to think about it or talk about it. We are afraid of death and the things that may happen to us in the process of dying. On the day that Jesus was crucified two other men, both criminals, died alongside him. One of them said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” None of us deserves God’s love, but no-one who has come to him and asked him to receive them has ever been turned away.