Water into wine; changing people; forgiveness
I recently saw some video footage about the atomic bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Japan, in 1945 – almost 60 years ago. Those bombs brought the Second World War to an end – but they also showed how brutal and cruel war can be. That video brought home to me the hard question about how difficult it sometimes seems to be to believe in God’s love and care for the world when people can be so violent to one another.
Sometimes that time of peace and goodwill which the Bible talks of, and for which many people pray at Christmas time, seems so far off as to be unattainable. Think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the bombs and murders in Israel and the Palestinian areas; and the many years of bloodshed in Northern Ireland, which is actually within our own country, although it’s easy to forget it.
I had been thinking about this off and on since seeing that video, when I happened to hear an interview on the radio which was about this very subject. I was in the car – turned the radio on – it sounded rather dull at first – and I very nearly changed channel. But I realised just in time that this was something I really ought to be listening to. A woman – called Jo - was talking about forgiveness; and saying that forgiveness, for her, wasn’t something just for odd occasions. It was more a whole way of living; something which was never far from her mind. Something for everyday. I thought – ‘this is fine in theory, but it’ll be difficult to find anyone who’s really suffered to agree with her’. Then a man started to speak. He was called Patrick. He said, in a rather mild Irish accent, that people are violent as a result of weakness. They strike out at other people, in other words, because they just can’t see any alternative.
It emerged, as I listened further, that the man was Patrick Magee - an Irishman who had planted a bomb which killed the father of the woman, Jo Berry. He had been Sir Anthony Berry, a Member of Parliament, who had been killed when the IRA blew up the hotel in Brighton some years ago, in which he and several other Conservative politicians (including Mrs Thatcher) – were staying. This was astonishing: this man had blown up this woman’s father; they were both in the same interview, and the woman was saying she had forgiven the man for what he had done.
But that phrase of Patrick Magee – an ex-IRA terrorist – stuck in my mind. ‘People are violent as a result of weakness: they become violent when they can’t see any alternative’. Jo Berry had been very brave in finding a way to meet the man who had killed her father; but it helped her first to understand why he had done it, and then to forgive him. Forgiving him didn’t make him any less of a murderer; but it was a way of trying to make some good come out of terrible evil. Patrick Magee said that it would be a long time before violence in Northern Ireland came to a complete end; but you had to start on the road, or it would never happen at all. In fact he is now working alongside Jo Berry on trying to build a lasting peace in Northern Ireland – something you would never have dreamed of a few years ago.
You can find their story on the internet on the site www.theforgivenessproject.com - where there are other stories of people who have found ways of making good come out of evil. The parents of Victoria Climbie have a page on the website. There were pages and pages of newspaper reports about the dreadful conditions in which their daughter Victoria lived and died in North London; but far less has been made of her parents’ readiness to forgive her murderers. They want to bring some good out of their daughter’s suffering and death, and so they are founding a school in her memory in Africa.
There is also the story of the Irishman Alistair Little: an Irishman who took up violence in his teens. At the age of 17 he shot a man dead whom he had never seen before – just because he was a Catholic. He was put in prison. Little by little, however, he began to see the wrong of what he had done. He came to realise that people who use violence – himself included – see things only from one angle only. They don’t see that if you use violence yourself, you encourage revenge and hatred in others. You end up with a never-ending circle of violence. After 12 years in prison he was released. Mr Little now has a job helping people to live in peace with one another – he works for a peace-building organisation and he recently been in Kosovo helping the different groups of people there to solve their disagreements peacefully.
In one of the Epiphany hymns there’s a line which struck me in a new way when we sang it last week.. It’s the hymn ‘Songs of thankfulness and praise’; the line in question describes Jesus as ‘ever bringing good from ill’. We can forget that it is possible for good to come from evil. The stories I’ve briefly told today, however, can give us hope – that even out of the darkest situations you can imagine, good can emerge. This doesn’t make evil acts any better – but the good that emerges in some sense redeems them, and brings something out of them which helps to build a better world.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus performs his first miracle – the turning of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana. People have often wondered why such a seemingly trivial miracle should be included in the Bible – it is surely far less important than his miracles of healing, the feeding of the 5,000, or the raising of Lazarus from the dead. But the importance of this miracle is largely symbolic. It is seen as a miracle of transformation – a foreshadowing of one of the fundamental aspects of Jesus’ ministry, which was to transform people and situations. As the hymn says, he was ‘ever bringing good from ill’.
‘People never change’, some say; and many people don’t. But they can, and we can, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. The message of today’s three stories is that however dark and gloomy things may become, we should not give up hope. Sometimes life is very tough, and sometimes God has some difficult things to say to us. From time to time He may ask us to make some hard changes to our lives. But he is ever-faithful - great is his faithfulness – and will not let us down, if we listen to his voice.