By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
We all no doubt saw the footage on television this past week from Rhodes – footage of a boat breaking up on rocks, and local people jumping into the water to save the refugees who were clinging to wreckage or swimming for their lives. It is a normal human reaction – one, we would like to believe, we all share; something we would all do given the same circumstances. But it doesn’t always work out like that. There is a memorial in the churchyard of Boarhills in Fife, where I was once the minister. It reads:
By public subscription
In memory of
Henric Odman, Master
Johannes Andersson, 2nd Mate
Anders Johannsson, Carpenter
Johannes Nilsson, Seaman
Lars Nilsson, Seaman
Anton Flink, Seaman
Johan F. Johansson, Cook
Charles H. Odman, Son of Master
being the crew of the brig Napoleon
of Uddevalla Sweden
which was lost near Boarhills
during a severe storm
on the Sabbath 23 October 1864
when all on board perished.
There are a couple of phrases in there that you might not think of as being significant, but which tell you the real story of what happened. Firstly, near the end, you find: ‘on the Sabbath’. It’s not just a way of speaking; it’s a whole history of a way of thinking – a way of thinking with fatal consequences. Because that phrase tells you that the ship foundered on a Sunday and, because it was a Sunday, no one went to their aid. The good people of Boarhills (and they would have thought of themselves as good people) decided that rescuing a ship’s crew on a Sunday would have amounted to breaking the Sabbath – and they were not prepared to do that. Waiting until Monday would be fine.
And the second tell-tale phrase is ‘by public subscription’. This monument is the acknowledgement of guilt, and the expression of remorse and repentance, of a community brought face to face with the consequences of its self-righteous adherence to ‘the rules’ as they saw them, and also their adherence to a self-centred interpretation of their way of life. And so, in shame, they came together to erect a monument to the lives and to the deaths of strangers whose plight they ignored.
But let’s not be too hard on them; for their sins may not be as different from ours as we would like to think. Compare that story to this, written by Dan Hodges in the Telegraph this past week:
There’s something we need to be clear on. The death of 900 refugees – we have to use that blanket term because we don’t know the names of the dead, and I suspect we never will – in the Mediterranean over the weekend was not a “tragedy”. The word tragedy implies an accidental calamity. An unfortunate confluence of space and time.
There was nothing accidental about the deaths of the 900. They were killed as a direct – and deliberate – act of government policy. EU policy. And British government policy. In October of last year I wrote about how ministers had adopted a new strategy for dealing with the wave of children, women and men fleeing the charnel houses of Syria and Libya. It involved drowning them.
He goes on to delineate the government policy as follows:
In the House of Lords, Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay announced: “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean”. The reason ministers no longer supported planned search and rescue operations was, she said, because the government believed they created “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.
To her credit, Lady Anelay was clear and unambiguous about the rationale behind the decision. People currently believed that if they attempted to reach sanctuary by sea, there was a chance they would be rescued. If the rescue cover was withdrawn, they would not be rescued. They would die. And once enough of them died, then word would finally get back to Syria and Libya that there was, in fact, no prospect of rescue. At which point people would stop trying to make that perilous sea journey. Drown a migrant to save a migrant.
Dan Hodges went on to argue that the policy, as we near a General Election, was not really being debated, because across the political parties there was a seeming consensus. And there was this cross-party agreement because immigration was seen as an important issue for the electorate. The article finishes like this:
The 900 did not fall victim to some tragic accident. They were murdered. Actually, they were massacred. The policy stipulated they should be left to die. So they died. The policy was put in place so ministers could look tough on immigration. And now ministers do look tough. Very, very tough.
Parties across the political spectrum have fought to convince the voters that they too believed Britain would be better if we could just get immigration under control. And the death of the 900 will have gone some way to convincing them our politicians are serious.
We have got our wish. The 900 will never set foot here. 900 jobs are safe. 900 houses available for local people. 900 hospital beds left open. 900 empty school desks. The 900 are gone. Britain is better.
The irony could hardly be heavier. He does not believe Britain is better – and neither do we. And yet, were it not for ‘the electorate’, in other words ‘us’, our politicians would not have taken the view that they did, that leaving desperate people to drown at sea was a price worth paying. We too, collectively, have appeared to think that it’s alright to ignore strangers who threaten to disturb our equilibrium, or disrupt the peace of our Sabbath. So, even when forced a few days ago into restoring the previous level of sea patrol, the Prime Minister felt obliged to ‘re-assure’ us that those rescued would not be coming here.
In the passage we read from Acts, Peter and John are on trial because they have gone to someone’s aid. They have cured a man whose only income was what he was able to beg. It would have been fine for them to give him some coins – that would have been an act of charity. But they didn’t do that; instead they made him well, made him economically active, and threatened the ways of the world. And Peter responds by going on the attack: ‘you rulers,’ he says, ‘you don’t get it; there is a power of life at work here that you do not control and that you do not understand.’
He preaches the resurrection; he preaches the power of life – life in all its fullness. He preaches a word of life that is not confined to those whose existence is secure and peaceful and prosperous and comfortable; he preaches a word of life that reaches out beyond the confines of the way things are, beyond the current walls of the fold, out to the ‘other sheep’ of whom Jesus spoke, the ones who have to be brought, by the power of his resurrection life, into the full life that others so jealously guard as if it’s their personal possession.
We have this chorus running through our service this morning:
Nada te turbe, nada te espante; quien a Dios tiene nada le falta.
Nade te turbe, nada te espante ; solo Dios basta.
Let nothing worry or upset you; whoever has God need fear nothing.
Let nothing worry or upset you; God alone is enough.
Have you been asking yourself what you’re not to worry about? For me, this is certainly not about a refusal to worry over those who struggle, those who are persecuted, those who are in danger. For me, this is about a refusal to worry about the consequences of going to their aid, a refusal to worry about following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, who thought nothing of his own well-being as he set out to seek the lost. If Peter and John had worried about what might happen to them when they acted, when they preached the resurrection life of Jesus, we would never have heard of them. If they had not wanted to be brought before the rulers, and questioned about their motivation, their credentials, their reliability, we would never have known their names.
But Peter has been told not to worry about what he will say when he has to defend himself. He’s been told not to worry about those who will seek to hang on to what they have in the face of the needs around them. He knows not to worry when he reaches out beyond the walls, beyond the boundaries, beyond the pale. He knows; and we should know as well.
It is a natural reaction to jump in to the water to save those who are in danger of drowning, whether we know them or not. In that situation we do not see a stranger or a danger, a help or a hindrance, a friend or a threat; we simply see a human being in need of what we can do. And the people we saw from Rhodes demonstrated that basic instinct for all the world to see. And yet we know there are times when other things get in the way of all that.
The people of Boarhills allowed the same religious rules, that Jesus himself fought against, to prevent them doing what ought to have come naturally – and they ended up erecting a memorial in the churchyard; so that, every time they went to worship, they came face to face with their guilt and with their shame; every time they confessed their sin they knew exactly what sin it was they were confessing. And today our lives and time are filled with words aimed at justifying our inaction, words that demonise the dispossessed, words that camouflage our cowardice. And all those words get in the way of doing what we know is right, what we know is Christ-like.
So where are we today? Are we jumping in the water, or are we erecting monuments to our immobility? Are we among those who say that to rescue the drowning is simply to invite others to test the water? Or do we refuse to allow any worry about doing the right thing to overwhelm us, or divert us, or absolve us?
Let me read to you again what John wrote in his letter, this time in the translation called ‘The Message’:
This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow human beings, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it, but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.
My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves. And friends, once that’s taken care of, and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God! We’re able to stretch our hands out and receive what we asked for because we’re doing what he said, doing what pleases him.
Again, this is God’s command: to believe in his Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us.
Jesus said: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’