Reflection. And what shall we reflect on?
Perhaps we need first to reflect on all that has been achieved in the intervening twenty five years. Heaven knows it is far from perfect (for all sorts of reasons) and in many cases people from different religious traditions still live parallel lives. But they are, for the most part, safe lives, and it is an immeasurably better situation than we had in 1987, when many people in this part of the world feared for the lives every time they heard a knock on their front door or left their homes.
We need also to reflect on the fact that what has been achieved in this part of Northern Ireland is to a great degree due to the quiet generosity of this community. It is a community that has refused to allow its relationships with one another or its unique spirit to be poisoned by enmity and violence. I thank God that we have this opportunity today for people from every part of the community to come together in this way.
In 1987 our Churches were havens; places of refuge. They were places where people could rest for a while in the familiar and the reassuring rhythms of worship. Places where people felt absolutely safe. I wonder what our Churches ought to be now?
Ought they to be places where people find the inspiration and the confidence to take the next bold step towards the wholeness of relationships that the word “peace” really means. Should our Churches be places where our sense of what we are, and what our vocation might be in our communities, is greatly deepened? The salt of the earth and lights in a dark world. A people who walk by faith and not by sight.
Perhaps in a service such as this we might do worse than to reflect a little on the life of faith and what it means for us.
First an admission. It is relatively pain free for me to talk about some of the more demanding aspects of faith. Like most people in Northern Ireland I have been affected by the Troubles, and people who have been very near to me have suffered. But the pain of 8 November 1987 is extraordinarily intense, because the act that caused it was extraordinarily savage.
Any of you would be entitled to ask me “I wonder how you would feel if you had been one of the bereaved, or one of those who have lived with constant pain or shattered nerves as a result of what happened here twenty-five years ago.”
And so do I wonder how I would feel. I wonder very much indeed how I would feel, considering how difficult I find it to forgive the most trivial personal slight, much less be ready to forgive someone who had murdered someone that I loved.
The Christian life is a high and hard calling for all believers. It is both a great gift and a daily struggle. Many of the great personal virtues of Christianity, the gifts of the Spirit- meekness, forbearance, gentleness, and the readiness to forgive- are often thought of as weak and contemptible, yet the New Testament calls all believers, even when we are the party that has been wronged, to work hard to create the conditions where new relationships become possible.
It does not mean that we have in any way to condone what has happened or in any sense try to minimise the horror of events. Nor does it mean that the ordinary operation of the criminal law should be set aside. Justice and forgiveness are not opposites. They are complementary virtues.
An individual may be ready to forgive another person, but that does not relieve the State of its duty to protect its citizens through the application of the law against that same person if they have committed a crime.
However our faith does mean that we are sorrowful that any human being could do such dreadful things as were done in this town twenty-five years ago. And grace also allows us to hope, if it is in any way possible, that somehow and sometime, the people who committed this atrocity might feel the weight of the anguish and the pain they have caused in the heart of God, and in the lives of their neighbours, and might fall to their knees in sorrow.
Forgiveness is not only an extraordinarily difficult thing; it is also a morally complex thing. Forgiveness is a spiritual gift, and like all spiritual things, in order for forgiveness to complete its work, it must not only be given; it must also be received. And it can only be received by those who feel they need of it. Those who are ready to extend the grace of forgiveness always hope that their act of forgiveness will meet with a sincerely penitent heart in which to take root.
But forgiveness is also God’s means of releasing us from the consequences of the harm that others may inflict on us. We are all the sons and daughters of Adam, living in a world of human weakness and human cruelty. But we are also the sons and daughters of the Resurrection, sharing in the victory and glory of the Risen Lord.
He has promised that His Spirit will give us a share in His Resurrection life here and now. It is the life of the Father, the life that lived in Jesus Christ, that we are offered. And so we are called, and usually by slow degrees, strengthened, to love with his love, and to give with his generosity, and to pray with his mind, and to live by His grace.
There are many people who looked at Enniskillen bombing and who asked- “and where now is your God”? “Where” they asked “was God in all of this heartbreak and agony”.
And it is very difficult to give a rational answer to that question. Maybe there is no rational answer. But there is a revealed one.
The revelation that on a lonely hill outside the precincts of the city of Jerusalem, when an official called Pontius Pilate was the Prefect of the Roman Province of Judea, a man called Jesus of Nazareth entered deeper into the tragedy of human suffering than even the brutality of a bomb could. That somehow in entering that mess of pain and human cruelty, He overcame it, and dealt with its consequences once and for all.
And on the third day He rose with a new Kingdom in His hand.
For many, faith is just the confidence of those who have never had their self confidence shaken; the happy by product of a pleasant temperament or a sheltered existence or a limited knowledge of life’s wickedness and bitterness.
Yet there are many here, victims and bereaved, whose shelter was taken away on 8 November 1987 and who experienced just how limitless the wickedness and bitterness of the world can be.
And those people have mourned, and wept and prayed and loved and believed and persevered, because they have trusted in all the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They have believed that there will be a day when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes and there will be no more mourning or weeping because the former things have passed away”.
Whatever their doubts and questionings throughout these twenty –five years (and there must have been many) they have looked at the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ and have entrusted themselves and their dear ones to that love, unreservedly and forever.
That has not been achieved without the sacrificial comfort and help of many people; doctors and nurses, relatives and colleagues, all of those, friends and strangers, who have prayed for you; in short, all who have walked beside you along the hard way. We give thanks to God for all of them this day. You and they are the real heroes of faith and we honour you today in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, your God and ours.
But the last word, because it is in many ways the real last word, must go the great apostle:
“… in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus Our Lord”.
And now to Him, who, by the power at work within us is able to do more than all we ask or think, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20)