There have been some very moving stories this week coming out of the inquest into the London Bridge terrorist attack in London in June 2017. These stories tell of how some people were caught up in it and couldn’t get away, how others went to the aid of those who had been injured and put their own lives at risk, and some losing them in the process. This is people behaving at their best and bravest. Some were uniformed officers, others were just members of the public out relaxing and enjoying a summer evening. They describe the horror and extreme violence. The advice we are given about terror attacks is to ‘run, hide, tell’, in that order – and that is on the poster on the noticeboards in both of our churches. First get away and to a place of safety. Hide so that you can’t be found and therefore remain safe. And then, only then, if it is safe to do so raise the alarm so that help can come. It is good advice all things being equal, but there is something in the human spirit that it doesn’t quite touch. Something profound is missing.
None of us know how we would respond in this kind of situation and I pray we never find out. Some of us may be more impetuous and rush in without really thinking about it, others more cautious and perhaps make the braver decision to go in fully aware of what might happen, others naturally scared and hide. But those who went to the aid of those who were bleeding or tried to defuse the situation, even picked up a baton or chair to try to protect, were doing something profoundly human and instinctive. It is the response that fits our Gospel reading this morning more closely than ‘running and hiding’ does. People are more complicated than that mantra implies and are capable of sensing that there is something greater at stake than even their own safety. Deep down there is a defiance that says ‘we are bigger than this’; ‘we are not going to allow your violence to define and control us’. ‘We are going to show that this is how we live, displaying love for friend and stranger, for our fellow human beings in their distress’. ‘You will not succeed in destroying our standing together’.
The Gospel reading brought us Jesus’ command to love (John 13:31-35). It comes from a much longer discourse at the Last Supper where Jesus gives teaching about loving service in washing their feet (13:1-20), talks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life (14:1-14), promises the Holy Spirit (14:15-31), refers to himself as the True Vine and that they need to abide in him if they are to be fruitful (15:1-11). Abiding in his love means that they show who they are. He then talks of no one having greater love than to lay down their life for their friends (15:13). This is a phrase I barely understood, thinking it to be about how Jesus gives his life, until I spoke with army veterans. It is of course a phrase used on countless War Memorials and at Remembrance occasions. This is the military way, when a comrade in arms will lay down their life for their comrades, and what is more they know their pals will do the same for them. That bond makes an army strong – it is a commitment to one another that realizes that they are strong together and divided they fall apart. The command to love is no soft option. It is a bond to unite even in the face of danger, especially in the life and death moments of battle, to belong to one another so deeply that we will even sacrifice ourselves for the other. And that is of course what Jesus is referring to, because he will give himself for the world.
So ‘run, hide, tell’, may be good advice, but there are moments when it cuts across this ‘greater love’ and the tendency we all have to go to the aid of another in distress. This can matter more to us. Those who went to the aid of others on London Bridge didn’t ‘run’ or ‘hide’ and some of them were themselves killed. They laid down their lives not only for their friends, but for strangers too, which is very open hearted. Love is what binds us together and it is encouraging that people care enough and have enough love in their hearts to go to the aid of another in such dire distress. When the chips are down, then the true defeat of terrorism is in that spirit of compassion and care, selfless love shining through.
This is an important bonding to hold as we are going through a divisive time at the moment. Talking with different candidates for the by-election, a number of them have spoken about how divisive and toxic our political discourse has become. We have to refuse to allow this to consume us. One issue, that of our place and connection with the European Union, must not destroy our common bonds. I suspect we may have to make another decision on this, be it a vote on whatever deal remains on the table, no deal or revoking Article 50. However that vote comes out – and we may get an indication this week with the European Parliament votes – we will have to work hard to heal the divisions and respect one another. There was an interesting programme on Radio 4 this week, where two political commentators, Matthew Parris and Isobel Oakeshott, were put in a room with a conflict resolution expert. The task was simple, listen to the other, summarise the other’s position and show them respect and honour, even if they didn’t agree with it. Honour and respect will be a vital outworking of the love we are called to, where we know we belong together. In this bonding we stand, without it we disintegrate.
The gospel reading presents us with a greater love that is to be the character in which we follow Jesus, show that we are grafted onto his vine. That love is the way even when we face the darkest moments, and especially when some would try to drive us apart in fear and dread. We show the human spirit, the power of love in our hearts when we refuse to let them. One of the most hopeful aspects of recent terrorist attacks has been the way love has shone through and people has shown that there is indeed no greater love than to lay down your own life for your friends, or even for strangers.
Sermon for Lent 5, St Luke’s Church, Peterborough, Sunday 19th May 2019