There’s a short story by Liam O’Flaherty called ‘The Sniper.’ It is set in the Irish civil war in 1922. A young sniper is on the rooftops in the centre of Dublin. After shooting an enemy soldier and an old woman who is an informer, he himself is seen and wounded by an enemy sniper from a rooftop across the street.
After bandaging his wound he knows he has to get off the roof quickly or he will be caught. He forms a desperate plan, lifting his cap on his bayonet above the parapet and when the enemy sniper shoots through his hat, he allows his cap and the rifle to fall down the roof into the street.
The enemy sniper thinks he has killed him and stands up from behind a chimney pot with his head silhouetted against the evening sky. The wounded young sniper then takes aim with his revolver and shoots the man on the rooftop across the street. He utters a cry of joy as his enemy staggers and tumbles down the roof and hits the street below with a dull thud.
He begins to shake, shuddering with revulsion and remorse, cursing the war – but is quickly fired up again by whiskey from his flask. He descends to the street and runs through a burst of gunfire to take a quick look at the dead soldier who is lying face down. As he turns the body over he finds he is looking into his brother’s face.
I was deeply moved by this story when I first heard it summarised in a lecture on Irish Literature nearly 40 years ago. It speaks to so many situations today: the ‘enemy’ is your brother.
Jesus is recorded as saying: “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50) This encourages us to rethink what we mean by ‘family’. For a Christian, it is all part of what we call repentance.
Repentance is changing our thinking, our attitude, our heart. That’s the meaning of the Greek word ‘metanoia’ which is translated ‘repentance’ in the bible. It’s God who can change our thinking, our attitudes and our heart to be more like his.
So God moves in our hearts to help us see a brother or a sister in every person, and to help us create, in our churches, families where everyone has a place at the table. Even, and especially, people who are different to us. Even, and especially, people who are difficult. It isn’t easy, but it is our especial challenge.
It occurs to me that someone might think (on the basis of Matthew 12:50), that we only have to accept into our family those who do God’s will. I think that would be a misinterpretation. Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel (chapter 15) makes it clear to me that even the person who DOESN’T do the will of God the Father is my brother or sister. Like the elder brother in that story, I can refuse to accept someone as my brother or sister, but then it is me not doing the will of God my Father.
For two weeks we have been privileged to host the Night Shelter for the West Yorkshire Destitute Asylum-seekers Network. The 10 young men we hosted are from many countries, where life is very different and problematic. Our hearts go out to them as they travel on to their next hosting church, hoping eventually to be allowed to settle in this country. It was wonderful to have so many people from churches and the wider community offering their help in so many ways. It wasn’t compassion alone that motivated us. God is a Father to them. They are family.
It’s certainly not easy to work out how to live with (ultimately) every member of the human race as family. Nor is it easy to work out how to love your neighbour (i.e. anyone!) as yourself. But this is the challenge God lovingly, and determinedly, sets us.
With my love and prayers