Mercy . . .
And Jesus said, “We must learn to forgive from the heart.” All of us are wounded people and all of us have painful memories. As a pastor, I have found that the greatest stumbling block to reconciliation and peace is the withholding of forgiveness and the inability to receive it.
The NFL has suspended Ray Rice indefinitely for punching his then fiancé in the face and dragging her out of an elevator. Police blogs tell us there is even a greater problem. There are more reports of domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year. How do you forgive someone who sucker punches you in the face? Janay Palmer married her lover. This young couple will always remember what happened in an elevator in Atlantic City, NJ. They will never forget. In cases of domestic violence, how does the Christian employ mercy?
Friday was the anniversary of 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers and the loss of two ill-fated flights, one in Pennsylvania and the other in Washington, DC. The power and influence of evil were evident as hate, terror, and death stared us in the face. Mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, children and grandchildren, friends and lovers, continue to suffer from the memories of that horrible day 13 years ago. In the face of terror, how does the Christian forgive?
In the midst of all we experience and endure, what we read and receive by way of the gospel is a hard lesson. Confronted by violence and destruction and looking at the occasional bumps and bruises in our own lives, we find that mercy and forgiveness are hard to practice, but Jesus would say necessary. Forgiveness liberates the soul. When we forgive we do not forget, we just let go of the hurt. Henri Nouwen believed that the greatest step in choosing how to live our life story is the step of forgiveness adding that, “forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. Often unaware of when we hurt others, we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour – unceasingly.” (The Only Necessary Thing, page 153)
Jesus provides a simple formula for the practice of forgiving. It is in the confession of our sins and shortcomings to God that we receive mercy and it is in the grace of being forgiven that the human heart grounded in Christ learns how to forgive. The wisdom of Jesus stands in strong opposition to the ordinary standards of the world. According to Jesus, the act of forgiving takes into consideration the plea of one’s neighbor. A slave could no longer bear the weight of his debt load and he was unable to repay what he owed. In humility the debtor falls to his knees, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
In a remarkable act of gracious mercy, the slave was released and the debt forgiven. His tragic mistake was not sharing what he had just received. And serious consequences were the result. In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would repay his entire debt. The lesson for Christians is the necessity to be different than the rest of the world as we practice mercy and embody forgiveness taking our lead from the One we follow. Jesus Christ faced his oppressors quietly and he suffered the agony of the cross with a humble spirit. With death near, Jesus looked at the people who had betrayed him, abandoned him, and crucified him offering surprising words of amazing grace, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.”
It is startling to see how forgiveness played out in another way from the cross. One of two criminals plead for mercy, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” For an unrighteous man who had turned his back on the ways of faith and goodness, Jesus provided another sign of grace. And Jesus said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” As we pray the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me,” we can rest assured that Jesus hears our prayers and forgives us, too, like he did for the people who sinned against him. Who are we then to withhold mercy and forgiveness from those who seek it? “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus said, “for they shall receive mercy.”
If we endeavor to live the words of Jesus, why is it that so many of us as Christians are unwilling to forgive and be merciful when God has forgiven and been merciful to us? I believe that fear drives so much of what we do. There is the fear that if we continue to forgive and show mercy, the same mistakes we are asked to forgive will be made again and we will suffer for showing grace. The Christian must work hard to avoid the strong secular message that always calls for justice in terms of vengeance and getting even.
The book tells us that God heard the cries of his people during their captivity and was good to Israel. But time and time again, Israel turned her back on the Lord, but the Lord never turned his back on his people. Angry, yes. Mean-spirited, no. And the apostle Paul raises an important question, Why are we so hard on one another? We are the Lord’s people and accountable to him. Our time should not be spent bearing grudges, but blessing others, avoiding haughtiness, and overcoming evil with good.
May Jesus help us as we struggle with the call to be forgiving and merciful especially as we look at atrocities in the Middle East and southwest Asia; as families disintegrate and separate; as feelings of alienation and anxiety grow in the American workforce; as we look at our own personal lives and secretly recognize the times and places where our behavior has contradicted the Jesus Way.
As I read the gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth, it is almost unbelievable that a Jewish carpenter who spent the majority of his life in the hills of Galilee could so suddenly appear and in a few short years have such a significant impact on people and human history. What a story. A man with no formal education has changed the world and millions of lives by what he said, how he lived, and how he died.
The Christian life is not an easy life. Salvation is free, but discipleship comes with a cost. In the name of Jesus Christ, we are called to be a people of mercy. In our confession of sins, we receive God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ and the Lord heals our wounds. Having been shown mercy, may we not withhold the grace to forgive others as we remember the past but in the name of Christ let our hurt go. Amen.