Becoming more like Jesus 4: Living Lovingly
Hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew 5: 7-8
Glory to you O Lord
7 “Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them!
8 “Happy are the pure in heart; they will see God!
This is the gospel of the Lord
Praise to you O Christ
Lord Jesus you taught us how to show mercy in acts of loving kindness, come and breathe your purifying love and mercy into our hearts so we too can act justly love mercy and walk humbly with you our God. Amen
A few years ago, just because of my age, I was invited to call in at the Hallamshire for some tests to check up on my physical wellbeing. It seemed like a good idea, so I went. All went well until the results came back. It was a recall. There was something that needed to be looked at more closely. The days that followed were anxious times. We naturally carry concerns about our physical well-being. I’m glad to say there was nothing untoward, all was well. But when I think about it I can still remember the state of happiness in which I left the hospital. Nothing had changed inside of me, but the knowledge that I was physically okay was Good News. In fact I was so happy that I had to text straight away to the small group of people who had known and shared my concerns and their responses showed they shared my happiness that actually I was blessed with good health. It is this sense of happiness in the Good News that the Bible translators are trying to get across to us in the Beatitudes, that feeling of being blessed with Good News about our situation, except that in the Beatitudes it is our character and behaviours which are being observed not our physical health. So our reading today is Good News, those of you who are merciful you’re in good shape, keep going because God will be merciful to you. Good News, those of you who are pure in heart, you are doing well, you will see God. And it really is Good News because these two statements take us to the heart of our Christian faith. Mercy is rooted in forgiveness, and through forgiveness we come to a restored relationship where we are honoured with the privilege of seeing God.
To help think through this I have three true stories for us. The first one is just something small that happened to me, but it gives us the basic principles. Then we will look at two more challenging ones.
Monday had been a busy day. At tea time I sat down with the children really for a rest rather than to socialise. The children were full of fun, chattering and wriggling, there was a lot going on in their heads when suddenly, for no apparent reason, one of the youngest, we’ll call him Michael, turned and nipped an older boy, James reacted aggressively demanding “what’d you do that for!” Annoyed by the disruption I was about to react too, when I saw Michael’s face, he was full of confusion and upset, and a wave of compassion made me stop. Instead of jumping in I sent James to put his things away and asked Michael the all-important question “What happened?” Somehow Michael manged to explain he had been struggling to open his packet of biscuits, you know the sort of packet you have to nip at the top and pull, he’d turned to James for help but in his hurry and tiredness he had mixed up what he was doing with what he was trying to say. Knowing Michael as I do this is entirely plausible. What else could you feel but compassion for a little child who just made a mistake? What Michael actually needed wasn’t a telling off but a hug and support in putting the situation right. When James came back I explained what had happened and Michael apologised. Because this is the real world, James was not impressed but he realised he had to accept the apology and in fact he offered to open the packet without being asked. When the children had gone home I had time to reflect upon the incident. What Michael had needed was time to explain his mistake, and what James needed was an opportunity to practice forgiveness. What we had done here in miniature was to act mercifully, no doubt next week the tables will be turned and it will be James apologising to Michael, but the boys will learn to live and play co-operatively together.
So if children can do this what about adults? J What does mercy look like to us?
Mercy is more than just feeling compassion. It is compassion with action. Mercy is an action in response to someone, or something in need. There are numerous occasions in the Bible when Jesus acts out of a feeling of compassion, take for example the feeding of the 5,000 both Mark and Matthew describe Jesus, exhausted going away to a quiet place for peace and rest, but the people follow him. Instead of sending them away Jesus is filled with compassion. He sees their need and then does something; he spends the rest of the day teaching them. When he sees a Leper asking for help Jesus is filled with compassion and breaking all social norms Jesus reaches out and touches the untouchable. When he sees a widow facing grief and future destitution after the death of her son Jesus raises the boy back to life. When Jesus told a story to demonstrate what love for your neighbour looks like he described how a Samaritan was filled with compassion, bandaged a Jew’s wounds, put the injured man on his own donkey and paid for his care and recovery. Jesus showed mercy equally to the social outcasts and the physically weak. He is comfortable using a character from a despised culture as an example of how mercy could be shown to a Jew. For Jesus there are no boundaries or limits to when and where he would act mercifully.
The problem with mercy is there is a price to pay. It is easy to feel compassion, but the action costs. So the Samaritan could have felt sorry for the injured man, but he did more, he accepted the financial costs and paid for the Jew’s recuperation. Jesus felt compassion for the widow and the leper but touching the coffin and the leper carried a social cost making him unclean. Jesus was exhausted but he saw the people’s need and taught them despite the physical and emotional cost. And the result of all these actions was the potential for restored relationships. The Widow with her son, the leper with the rest of society, the 5,000 sit down in family groups and a Jew held a debt of gratitude to a Samaritan. I wonder did he say thank you? Then finally, out of mercy for us, Jesus paid the ultimate price of his life when he died on the cross to restore our relationship with God.
So what about us? Are we quick to act mercifully or do we look to judge others? Because there is a warning, in Matthew 7: 2 God will judge us the way in which we judge others. So when we see someone in trouble do we jump in to criticise, “they should have done, this, that or the other,” or do we jump in to help? There is dynamism about mercy. As we show mercy, so God is merciful to us, just as in the Lord’s Prayer we ask ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. The more mercy we show to others the more mercy we receive from God. The more we forgive others, the more God forgives us. It is like breathing, if we breathe out a little we need to breathe in a little, but if we only breathe in a little we can only breathe out little.
If we breathe in a lot, we can breathe out a lot. If we take in the immense mercy given to us through Jesus then we can give out mercy to others as recklessly as we receive from God. And just as if we exercise physically we become physically fitter, so if we practice being merciful we will find our capacity to act lovingly will grow, as God’s mercy floods into our hearts, as in our next story.
Corrie ten Boom, you may well know was imprisoned with her sister in Ravensbruck concentration camp for concealing Jews in their home during the Nazi occupation of Holland. After the war Corrie travelled as a missionary preaching God’s forgiveness and the need for reconciliation. However, in 1947 her capacity for forgiveness was tested.
She had just finished preaching that, when God forgives our sins they are gone forever, when a man worked his way to the front of the crowd and stood in front of her, his hand thrust out: "A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!"
Corrie recognised the man as one of the cruellest guards from Ravensbruck. As he stood there she fumbled with her notes, avoided his gaze, as her blood seemed to freeze.
"You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk," he was saying. "I was a guard there. But since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein,"—again he held his hand out—"will you forgive me?"
And Corrie stood there, could she pay the price of mercy that this man needed and offer him her forgiveness, the cost of letting go of all the terrible things that had happened including her sister’s death? It felt the most difficult thing to do, and yet she knew she had to do it because as she says ‘The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. "If you do not forgive others their trespasses," Jesus says, "neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses." And so as she stood there with the coldness clutching her heart she prayed "Jesus, help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling." And so woodenly, mechanically, Corrie thrust out her hand into the one in front of her. And as she did, an incredible thing took place. She says ‘The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. "I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart!"
As Corrie gave in mercy and forgiveness so God’s Holy Spirit flooded into her filling her and giving her the strength to do the impossible.
I am so thankful for Corrie’s honesty in this story because it shows us how acting mercifully opens us up to the purifying of our hearts. Just as breathing removes the impurities of CO2 and fills us with O2 so acting mercifully purifies our hearts so we can begin to see God’s purpose and ourselves as part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.
Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes comes straight out of the Old Testament Scriptures. Living mercifully comes from Micha 6:8 to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. The Pure in heart is rooted in Ps 24:4 in answering the question who will see God? the psalmist declares ‘those who have clean hands and pure hearts’. Unfortunately for the Jews the Rabbinic tradition had gone health and safety mad with pages and pages of laws about external cleanliness. There were laws about containers, tents, immersion pools, hands, but not hearts. It was all external.
So Jesus makes a bold decision and puts his entire emphasis on the heart. In Biblical terms your heart is your entire inner life, your feelings, mind and will. So those who are pure in heart are those who will one thing, who have one motive, who have one love, who centre the whole of their lives on finding God as the source of their being. Julian of Norwich wrote ‘The inward part is the master of the outward. Interior neither takes orders from nor pays attention to the exterior. The interiors’ entire focus is on oneing with our beloved Jesus. By grace the inner draws the outer.’ And so the whole thing becomes an upward spiral as our acts of mercy draw in more of God’s love to purify our hearts. As we learn to forgive so we are able to draw more on God’s forgiveness of us and we come closer to the heart of God. Forgiveness says Corrie ten Boom is not an emotion, but as she acted in mercy and held out her hand she experienced the joy of God’s love. When I understood Michael’s problem it brought laughter to both of us. Julian of Norwich says ‘When we see the power of love overcome the power of evil it fills our hearts with comfort and joy.’ Acting mercifully brings happiness. Portia in the Merchant of Venice says “It blesses him that gives and him that takes”. And anything which brings joy and laughter brings us together so we can work in co-operation. Which brings us to our last story. As it is Father’s Day I thought we ought to hear from a Father. Again it is an old story but it is a powerful one.
It was Remembrance day 1987 in Enniskillen. Gordon Wilson held his daughter’s hand as they lay trapped beneath a mountain of rubble, the result of a bomb planted by the Provincial IRA “Daddy” said Marie “I love you very much”. Those were the last words Gordon heard his daughter say. A few hours later in a well-known BBC interview Gordon Wilson stunned the country with his statement “I bear them no ill will or grudge. She was a great wee lassie, she loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” He accepted the cost to himself; gave up the need for revenge and opened up the way for reconciliation and the beginnings of co-operation between the two sides. One reporter described interviewing Gordon Wilson as the nearest he had ever come to interviewing a saint.
How do we check in on our character development and learn to be as merciful as people like Gordon Wilson or Corrie ten Boom? The clue is there in their stories. Gordon Wilson said he would pray for those men tonight and every night. His life was centred on prayer. It is in our regular daily confession of our on sins and weaknesses that we become aware of God’s overwhelming capacity for forgiveness. As we allow his merciful love to fill us then we have something to offer others, even if it is as stiff and as wooden as Corrie’s handshake began. When we look at Jesus and see his compassion and mercy in his actions for people in all circumstances then we realise that forgiveness is not an emotion but an action, we will find we do have the capacity to give to others whatever they need with the same reckless generosity that we receive from God. And as we do this we will be filled with God’s comfort and joy as His spirit fills and purifies our hearts so we too will see God and learn to live in good relationships with God, with other people and with the whole of creation.
1 How does mercy differ from compassion?
2 Does mercy mean there shouldn’t be any retribution or punishment? You might like to read Joshua ch 20: 1-9
3 In the past the church was seen as somewhere people could go for sanctuary. Durham cathedral had a sanctuary door knocker on its entrance which had a 24/7 watch over it so anyone who had committed a great crime such as murder in self-defence or breaking out of prison could be let in and given 37 days of sanctuary in which they could reconcile with their enemies or plot their escape. How can the church regain the image of a place of sanctuary, a place where people can run to when they have done wrong?
4 In what ways do we need to show mercy to creation?
5 How could the church get involved? You might like to look at A Roche’s website and discuss Eco Church.