In his book, God is Good for You, Dr. Greg Sheridan an Australian commentator writes: ‘… Christianity has been marginalized in the popular culture in the West …’ He notes that there are ‘very few Christian celebrities, or rather celebrities whose primary fame is due to their Christianity, their works or writings’.
Consider President Abraham Lincoln’s letter on January 19, 1863 to the textile workers in Lancashire, England, who, at great personal cost, had voted to continue to reject cotton produced by slaves in the US Confederacy. Deploring the sufferings arising from this decision, Lincoln wrote: “Under these circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterance on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed by any age or in any country”.
Lincoln’s words point to the traditional understanding of Christianity that, amongst other qualities, calls for mercy.
How would Lincoln’s reference to ‘Christian’ be understood today? Greg Sheridan comments, ‘Christians have a right to be worried about what is happening to their beliefs in the West.’ ‘… The primary challenge is not intellectual but cultural,’ he writes.
How do we respond to this changing world that denies the sacrificial practice of Christianity?
Come with me to Jesus’ fifth Beatitude, one of the eight ‘Blessings’ found in his Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew chapter 5. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy”, we read in verse 7 (Mt. 5:7).
The words mercy and grace are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinction. Grace is a love that is underserved. Mercy is love’s response to someone’s misery and helplessness.
Mercy responds to a world in pain because of humanity’s ‘me first’ problem. For despite the extraordinary advances in science and technology, we find it impossible to solve the issues of hunger and poverty, corruption and injustice, tension and conflict. In his Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus provides an object lesson in neighbor love which, if practised, would lead to a world of selflessness, genuine love, kindness and mercy. It is a neighbor love that is motivated and shaped by God’s love for us and our love for him.
It is significant that when God came amongst us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth his priority was not first to destroy Roman rule, or to cure all the sick, or to deal with all the social ills of the world.
That said, he did reach out to people in need. The ancient historian Josephus says that Jesus carried out ‘remarkable feats’. The Gospel records tell us he enabled the deaf to hear, the blind to see and the lame to walk. And he wept with those who grieved.
Yet despite his divine powers Jesus allowed himself to be betrayed and put to death. His priority was to follow the highest path of mercy and grace – mercy for the helpless, grace for the undeserving. Through his voluntary death he addressed our broken relationship with the living and one true God. He the sinless, chose to die in our place – the sinful.
When we come to understand and personally experience this mercy of God, we will want to be merciful to others. Mercy is more than feeling compassion. It acts in doing good for those in need.
So what does this mercy look like in practice?
We show mercy by providing food for the hungry person, clothes for the needy and a bed for the homeless. In the big cites of the world mercy needs to be tempered with wisdom. For if we give to everyone in need, we will quickly find we don’t have the means to live ourselves.
This is why Christian foundations are formed so that resources can be used more effectively for those truly in need. In the churches I was involved in setting up in New York City, we supported and were involved in various care missions in the city as well as providing scholarship funds for children in Africa orphaned through AIDS.
But mercy is more than meeting physical needs, pressing though they are. Mercy has compassion for the spiritually lost. Augustine, the 5th century Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said: ‘If I weep for the body from which the soul is divided, how should I weep for the soul from which God is divided?’ If we say we have experienced God’s mercy shouldn’t we now show mercy to those whose souls are lost for eternity?
When Stephen, the first Christian martyr was being stoned, he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen pitied the souls of those who were stoning him to death.
Mercy prays for others and looks for opportunities to open up conversations about the God who has revealed himself in the Lord Jesus. Let me ask, do you pray for family members, friends, neighbors and work colleagues who are indifferent or hostile to the Christian faith? The most merciful thing we can do is pray for and create ways to draw others to the Lord Jesus.
The outcome of mercy. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”
We are not restored in our relationship with God by being merciful. It is only when we are conscious of our spiritual bankruptcy (Mt 5:3), grieve over our sin (Mt 5:4), and hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt 5:6), that we will receive the blessing of God’s mercy.
Psalm 103 says, As the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God’s mercy towards those who fear him. Contrary to what many consider God to be, the Bible consistently reveals a God who is not only there but who is slow to anger and merciful.
How then will people around us come to know this? A little further on in his Sermon, Jesus says: “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16).
© John G. Mason – October 14, 2020
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