On Sunday, July 25, 1993, a year before Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, a man with an AK-47 and another with grenades embedded with nails, entered evening worship at St James’ Anglican Church, Cape Town. Eleven people were killed in church that night, and fifty-eight wounded. When TV reporters turned their cameras on the man whose wife had been the first to die, they asked, ‘What is your response?’ Looking squarely into those cameras that were pressed into his face, he said he forgave the attackers.
Throughout the church the response was the same: they held out forgiveness. The world was stunned. Some cynically responded that if there were a God he would have protected his people. But countless others, in Cape Town and around the world, started asking questions. Bishop Frank Retief recalls that a thousand people turned up at church the following Sunday night. Over the coming months many came to know Jesus Christ.
Bishop Retief later remarked that any grand scheme Christian leaders might plan to reach South Africa with God’s gospel would have paled into insignificance compared with the conversations and the conversions that resulted following that dark night. It began with the spirit of forgiveness church members held out to their attackers.
“Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus said, “for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
When we first read these words we might get the impression that if we want to receive God’s mercy we need to show mercy ourselves. But to think Jesus is saying that God’s mercy and forgiveness are conditional upon our willingness to forgive others is to fail to understand the context and nature of mercy. We are not saved by being merciful. Mercy is not attained through merit. If it were, mercy would not be merciful. Meritorious acts, by definition, deserve a reward – not mercy.
A parable. In Matthew 18 we read Jesus’ parable about a servant who owed a king a large amount of money. The servant said, ‘Master, please be patient and I will pay you everything.’ The king was moved with compassion and canceled the debt. But later on the same servant refused to be merciful towards a fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money.
The parable is a powerful illustration of someone who asks God for mercy but doesn’t show mercy himself. Anyone who truly acknowledges their own need of God’s forgiveness and mercy will begin to see that they should show mercy to others. Showing mercy can be a good sign we have received mercy from God.
Putting Jesus’ words here into the flow of his beatitudes, when we are conscious of our own spiritual bankruptcy (Mt 5:3), when we grieve over our sin and the sin of those around us (Mt 5:4), and when we hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt 5:6), we will be blessed. When we receive God’s mercy ourselves we will want to show mercy. In turn, beneficiaries of our mercy, even though they may have earlier dismissed us, may show mercy to us by wanting to learn why we have shown mercy.
Jesus makes a promise: as we show mercy, we in turn receive it. Members of St James’ Anglican Church, Cape Town, South Africa, in showing mercy were shown mercy when outsiders to the church gave them a hearing. This is something we need to think about given the antipathy towards Christianity in the West.
Jesus’ words, Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy force us all to ask hard questions: Am I merciful towards or dismissive of the needy? Am I compassionate or indifferent towards the downtrodden? Am I helpful or callous towards the backsliders? Am I willing to forgive the perpetrators of evil towards me as a follower of Jesus?
If we are to see a time of spiritual revival in the West, one of the first signs will be a widespread acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy – a bankruptcy that finds its satisfaction only in God and his righteousness – and goes on to be merciful towards others.
This is one of the big themes we will be exploring at the Anglican Connection conference at the end of this month (see anglicanconnectionconference.com): in our changing world are there fresh ways we can twin showing mercy with introducing God’s good news?