I want to begin this morning by sharing with you one of my favourite running stories; it’s possible some of you may have heard this story before! I first read it in Jim Fixx’s book The Joy of Running. In the book Fixx tells the story of a jogger who was running along a city sidewalk one day, when a car full of young people slowed down and drove beside him. The young people rolled down their windows and started shouting out rude comments about the runner’s hairy legs and knobbly knees and so on, and then the car sped off down the road. But it had to stop at a red light, and the runner caught up with it again. He ran right over the car: one dent on the trunk, one on the roof, and one on the hood – before turning off and disappearing down an alleyway while the car was still stuck at the red light!
We laugh at this story, and perhaps we all think “Serves them right – they got what they deserved for being so rude to him!” But on the other hand, when we start to think about it, we realise that there was actually an escalation of the cycle of abuse in this story. The young people shouted verbal taunts at the runner, but he responded by doing actual damage to their car – damage that probably cost them a lot of money to get fixed at a body shop. And then we start to make connections with what we see so often in the dangerous world we live in today. Israeli gunships destroy a Hamas hideout and kill twelve people; the response is a suicide bombing in which fifty people are killed. You wipe out my village; I’ll respond by wiping out your city.
In the world of international realpolitik, this is often assumed to be the only safe and wise thing to do. People need to know that if they hit us, we’re going to hit them back, only harder. They kill our innocent people, we’re going to respond by killing, not the killers, because we can’t find them, but other innocent people on their side – except, we’ll kill twice as many. Extremist elements in the Muslim world respond to what they see as the outrages inflicted on them by the United States with a 9/11; the United States responds by invading Afghanistan and Iraq; the response is more suicide bombings, more innocent people being killed, and so the cycle of violence goes on. Killing leads to more killing; retaliation leads to more retaliation.
Just occasionally, though, we get a glimpse of a different way.
In November 2005, twelve-year old Ahmad Al Khatib was mistakenly shot in the head by Israeli forces at a distance of 130 metres; it was later shown that he was carrying a toy gun that looked very realistic. His family, rather than crying for revenge, donated his organs to three Israeli children who were waiting for transplants. His father said that their decision was rooted in memories of Ahmad’s uncle, who had died at the age of 24 while waiting for a liver transplant, and that they hoped the donation would send a message of peace to both Israelis and Palestinians.
And so the seemingly unbelievable happened. Ahmad died of his wounds on Saturday November 5th 2005. On Sunday November 6th, three children underwent surgery to receive his lungs, heart, and liver. The father of 12-year-old Samah Gadban, who had been waiting five years for a heart, called the donation a “gesture of love.”
Ahmad’s father said he hoped to meet the recipients of his son’s organs. “The most important thing is that I see the person who received the organs, to see him alive”, he said. And so Samah Gadban’s father invited Khatib and his family to a party for Samah when she left the hospital. “I wanted to thank him and his family”, he said. “With their gift, I would like for them to think that my daughter is their daughter”.
My friend Rob Heath wrote a song about this incident; it includes these words:
His Dad said ‘If you want peace, somewhere it has to start.
With this my son has entered every Israeli heart’.
The army said they’re sorry, then braced for violence;
This time, unlike the others, there would be no revenge.
And the chorus goes,
Some people say with just one life
you can change the world.
What if they’re right?
What Ahmad al Khatib’s father was saying was “Somewhere the violence has to stop. If we want peace, someone at some point has to make the decision not to retaliate. I’m going to make that decision. The violence stops here”.
I believe that this is a central part of the meaning of the Good Friday story. In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul says this:
‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the message of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Notice that little phrase, ‘not counting their trespasses against them’. ‘Trespasses’, of course, simply means ‘sins’. Our usual human behaviour is definitely to count other people’s sins against them. The runner in Jim Fixx’s story did that, and so he chose to retaliate by escalating the cycle of abuse, doing serious damage to the car of the young people who taunted him. The two sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are constantly counting one another’s sins against them, meeting violence with further violence again and again. Many of them believe that this is what God wants them to do. But Paul tells us that this is not the way of the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us that God longs for reconciliation with us, but God knows that there is only one way for that reconciliation to happen: at some point, someone has to choose not to retaliate. And so, in Christ, God chose not to retaliate; he didn’t count our sins against us, but chose to forgive instead.
We see this in Luke’s story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke wants to teach us that the cross of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of our sins, and so Luke tells the story in this way:
‘When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”’.
A few verses later we read these words:
‘One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong”. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”’ (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43).
Earlier in his life, Jesus had said these words to his disciples:
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-28, 32, 35-36).
Now he had an opportunity to put his own teaching into practice. In the garden of Gethsemane, when he was arrested, Peter took out a sword and used it to defend Jesus, cutting off the ear of a servant of the high priest, but Jesus rebuked him and said, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). He then allowed himself to be arrested and taken to the house of the high priest, where he was condemned to die. When the Roman soldiers drove the spikes through his wrists and hauled him up, nailed to the crossbar of the cross, he didn’t respond with curses and abuse, but prayed that they would be forgiven. And when one of the insurrectionists who were crucified with him turned to him in faith, Jesus assured him of eternal life as they hung on their crosses together.
Like the father of young Ahmad al Khatib, Jesus was saying, “No more! The hatred stops here!” And so he loved his enemies, did good to those who hated him, and blessed those who cursed him. In this he imitated his heavenly Father, who pours out his sun and rain on the good and bad alike; Jesus was merciful, just as his Father in heaven is merciful.
But there’s more to it than that. Paul tells us that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). We Christians believe that Jesus is not just a good man or a great religious teacher; we believe that he is the Son of God, and that in some sense God has come to live among us in him. What is the nature of this God who has lived among us in Jesus? Surely the cross tells us that he is a God who loves his enemies. The Jewish people who handed him over to death – Pontius Pilate who allowed an injustice to be done to him rather than standing up for what was right - the Roman soldiers who crucified him – they stand for all of us. God himself came to live among us, full of love and truth, but we found his love to be too inconvenient, too much of a nuisance and a challenge, and so we rejected him and nailed him to a cross. But the Gospel is that God rejected our rejection. God didn’t respond to our outrageous murder of his Son by blasting us all to hell with thunderbolts, or by sending twelve legions of angels to rescue Jesus and kill his murderers. What God said to us, in effect, was “You can kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you”.
What is our response to this amazing gift of love and forgiveness?
Some people, like the first man who died with Jesus, continue to reject him. They can’t accept that this man is anything more than a failed prophet, or they can’t believe that this way of accepting death on a cross is a victory over evil; it looks far more like a defeat to them. A few years ago an archeologist discovered a piece of graffiti from Roman times poking fun at the story of Jesus’ crucifixion: a picture of a young man praying to a man on a cross with a donkey’s head, with the caption ‘Lucius worships his god’. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’, and ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). But he goes on to say, ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (25); ‘to us who are being saved’, he says, ‘(the cross) is the power of God’ (18b).
And so like the second man who died with Jesus, we turn to him in faith, we admit that we have sinned, and we ask for forgiveness and assurance of eternal life. Luke tells us that if we do this, Jesus will gladly give us what we ask for; “Today, you will be with me in paradise”. Forgiveness is freely offered to everyone; however, forgiveness needs to be accepted - it needs to be personally appropriated – because God will not force himself on anyone.
Oh – and one more thing: we also are called to walk in the way of the Cross ourselves, loving those who hate us, doing good to those who persecute us. As has been done for us, so we must do for others. Towards the end of his life, Peter wrote these words:
‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth”. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:21-25).
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. The Cross of Jesus is like a great cosmic black hole, sucking up all the anger and rage and rejection and violence that we have ever hurled at God, and letting nothing return – nothing but love. So let us thank God for the gift Jesus has given us on that Cross, and let us also pray for the strength to follow in the way of the Cross ourselves, which is the path he has set before us.