You want mercy with that?
I have been following up the reports in the Wall Street Journal about the controversial release of Mr. Abdel Baset Al-Megrahi from a prison in Scotland. Last Thursday, august 20th, Mr. Al-Megrahi, returned to Tripoli and was received on what appeared to be a hero’s welcome. He was the only person convicted in the 1988 jetliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 persons, including 189 Americans. He was reportedly released on “compassionate grounds” because of his terminal prostate cancer. His release and the way in which he was received caused outrage. The anger has been so strong that people are opposing Moammar Gadhafi’s stay in Englewood, NJ when he comes to address the United Nations General Assembly. The State Department is trying to persuade the Libyans to steer clear of New Jersey; even thought Libya’s UN mission paid one million dollars for a stone mansion in Englewood.
This level of anger reminded me about a session of our annual conference several years ago. We were discussing a resolution about the death penalty in New Jersey. Our conference committee on church and society brought a resolution opposing the death penalty mainly on the grounds that many people who had been on death road were later found to be innocent. A lay men from one of our churches stood up to address the annual conference and passionately argue that it was better for an innocent man to die than a guilty man to remain alive. I was shock at the level of pain and anger shown by one fellow Christian. I could not believe that someone was in so much pain that they would openly endorse the idea of innocent people being murdered by the state in order to punish the guilty.
The controversy with the release of Mr. Al-Megrahi and the anger shown by this United Methodist layman clearly shows a theological belief that seems to be accepted by most American Christians; the belief that there is no final judgment; no heaven or hell. Many people seem to believe that at the end Osama Bin Laden and Mother Teresa will see together in heaven; or maybe, like Job’s friends, that there is nothing after death and you get what you deserve in this life. You see if you believe that God will judge every human being and that some will go to heaven and some to hell; then your reaction to the news that Mr. Al-Megrahi was sent home to die of cancer would bring a different reaction. Upon hearing it you would say: poor Mr. Al-Megrahi, now he will face God’s righteous judgment.
All this week I been thinking about how have American Christians come to believe in the non existence of a final judgment, a judgment that would determine an eternity in heaven or hell? I think it has to do with our preaching. Last Sunday I attended another church for worship. I wanted to hear the word for my life and at the same time see how they conducted their contemporary worship service. The pastor was preaching on Isaiah 58:1-14. I was shock at the biblical interpretation, here is a text that deals with our sinful relationship with each other, it talks about God’s expectation for social justice and the pastor was able to make it into personal holiness; for him it was all about what we do on Sunday.
I wish I had that gift, the gift to ignore the messiness of day to day life and speak only about the beauty of heaven; to speak about spiritual things without any connection with ordinary life. The love of God is always a safer subject than the love of neighbor. Paul in the road to Damascus, John three sixteen, the story of the prodigal son, they are all more appealing than the letter of James. Martin Luther disliked the epistle because of its emphasis on Christian practice. The reformers call was about faith and not work righteousness, but James believed that it is not what you say that tell people what you believe, but what you do.
The second chapter of James begins by questioning whether the members of the early church really believed in “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” He questions their belief in Christ not on the basis of anything they had said, or in doctrines or dogmas contrary to orthodox teachings but on how they treat visitors to their worship service. According to James they paid a lot of attention to a person who was rich and not so much to the poor. With all due respect to James, I could understand why they did it. Christianity was illegal and persecution was always a possibility. The rich man could be a government official checking on them; and to have an influential person’s sympathy could go a long way to make the Christian faith respectable. They could easily argue that it was because they love the church that they treated the rich and the poor differently. And let’s face it; if Barack Obama or the Pope came to our worship service we may pay him a little bit more attention than if a homeless person showed up next Sunday.
James strongly opposes this behavior within the Christian experience; he even considers it to be sinful. “If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” James then goes on to argue that to commit one sin is the same as to break every commandment. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” James argument is base on the belief that there will be a final judgment and you are the one who decides how you will be judge. You can be judge with mercy or without it. “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”
It is incredible that we repeat the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday and we have not gotten it. Jesus told a parable that endorses James views. In the gospel of Matthew 18:23-35 as recorded in the Message: “The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market. “The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt. “The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’ “The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king. “The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”
James asks a couple of troubling questions: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” And then he concludes: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” To tell you the truth I wish that there were no judgment, no heaven or hell as many seem to believe, or that every single human being not matter what they did in life would go to heaven, it would certainly make my job easier. But just in case the majority is wrong and there will be a final exam and that judgment will determine whether I will expend eternity in heaven or hell, I am planning to judge everyone with mercy. In fact I am planning to err in the side of mercy in every situation. Because if James is correct and “judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy.” I want as much mercy as God can spare because I am not perfect and I have sinned.” I agree with James: “mercy triumphs over judgment.”