This year we are being really, really radical at Knaphill Baptist Church! We are dispensing with age-old tradition of beginning the New Year with a ‘Motto Text’ … and instead we are introducing a ‘theme’ which hopefully will characterise us, as individuals and as a church, throughout 2016. The theme is ‘A Year of Mercy’ and the intention is that throughout this New Year we will constantly remind ourselves that we are both recipients of God’s great mercy shown towards us in Christ, and at the same time be a people who show that same kind of mercy to others, whoever they are, whatever they have done, and whatever their need!
There is a saying (taken on board by many a preacher I know of) that ‘The secret of originality is to find a source that nobody else knows about!’ So we might as well confess (since it is ‘out there’ already) that we have blatantly ‘pinched’ the idea from the Church of England Diocese of Chichester who have committed themselves to celebrating 2016 as a Year of Mercy. Now, please do not think too badly of us for ‘pinching’ this idea from the Anglicans … because they themselves ‘pinched’ it from the Roman Catholics? It was Pope Francis who, in 2015, first called on Catholics around the world to use the ongoing Jubilee Year of Mercy to ponder the wonder of the great mercy of God shown to sinners like us and to ‘open wide’ the doors of their hearts to forgive others. Similarly the intention of the Diocese of Chichester is not to approach the mercy of God simply academically but to ask themselves the question: ‘What will that mean for us personally and for the life of our Diocese in practical terms?’
When Julia and I first came across this concept of recognising, celebrating, rejoicing in God’s mercy in this particular way, it instantly ‘rang lots of bells’ with us. The two key questions of theology are ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ What kind of God do we believe in? And how does that belief change us? If we believe in a God who is primarily hard and harsh and judgmental … then that will make us hard and harsh and judgmental. But if we believe in a God who is primarily kind and loving, gracious, forgiving and merciful … then that will make us kind and loving, gracious, forgiving and merciful!
‘Mercy’ is a word we are familiar with in our worship. In our corporate prayers of intercession for the church and the world we often use the words ‘Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer’. To ask God for ‘mercy’ is to ask God to have compassion on us in our need and to relieve our suffering. ‘Mercy’ is a constant theme throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament God is consistently shown to be merciful. In Exodus when God reveals his name to Moses at the burning bush he is seen as ‘a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34:6). Throughout the Old Testament God is shown to be merciful to his wayward people as a whole, but God’s mercy is often experienced in a very personal way as when the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 23, ‘Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ (Psalm 23:6).
The theme of ‘mercy’ is taken up in the New Testament. It is a prominent feature in Jesus teaching. Parables such as ‘The Prodigal Son’ (which has also be called ‘The Merciful Father’) are all about compassion and mercy. One of the ‘Beatitudes’ focuses on mercy: ‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy’ (Matthew 5:7). In his actions Jesus constantly showed compassion and mercy as he healed the sick and forgave those who had sinned. It has been suggested that ‘Jesus is mercy incarnate’ and of course in Jesus we see the Father’s mercy. As Ignatius (one of the early Church Fathers) put it so memorably: ‘Jesus is the door to the Father’s mercy!’
As Christians, however, we are not simply the recipients of God’s mercy … we are also called to be merciful to others! If God is merciful, then we too in our individual lives, and in our shared life as Church, are called to be merciful. As Jesus himself taught us: ‘Be merciful, just as your Father [in Heaven] is merciful’ (Luke 6:36). What might that mean for us in practical terms? In some ways our response to this question could rightly be: ‘How long is a piece of string?’ But perhaps there are three particular areas that could be singled out nevertheless.
The first area is ‘Church Growth’ which we are to understand as both numerical and spiritual as Jesus Christ’s commission to ‘Go and make disciples (not just ‘believers’)’ (Matthew 28:18-20) clearly implies. We must never forget that the message we are called to share with others is ‘Good News’, not ‘legalism’ or ‘morality’ per se but rather that which brings ‘hope for the hopeless’. At the heart of the life and ministry of every local church, therefore, must be our ability to show love, compassion and mercy to all those we seek to reach in Christ’s name. Living in such a way will bear tangible fruit as we help and support those in need, as we comfort the sorrowful, as we forgive those who mistreat us, as we hold before God the needs of others in our intercessory prayer. And all of this, can have an impact upon the numerical growth of the Church. As we grow in the likeness of Christ, and his life is lived out in ours, so we trust and pray that people will be drawn to Christ and his Church through us. Hopefully they will see something in our life which is good and attractive and want that to be part of their lives too.
The second area is ‘Reimagining Ministry’. Fundamental to reimagining ministry is the recognition that every Christian, by virtue of our experience of being ‘born again of the Holy Spirit’ (John 3:1-7), is enabled to share in the ministry of Christ as we are drawn into new life in Christ and empowered with gifts by that same Holy Spirit. The question for us is how can we bring God’s compassion and mercy to bear upon the different contexts and situations that we find ourselves? Whether in the supermarket or on the railway station, at work or walking the dog, in all the different places we find ourselves over the course of the week, there are abundant opportunities if we are alive to them to be channels for God’s grace and mercy.
The third area is ‘Contributing to the Common Good’. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25) spells out clearly how as Christians we are called to engage in acts of mercy and compassion. For us today there are so many opportunities to feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, to visit the sick and bereaved, to visit those in prison, to send money to support migrants and those affected by natural disasters – the list is endless. But there are other less obvious ways in which a focus on mercy can contribute to the common good. Being compassionate and merciful is about breaking down the barriers of mistrust and suspicion that can exist between us. It is about emerging from our well defended opinions and views and engaging with generosity with the views and perspectives of others. It is about entering into dialogue with those with whom we disagree, sometimes profoundly, to see the world in a different light. It is about opening the doors of our hearts and minds.
Dr Ida Sophia Scudder (1870-1960) was a third-generation American medical missionary in India. She dedicated her life to the plight of Indian women and the fight against bubonic plague, cholera and leprosy. One day a Hindu woman, one of Dr Scudder’s patients at the Christian Hospital in Vellore where she was based, committed her life to Jesus Christ. When Dr Scudder asked the woman why she had converted to Christ the woman replied: ‘Because your God is kind and loving, gracious and merciful … and you are like your God!
And finally, a prayer for the Year of Mercy (borrowed from the Diocese of Chichester like a number of the ideas expressed in this blog):
Heavenly Father, as we celebrate this year of mercy: open the doors of our hearts and minds that we may show forth in our lives the mercy and compassion that we see in the face of your Son Jesus Christ who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God forever and ever. Amen