This week brought us a tragically stark example of the cost of following Christ. The heinous murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS jihadists, sadly reminded us of the dangers that many Christians in various parts of the world face. Egyptian Copts have long suffered various forms of persecution in Egypt of course, but this belongs in another category entirely. Egypt responded by bombing ISIS positions in Libya, where the massacre took place. A sign from a government typically slow in responding to the distress of its Christian citizens, that this mass-killing was a step too far.
I debated for some time whether I would watch the execution video, but in the end I decided I owed it to those brave men to witness their final moments. As horrible and sickening as it was, I am glad I did. If only for this reason: as the masked killers lowered those Coptic men to the ground, many of them cried out “Lord Jesus!” as the knives began their grim work. In their final moments they worshiped Jesus as Lord, even as they gave their lives because of Him. Certainly puts things into perspective, doesn't it? As we stress about giving up coffee or Facebook for Lent, these men were giving up their lives.
What kind of people would do this?
I asked the same question when I watched, amazed, as the leader of the Coptic Church in the UK, in an interview with the BBC, called on all Christians to forgive and pray for the ISIS jihadis. He was praying that these men would “recover their humanity”, feel remorse for the terrible things they were doing, and so find grace to repent. Then, a brother of one of the slain men, who was interviewed on a Christian radio station in Egypt, said how proud he was of his brother for not denying his faith, and that they were earnestly praying that his killers would be forgiven and experience the grace of God. They were praying that these men would meet Jesus.
The natural human response would be to call for justice - in the form of a horrible fiery death - to reign down upon the heads of these jihadis. And they surely deserve it. But the reason we Christians are called to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us, is because at the heart of the Gospel is this promise: in Christ, none of us gets what we deserve. In fact, in the great exchange of the cross, Christ gets what we deserve so that we can get what he deserves. We become children of God and co-heirs with Christ: all that he is and all that he has becomes our eternal inheritance. Paul says in Col 2:9-10, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought into fullness.” In Christ we have received the fullness of God, along with every spiritual blessing. This is grace!
However, we can only receive this grace through repentance, through a recognition of how truly lost we are without Christ; how utterly unable we are to save ourselves from sin. To recognise our sinfulness is to become awake to the possibility of grace. Throughout the Lenten fast, many Christians pray for an increased awareness of their sinfulness, and an increased sense of sorrow along with it. Why? Edna Hong writes:
“The purpose of Lent is to arouse. To arouse the sense of sin. To arouse the sense of guilt for sin. To arouse the humble contrition for the guilt of sin that makes forgiveness possible. To arouse the sense of gratitude for the forgiveness of sins. To arouse or to motivate the works of love and the works of justice that one does out of gratitude for the forgiveness of one’s sins. A guilty suffering spirit is more open to grace than an apathetic or smug soul. Therefore, Lent is a journey that could be called a downward ascent. It ends before the cross, where we stand in the white light of a new beginning. So fresh and new, says G.K. Chesterton, waxing lyrical, ‘that one can be grey and gouty - and only five minutes old!’” (Bread and Wine, 24-25)
The purpose of the downward ascent is not simply that we 'feel bad about our sins', but that we might taste again the riches of God’s presence in a new and fresh way. By confession and repentance we are asking God to open our ears so that we might not be deaf to the loving overtures of his grace. It is the willingness to go on this downward ascent that reminds us that were it not for Jesus, we would have remained enemies of God - helpless and hopeless. And this is why we must pray for and forgive those who persecute us: it brings us to the foot of the cross and in recognition of our common humanity with them we can say: “we too were once enemies of God.” Having tasted of the heavenly gift, we are called as the followers of Jesus to extend that to others. Grace received must become grace given. This is the movement of the gospel.
To love those who hate you is to find yourself in the very heart of Christ. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11) The humility of repentance keeps us from pointing the finger in judgement, it reminds us that we were once (and often still are!) among those who would not receive him. The jihadis in the execution video called Christians the “people of the cross”, and I, for one, hope that I can sincerely live up to that title. I pray that the witness of those 21 men, will spur me on to live a more faithful life. I pray that this Lenten fast will bring me once again, in a deeply authentic way, to the downward ascent of the cross. To deep remorse at my sin, and a deep joy at the extravagance of God’s grace.
We must be careful however, that this repentance doesn’t become merely self-indulgent introspection. In his recent comments on Lent, Pope Francis said:
“Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. But when we fast from this indifference, we can began to feast on love. In fact, Lent is the perfect time to learn how to love again. Jesus showed us the way. In him, God descends all the way down to bring everyone up. In his life and his ministry, no one is excluded.”
A true Lenten fast draws us down to the foot of the cross, and then upward into a loving response: a concern for others, a rejection of indifference, loving our enemies. The downward ascent. May this movement be at the heart of our fasting this year. Lord have mercy.