At a gathering of church leaders at camp Men-O-Lan in the early 70’s, I heard Gerald Studer (then pastor of Plains Mennonite) say something like: “If I were the only person living on earth, God so loved the world that he would have sent Jesus to die for me.”
As a teenager I was never sure I was good enough to take communion. I knew I did not live up to the expectations of the church community, nor of the Scriptures so I always took communion with much anxiety and guilt. I lacked an understanding of the grace of God and of my own self-worth. All my being and doing good didn’t achieve the peace and confidence I was taught or hoped for.
After years of college and seminary training I came to discover in a much fuller way the meaning of Christ’s death. Intellectually, I understood God’s grace and mercy. I could preach with passion and conviction that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believed in him would not perish, but have eternal life.” I owned it, but did not enter into it fully in my inner being.
Holy week was a rich time for me. I enjoyed leading my congregation through what were often high times in our life together. Yet deep within me was this haunting uneasiness about how this incredible love of God reached my needs. Why would God love me to this degree? With all of my goodness on the surface which people could see, I was still a rebel inside, driven with selfishness and insecurities.
At one point in my early years of ministry I was wrestling with the question of how God could offer total forgiveness and hold nothing against me. How could I be fully his beloved son? I had no sudden epiphany, but the grace of God slowly overwhelmed me over several weeks and months. It had something to do with my self-worth and my being able to forgive and receive forgiveness. My view of God began to change from that of a judge who stood over me to a God who had high expectation but was gracious and understanding and forgiving. I began to hear the loving and welcoming voice of a God who was with me at all times. I was more gracious with myself. I found myself extending grace to others. If God could love and forgive the rascal and phony I was at times, I could do the same.
After 40 years of ministry, I enter another Holy Week eagerly anticipating the week’s events, Thursday evening at the last super and Friday evening at the cross. Yes, I am drawn into deep awareness of my own brokenness and the grace of God extended to me. Even more, though, I am now aware that Christ died for the whole world. Because of the grace of the Lord Jesus toward me, I am freed by His Spirit to extend grace and forgiveness to others; God’s mercy extended to me through the death of Jesus now flows on as I extend that mercy to others.
I am keenly aware of my brothers and sisters around me. I am aware of strained relationships and unresponsiveness to need. I know that I enter more fully into the grace of God as I am more fully in a gracious relationship with other believers.
When I stand by the cross this Holy Week, I will stand in and by the grace of God. For I know that going deeper into the grace and love of God is related to extending more grace and mercy to others. As I weep because of my times of betrayal, may I also weep for the brokenness of others. As I enter into God’s mercy and forgiveness, may I also release others by grace to experience mercy and grace in God’s Kingdom of Love.