Saturday, 18 February 2012

While we were still his enemies ...

I have just finished reading James McPherson’s immense survey of the American civil war, Battle Cry of Freedom (862 pages in the Penguin paperback edition), of which more later. Meanwhile, I was very struck by his recounting a famous incident which occurred at the end of the war, when Robert E Lee’s army surrendered at the Appomattox courthouse.
When we read in Romans 5:10 that “when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son”, we might do well to reflect on his description of this event (McPherson quotes from Chamberlain’s own account):
The Union officer in charge of the surrender ceremony was Joshua L. Chamberlain, the fighting professor from Bowdoin who won a medal of honour for Little Round Top, had been twice wounded since then, and was now a major general. Leading the southerners as they marched toward two of Chamberlain’s brigades standing at attention was John B. Gordon, one of Lee’s hardest fighters who now commanded Stonewall Jackson’s old corps. First in line of march behind him was the Stonewall Brigade, five regiments containing 210 ragged survivors of four years of war. As Gordon approached at the head of these men with “his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance,” Chamberlain gave a brief order, and a bugle call rang out. Instantly the Union soldiers shifted from order arms to carry arms, the salute of honor. Hearing the sound General Gordon looked up in surprise, and with sudden realization turned smartly to Chamberlain, dipped his sword in salute, and ordered his own men to carry arms. (McPherson, 850)
Is not God’s grace shown towards us, his enemies, a greater thing than Chamberlain’s respect shown towards the army of North Virginia? And yet do we not sometimes fail to hear the ‘bugle call’ of the gospel, and hence do not look up to see the armies of heaven showing a greater honour to the former enemies of God than was shown that day to the former enemies of the Union?
Sadly, far too many in the Church today fail to understand the reality of our enmity with God. They are unknowing rebels, convinced of the righteousness of their own cause, who imagine God’s grace as an understandably-friendly disposition towards those who basically deserve his sympathy.
Yet there are others, fully conscious of human sinfulness, who nevertheless fail to appreciate the enormity of God’s love. For them, the phrase ‘miserable offenders’ means not ‘in need of mercy’ but, as in the case of Gordon’s troops, “downhearted and dejected”. Though they have received mercy, they do not know the high regard in which they are held.
What they need is their own moment of “sudden realization” — that just as the wounded Chamberlain not merely held no grudges against those who had afflicted him but was willing to show them the greatest respect, so the wounded Son of God hails as brethren those for whom he died and who indeed caused his death.
We should therefore march into the kingdom with heads held high, our boldness not a sign of self-delusion about our own worthiness, but a witness to the whole of creation of the immensity of God’s grace:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7, NIV)
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  1. Shared:

  2. Chamberlain's response to his defeated enemy is significant, magnanimity in victory. This was possible because he had the moral high ground in a generation which recognised truth and morality to be based beyond subjective appreciation. In a postmodern era when right is might would this happen? Neill Fergusson in his book, Empire, discusses the situation of Ghandi in India. He suggests that Ghandi would not have had the same treatment if British rule had been totalitarian. Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you is sadly lacking as an 'ideology' as ideology oppresses many who hold Christian truth today. Stephen Bazlinton

  3. That was beautiful. Made me weep as I again acknowledged my sinfulness and God's love for me.

    Sorry if this sounds like a Facebook post

    David, Cheltenham

  4. David, thanks, I'm glad you appreciated it.