We tend to ignore the penitent thief over Easter. Our Sunday sermon brought him to my mind.
South Africa, for all its many, many, many problems was blessed by two leaders Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, both of whom preached forgiveness. Their influence lingers.
Several years ago, some young black radicals burst into a mostly white church in Cape Town and shot and killed several members of the congregation. They were captured and imprisoned. The congregation of St James prayed long and hard about how to respond and eventually concluded that the Gospel called them to reach out to these young men. Funds were raised for their legal defense; their sentences were reduced. Not long ago, I was in church when one of those young black men and the white husband of the wife that the young man had killed, were at a heavily attended event, talking about the power of forgiveness. The older man had essentially adopted the younger man who had rebuilt his life. It was a powerful witness.
About 18 months ago, we had a visitor at our church. He had killed his girlfriend and was in goal for the murder. While in prison, he had found Christ and came to our church with which he had a connection to confess and to seek our forgiveness. Members of the congregation gathered around him – yes Presbyterians!!! – with their hands on his shoulders and prayed for him. The congregation promised to visit him in prison, where he now leads bible studies and counsels younger inmates. Every couple of weeks someone from the church goes to see him. I had never seen anything like it. It had a profound effect on me.