by Matthew C. Harrison
Not long before being elected to the presidency of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), while working for LCMS World Relief and Human Care, I was involved in a rather significant car crash. A colleague was driving, and cars in two oncoming lanes stopped to allow us to cross in front of them into the drive of our LCMS International Center. As my friend crossed the two lanes, we were hit hard on the front right passenger side by an oncoming Cadillac Escalade. Ka-BOOM! The airbags deployed. Our vehicle spun 180 degrees and a third vehicle was hit. I don’t know if you’ve had such a jarring experience, but even without significant injury it takes a few moments to recover your senses. Right away, I felt chest pain from the airbag, even as I heard my friend moaning in pain. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured.
After recovering our senses, the three drivers and I — the lone passenger — got out of the cars and waited patiently for the police to arrive. I was within earshot as the oncoming driver gave his version of the events to the police officer. “I was just driving normally in the far lane and this car (ours) drove right in front of me.” Then there was silence. He fumbled. “I can’t lie. I hit a pregnant woman and a priest.” I had my collar on, and thanks to his confession I found out that the third driver was expecting.
His initial report was not entirely truthful. The two oncoming lanes had come to a stop. The two front cars allowed some separation, then waved us through. Just as that happened, he had driven his Cadillac onto the shoulder and was barreling toward an exit to the right several hundred yards ahead. He was driving illegally on the shoulder when he hit us.
Wow, I thought, he’s not having a good day. The law struck him hard. He tried to lie, but couldn’t pull it off. He admitted his guilt. As he stood alone in shame, I walked up to him and put my hand on his shoulder. “Friend,” I said, “I’ve had days like this too. We all screw up. I certainly do. This is what Jesus is for. You’re forgiven.”
Neither altruism nor high-minded ideals motivated me to forgive him. More than anything, I saw myself in that guy. As I looked at him — glad no one was injured — it struck me as a comic sight. “I can’t lie. I just hit a pregnant woman and a priest.” I still laugh about it! I’ve done stuff like he did. I’ve taken chances driving while in a hurry. I’ve lied or been tempted to lie. I immediately thought I could have been him a hundred times over. In fact, I have been. Lord, grant me repentance, faith in Jesus, and friends and loved ones to tell me what I need to hear, when I need to hear it.
I thought about this incident after reading through the Gospel accounts of Holy Week. I’ve often noted that we read the Gospels best by seeing ourselves in each and every character. I’m the believer Mary or Martha, disappointed with Jesus: “If you’d been here, my brother would not have died.” I’m the simultaneously courageous and pusillanimous apostle Peter. I’m the establishment leader who’s irked when my power is threatened or disrespected. I’m blind Bartimaeus crying out, “Have mercy on me!” I’m the apostles in Gethsemane, too tired to pray. I’m the apostle who can’t understand Jesus’ words about the necessity of dying. I’m Judas, lover of money, betrayer of Jesus. I’m Herod who wants a miracle. I’m Pilate who wants to save his own interests more than doing what’s right. I’m the thief ridiculing Jesus on the cross. I’m the thief, ashamed of my sin, looking to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). I’m the apostles scattered and afraid. I’m the women expecting to find a dead Jesus in a tomb. I’m Peter and John hearing of the resurrection and running. I’m the apostles behind locked doors for fear. I’m unbelieving Thomas, who said he wouldn’t believe unless he put his fingers into Jesus’ wounds (John 20:25). I am the sinner for whom Christ lived and died and rose again. I am the one whose sin is a curse, one borne by Jesus. I am “the righteous” one of God, because Christ was put to death for my transgressions and raised for my justification (Rom. 4:25). As Luther loved to preach, it is as though I were born of the virgin Mary! As though I were sinless! As though I had fulfilled all law. Christ did it for all, and thus, worm that I am, Christ’s resurrection is mine.
Therefore, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
In repentance and faith, this is true — perhaps most true for all of us — precisely on the worst of days.