By Matthew C. Harrison. St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2008. Paperback. 270 pages.
It is rare and often difficult to find a book that can be used in a parish Bible study. Most congregations would probably not sit and listen patiently to their pastor as they trove the treasures of Martin Chemnitz’s Examination of the Council of Trent or delve into the detailed doctrinal works of Johann Gerhard (superb as such works are in their own right). On the other hand, there have been numerous books that have become instant classics in parish Bible studies. Some of the best include The Spirituality of the Cross by Gene E. Veith, The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz and Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness by Harold Senkbeil. Matthew Harrison’s recent book, Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith in Action (Christ Have Mercy), rightfully belongs in this list.
Having used Christ Have Mercy for a recent adult Bible study on Sunday mornings, it has become clear that Matthew Harrison’s book is not only enjoyed by God’s people, but also needed in the Church today. This is the kind of book people can gravitate to. Even the subtitle is catchy, “How to put your faith in action.” It sounds relevant because it is, in the best sense of the term. And just as important, this is the kind of book all people can approach. Christ Have Mercy is both accessible and academic. It is a solid theological treatise both for the masses and the Masters in Divinity. This is evident by the fact that many in our congregation purchased the book and several members even took the time to read ahead before Bible class; in the words of Darth Vader, “Most impressive.”
Lest I digress, Matthew Harrison combines his personal experience from the days of his mission work in a remote Canadian Cree village to his more recent efforts of extending Christ’s mercy through word and deed in his work as director of LC-MS World Relief and Human Care. In a world rife with disaster and suffering the Christian Church has been given a particular vocation to continue in the work of extending mercy unto others in need. We see the need for Christ’s mercy every day from the homeless who enter the church doors looking for assistance to the epidemics overseas. There is no town, city, county, state or nation that needs any less of God’s mercy each and every day.
This book is written with the conviction that mercy – the mercy of Christ to and for us – and our demonstration of that mercy to those within and outside the Body of Christ is the key to the future of the Church. Mercy is the key to mission and stewardship. It is the key to living our Christian lives together in love and forgiveness. We desperately need to learn more deeply of the mercy of Christ so we may learn how to care for one another in the Church. Mercy is the key to moving boldly and confidently into the future with courage in the Gospel – a confidence and courage based on conviction (11).
As Matthew Harrison skillfully points out, the mercy extended towards others in their physical needs begins first and foremost with the mercy that God has shown us in the incarnation of Christ and His perfect suffering and death.
Unlike many books that seek to encourage Christians in living a life of mercy for others, Christ Have Mercy begins in the right place. It begins not by asking, “What would Jesus do?”, but with, “What Jesus already done for you?!” In other words, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Right out of the gates, Christ Have Mercy hits us with the reality of sin. Instead of sappy platitudes about the progress of humanity and our common bond of love for one another, Matthew Harrison opens the first chapter reflecting upon the ugliness of death and tragedy caused by sin. This is exactly where a book on the Church’s life of mercy should begin though. How else are we brought to the mercy of the cross and our merciful lives lived in response to the Gospel, if not through the full sternness of the Law and the true sweetness of the Gospel in God’s Word? The “Liturgy of life” as Harrison calls it is the Kyrie Eleison; Lord, have mercy.
The Kyrie confesses misery in a world of hurt. It is a confession of our need. But the cry for mercy also confesses the One from whom mercy comes: “Lord, have mercy” (20).
The theme of the book is clear throughout each chapter and section: Christ have mercy on us; Christ have your mercy work through us for others. At every corner there seems to be a quotation from Luther, Löhe, or Walther. This is part and parcel of the firm conviction Matthew Harrison stated in the introduction. This is also made apparent by the recurrent emphasis on the work of the Word, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the life of mercy in the Christian Church.
One of the greatest strengths of Christ Have Mercy is that Harrison challenges the common dichotomy that is often drawn between the Church’s work of mercy and serious theological, doctrinal discourse. The common assumption made by many throughout Christian Churches today – even some in the LC-MS, regrettably – is to pit confessional, Scriptural theology against a missional heart and good works of the Christian.
What does confession have to do with mercy? What is necessary for the Church’s work of mercy is a clear and solid conviction of who Christ is and what the Gospel is. Absent such conviction (faith), the work of mercy ceases to be the work of the Body of Christ (however valuable and laudable such social work may be in the realm of civil righteousness). The Lutheran Confessions state, ‘That faith, however, that does not present itself in confession is not firm (159).
Deeds need creeds to be more than civil righteousness. Creeds bear the fruit of deeds for others.
Far from being the enemy of mercy, the Lutheran Confessions are the greatest aid, directive, motivation, guide, and source for the Church’s life of mercy. Confession and mercy belong together (166).
This book, Christ Have Mercy, is a must read – for the people in the pew and in the pulpit alike. Matthew Harrison makes a clear, thoughtful Scriptural and confessional case for the Church’s life of mercy. In his concluding chapter, Harrison issues exhorts the Church, and the LC-MS in particular, to continue to live and grow in the life of mercy that is given by Christ in the forgiveness of sins and in our life of mercy for others. If there is one deficiency in this book, it is only that it did not come sooner – the ills of church growth and doctrinal indifference can now be seen in light of the Church’s God given role as outposts of mercy. Thankfully, Matthew Harrison has written the right book at the right time.
It’s time to dare something in the name of Christ. The LCMS has gifted laity by the thousands. The LCMS has capable and consecrated deaconesses and others ready and willing to serve and lead in the Church’s corporate life of mercy. The LCMS has been blessed with a multitude of small and rural congregations. Even as they face the deep demographic challenges, the rest of the Church can learn from them, because mercy seems to come almost naturally. The LCMS has gifted and wealthy large congregations with mission zeal. The LCMS has many congregations that hold the bright beam of the Gospel in challenging inner-city neighborhoods where there are no easy solutions and crosses aplenty. The mission for mercy is before us all, and so is our Lord…The LCMS should not be surprised that if what is written of the apostolic Church immediately after it carefully arranged its corporate life of mercy should also happen to us: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7) (255).
Indeed, Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Submitted by Samuel Schuldheisz, Redeemer Lutheran Church, Huntington Beach, CA