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Breaking The Stranglehold
Palm/Passion Sunday, March 23, 1997

MARK 15:1-39

Now when the centurion...saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was God's Son!" (Mark 15:39) A centurion was a Roman officer in command of 100 soldiers. Was he in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus? Probably. He must have seen countless crucifixions, but he saw something in Jesus, and in the way Jesus died, to exclaim, "Truly this man was God's Son!" I wonder if he then felt any guilt over his part in Jesus' death. Did Jesus' death haunt him in later years? Did guilt eat away at him? Did guilt get a stranglehold on him? Did guilt choke his breath, choke the life out of him? I wonder, did the centurion ever feel the need of forgiveness, and did he search for forgiveness?

Have you experienced guilt? Have you ever done something against or hurt someone for which you feel guilty? Does guilt eat at you? Choke you? Haunt you? There's nothing quite like the stranglehold guilt can put on us.

A modern centurion is John Plummer. Reported in the Christian Century magazine, he was haunted for many years by an experience that occurred during his service in Vietnam. In 1972 he set up an air strike on the village of Trang Bang. Two times he was assured there were no civilians in the area. Shortly after the strike, he saw the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked and horribly burned by napalm. John, who had a nine-year-old son and other children at the time, was deeply affected by the photo which, you might recall, was shown over and over. He said, "Her photograph was indelibly burned into my heart and soul and was to haunt me for many, many years. My heart was wracked with guilt in the realization that it was I who was responsible for her injuries; it was I who had sent the bombs into her village."

Although he told very few people of the incident, hardly a day passed without his thinking of Kim Phuc. He was raised a Methodist but after he returned to the United States, he ignored God and abused alcohol. He turned into himself. He and his wife, the mother of his four children, divorced. Guilt had a stranglehold on his life.

Several years later he met Joanne, his second wife, whom he credits with leading him to Christ. He became a Christian in 1990, and God called him into the ministry. He went to Wesley Seminary, a United Methodist school in Washington, D. C.

In June of 1996, John happened to see on television that Kim Phuc was not only alive, but living in Toronto. In July, he attended the annual reunion of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots' Association, where he met a Vietnamese poet who told him the story. Kim Phuc and her family had been hiding in a pagoda in the village when a bomb hit the building. Nine-year-old Kim ran into the street, where she was hit by napalm. She tore off her burning clothing as she fled. Vietnamese journalists poured water from their canteens on her burns. The photographer who took the famous photo rushed her by car about 15 miles to a hospital where she was not expected to survive the napalm burns. She was in the hospital fourteen months when she was transferred to Saigon where she was operated on by San Francisco plastic surgeon Mark Gorney to remove scar tissue that had hardened into a scaly crust. Her chin had been fused to her chest by scar tissue, and what was left of her left arm was stuck to her rib cage.

In 1982, Kim Phuc, who was raised a Buddhist, became a Christian. In 1992, she married, and they went to Moscow on their honeymoon. On the return flight, there was a stopover in Newfoundland. They left the plane and asked for political asylum. They now live in Toronto with their two-year-old son.

Three months after John heard her story, John learned that Kim Phuc was planning to be in Washington at the Vietnam Memorial for the Veterans Day observance. John was flabbergasted, but he knew he had to see her. He asked his pilot friends to lend him support. Last November, fifteen men and their families gathered in Washington where they heard Kim Phuc speak at the Vietnam Memorial. When she was introduced, John learned that two of her brothers had been killed in the attack. He said, "Being in a pretty precarious emotional state already, this just pushed me over the edge. I began to shake all over as wracking sobs were torn from my body. I felt like I was going to scream." Then John's friends surrounded and embraced him in a silent show of support.

During her speech, Kim Phuc said that if she met the pilot of the plane she would tell him she forgives him, and that they cannot change the past, but they can work together to build the future. After the speech, she was told that John was present. When she saw his grief, his pain, his sorrow, she held out her arms to John and embraced him. All he could say was, "I'm sorry; I'm so sorry; I'm sorry;" while she kept saying, "It's all right; it's all right; I forgive; I forgive." They later met in a hotel. John reported that she is the closest thing to a saint he has ever met. There in the hotel lobby, she got down on her knees and prayed with him.

John Plummer, now pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in Purcellville, Virginia, told the Virginia UMC Advocate newspaper, "My war is finally over. I am at peace and free at last." The stranglehold is broken.

According to Luke 23:34, Jesus said from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." Did the centurion hear him? Perhaps that is why the centurion was so impressed. Perhaps that is why he believed. He heard Jesus forgive him.

Guilt is insidious. It eats away both in the one wronged and the wrongdoer. It was important for John to be forgiven; it was important for Kim Phuc to forgive. When the wrongdoer is not forgiven, or when the one wronged does not forgive, guilt takes hold, and it doesn't take long for guilt to get a stranglehold on a person, choking the breath, choking life. I wonder how much illness is caused by unrelieved guilt. I wonder how much depression is caused by unrelieved guilt. I wonder how many marriages fail because of the destructive nature of guilt.

Do you need to forgive someone? Are you angry with someone for something he said, or something she didn't say? Holding grudges hurts you the most. Sometimes the other person doesn't even know you are hurt and angry. Resentment and bitterness can get a stranglehold on you. Do you need to be forgiven by someone? Do you need to confess and ask to be forgiven? Go, do it. Don't let guilt fester and rot within you, and spoil not only your day, but your life. Face-to-face, one-on-one go and forgive, or ask to be forgiven. If it is not possible to do a one-on-one because the person is dead, or the location is not known, or if the person is unwilling to confront or be confronted, write a letter. Get all your feelings out on paper. Offer it then to God. Burn it and watch your guilt go up in smoke. Make a burnt offering!

Then, ask God for forgiveness, and accept God's forgiveness. Forgiveness is not cheap; grace cost Jesus his life-- his body and blood. But, Jesus willingly and lovingly offered his life for you.

In a few moments, we will strip the chancel of its decorations and symbols, dramatizing the stark, grim reality of the crucifixion, where Jesus gave everything-- his body, his blood, his life-- for you. As the articles are taken away, may you realize how much God loves you, and how God is ready and willing to take your guilt, your sin from you.

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris