There is no getting away from the fact that forgiveness is hard and the bigger the hurt and injustice the harder it is to forgive. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading from St Matthew, St Peter asks Jesus, ‘How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times? Peter probably thought that seven times was doable but may well have been disheartened at Jesus’ response, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times”. While it’s important not to get into the numbers game, we need to be clear that we cannot put a limit on forgiveness and must always be open to it in the power of God’s grace.

Last Thursday we heard a passage from St Luke’s Gospel (6:27-38) which opened with these challenging words from Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To the man who slaps you on the one cheek, present the other cheek too.” This kind of teaching would have been regarded by many as weak, unreasonable and even impossible to follow. One man who demonstrated it could be done was the Reverend David Wilkerson who, as a young skinny pastor in 1950’s America, felt called by God to preach love and forgiveness in the heartland of a gangland ghetto. My apologies for repeating some of what I said at Thursday’s Mass but I feel it is an important message that more people hear, reflect on and put into practise.

David Wilkerson’s first encounter with Nicky Cruz, a Puerta Rican gang leader, was far from encouraging and even, on the surface, an outright failure. Many years later Cruz recalled, how he slapped Wilkerson across the face, spat at him, vowed to kill him and send him to hell. But the pastor’s response was extraordinary and totally unexpected: “You can kill me, cut me up into little pieces and throw me into the sidewalk but every piece will cry out, Jesus loves you”. Cruz had never been afraid of guns, knives or indeed any person but now for the first time in his life he felt scared because for the very first time he knew with certainty that he was in the presence of something or someone of infinitely greater power and presence than he had. Later, Cruz reflected that God had to have been truly with Wilkerson for him to have not only entered gang territory, but to have done it with such faith and conviction.

It’s important to mention that Cruz’s conversion didn’t happen overnight. In those early days he described himself as ‘a mad dog wanting to kill this guy’. But the more hostility and resistance Cruz displayed the more Wilkerson relentlessly blessed him and told him that God was after him and Jesus Christ loved him. This went on for two weeks. It seemed that everywhere Cruz went, he came face to face with this annoying preacher who repeated the same message of love to him. At the end of the two weeks he caved in, giving his life to God and within a year he was attending Bible school. It was here that Cruz, met a Mexican student whom he later married and started a family. They are happily married today.

Since his conversion Nicky Cruz with the support of his wife and family has preached all over the world about the love and mercy of God, how he was profoundly converted from being a ruthless and hard-hearted gang leader to a man of faith with a heart of flesh. If David Wilkerson hadn’t uncompromisingly loved his enemy and turned the other cheek, Nicky Cruz might have continued his life of violence and hatred, damaging and possibly destroying many lives including his own. He wouldn’t have met his wife and with her raised three children, and many thousands of people the world over would not have had the opportunity to hear his story and themselves encounter God’s personal love for them.