We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love one another. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderers have eternal life in them. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:14-16 TNIV)
If you had been looking for a truly unique Christmas gift that I can guarantee you that no one on your list already had, well I had just the thing for you. It would have been somewhat expensive and a lot of people would have had a hard time finding a place in their home for it. On the other hand, it would have been a gift they would never, ever forget. In fact, they would talk about this gift for years to come. There would be no standing in line this week trying to return it.
What am I talking about? The former gallows of the city of Chicago is for sale.
It was a surprise to me that we still had one. (Some? Is "gallows" singular or plural?) This particular gallows was built to execute the four men convicted of inciting the violence that led to the 1886 Haymarket Riots, which resulted in the deaths of 8 policemen. Between 1887 and 1927, when hanging was abolished as a method of execution in Illinois, 86 people were hanged there. But since Tommy O'Connor, who was sentenced to hang for killing a police officer, escaped a few days before his scheduled execution in 1921, Chicago kept its fifteen-foot gallows disassembled in the courthouse basement in the hope that O'Connor would be its last, uh, occupant.
It wasn't until 1977 that a judge ordered the gallows removed from the courthouse, figuring O'Connor was dead by then. The owner of a theme park bought the gallows, but the park operator recently decided that it was inappropriate for display and offered it for auction.
One antique gallows, suitable for hanging. Sorry, just a little gallows humor.
There are lots of things that are weird about this story, but you know what I'm really stuck on? I'm thinking about the city of Chicago keeping a gallows in the basement of the courthouse for fifty years after hanging was abolished. It's not like it would be easy to store a fifteen-foot gallows, even disassembled. At present there isn't even a death penalty in Illinois. I mean, does Paris still have a guillotine in the basement of its courthouse?
Then again, it's not hard to imagine how a building like the Chicago courthouse could accumulate a lot of relics of the city's past.
It's not hard to imagine how human hearts can get cluttered with relics, either.
It's so easy to do because it seems right that people should pay for their sins. It feels wrong that someone who has inflicted pain or humiliation or damage on us should get away without paying somehow. And so we hate and rage. We poison others with our bitterness. Husbands and wives do it to one another, holding on to past hurts and betrayals. Brothers and sisters in Christ do it: sometimes believers go to the same church for years without ever acknowledging one another because of a past injury. Sometimes whole churches divide. It happens betweens parents and children, brothers and sisters, between friends, between co-workers. They may never hang. We may never pull the lever. But the gallows stay in our hearts.
The thing is, gallows stored in human hearts do more than take up space. They contaminate the hearts in which they are allowed to stay. Death isn't just an experience or a process. Death is a thing. A power. The Bible pictures coming to faith in Jesus as passing from death to life, but storing up bitterness and indulging in hatred is going back to the sin and evil and, yes, death, that characterized our old lives. Allow it to stand, and that gallows you originally intended for one particular individual will serve very well to hang others, too. Anyone who hurts or disappoints you. Anyone you don't like. Anyone who's different.
"Anyone who does not love remains in death," John writes. Eternal life isn't just something we look forward to out in the great beyond; since we have put our trust in Jesus we have that life within us now. Life takes the place of death, both in our future experience and in our present. Life is the hope toward which we move, but it's also the power that is to rule in our hearts. And self-sacrificing love is the indisputable evidence that eternal life, God's life, has taken hold of us. John reminds us, "We know that we have moved from death to life, because we love one another."
That's why, for those of us who follow Jesus, there is no room for gallows cluttering up our hearts. There is no room for relics of death like hatred, or prejudice, or bitterness, or selfishness, or pride, or self-pity. Death is our past. Life is our future and our present. And our lives are to reflect what is already true in Christ: we have crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). In a nutshell, that means we are to be people who love as that life that fills our hearts in Jesus Christ gives us the power. We are to love as we have seen him love by giving our lives looking out for those around us: "Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:18).
So just maybe as this year is drawing to a close you recognize that there's a gallows in your heart that needs to go. Maybe the Spirit has convicted you that your life and your relationships don't necessarily reflect the life of Jesus that has taken hold of your heart — the life that raised Jesus from the dead and that will do the same for you. Ask God to show you the relics of death that your heart still treasures and ask him to help you pry them out and give them up. Start by choosing to demonstrate love toward those you'd just as soon hang ... then remember that Jesus chose to hang in their place ... and yours.