Pictured above is the Karna Lutheran church in Malmslatt, Sweden. Like many of the churches in Europe, this church is very old. The present structure is no doubt the result of several expansions and remodelings of the old church, but the original part of the building is believed to go back over 800 years. Among the villagers of Malmslatt there are many interesting stories about the beginnings of that church, and, of how it happened to be built on that spot. The legends have their origin in a very old Swedish poem, the poem itself going back almost eight centuries. The story is so very old, and there have been so many different legends that have grown up around it, that it is impossible to determine what really happened. I would guess that, as in many old legends, there is at least of grain of truth in the tragic tale that is told. It is the story of how one man dealt with his grief and his sin. In 1959 the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman blended together some of these old legends to make an Academy Award winning movie, The Virgin Spring. What follows is how Bergman told the story in his film.
Peter Tyrsson was a godly man who led his family in faithful devotion to the church and its Lord. He had a good wife and a teenage daughter, and, he was wealthy enough to have a few servants to help on his large farm. One day, Peter and his wife sent their daughter on the half-day journey to the church in Vange, the closest large town, and the only church in the area. She was to deliver the candles that her parents had bought for the sanctuary, and she was to be home that evening. On the way, she was met by three wicked herdsmen. Two of the herdsmen attacked the girl, raped, and then killed her. The third looked on in horror. The three then left their herd to escape to another part of the country. They knew that the fine fabric of the girl’s dress, even though dirty and bloody, could be sold for a good price; so they took it along to sell to some farmer’s wife along the way. Thinking they were far enough away from the crime, they stopped at the farm of what looked to be a wealthy man to offer the fabric for sale. Unbeknownst to them, it was the farm of Peter Tyrsson, the father of the murdered girl. Peter had by this time been informed of his daughter’s death, and he recognized the dress. Peter was a big, strong man, and in a fit of rage, he killed all three of the herdsman. He had no way of knowing that one of them was innocent.
Peter got his revenge, but he was a godly man, and the killing of three men weighed heavy on his conscience. He was deeply grieved over the loss of his daughter; and now, to his grief was added unbearable guilt. Peter, who never even forgot to say his prayers every day, was now a violent murderer.
Near the end of the movie Peter and his wife travel to the place where they were told his daughter was killed in order to give her a decent burial. They find her body, and after holding her and crying, Peter got up and walked toward a clearing by a creek, where he collapsed in anguish. He then spoke to God. He said: “You saw it, God. You saw it all. You saw the death of my innocent child, and then you saw my vengeance; and yet you allowed it all to happen… I don’t understand you, God. I will never understand you…”
“And yet,” Peter went on, “Yet, still I ask for your forgiveness. I know of no other way to make peace with myself. I know of no other way to live. I don’t understand you, God, but I do know how to work with my hands; and so here by the dead body of my only child, I promise that, as penance for my sin, I shall build you a church. On this spot I shall build it, with mortar and stone and with these very hands.” And so, the old stories say, the Karna church of Malmslatt, Sweden was built as an act of penance.
We do not know how much of that actually happened, but true or not, the story of the Karna church gives some profound insights into struggles that we all face: struggles between good and evil, struggles with the desire for vengeance but the need to forgive, struggles with the burden of guilt and the need for grace, and, the inability to understand the ways of God. We have all, like Peter Tyrrson, wondered how God can stand by and watch as such terrible accidents, tragedies, crimes, and sufferings go on. And we have all, like Peter Tyrrson, responded to sin by adding more sin. And perhaps we have also, even though filled with confusion about God, said like Peter Tyrrson, “What else can I do? Where else can I go? To whom can I turn besides Jesus my Lord?” Even the disciple Peter had to say one time when he was very much confused by Jesus, “Lord, where else should we go? Only you have the words of eternal life.”
Peter Tyrrson, like the disciple Peter, did not have answers to those impossible questions of faith. But even without answers to their questions, they both had the right response, which was to continue to cling to the Lord in faith. The disciple Peter had some huge failures, the most famous being on the night of Jesus’ arrest when in the courtyard of the high priest he denied even knowing Jesus. But Peter returned to faith in Jesus and continued to obey and follow Jesus, even until he was put to death on a cross just like his Lord Jesus.
Peter Tyrrson was not acting like much of a Christian when he killed three men without even waiting to find out if all three were guilty. But then even though he was very much confused and was not understanding why God did not do something, he still asked God’s forgiveness. And then he went to work in a very specific way to serve the Lord that he had so miserably sinned against. The 800 year old Karna church stands as a testimony to the power of faith over evil.
Daniel 9:18 — Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.
Habakkuk 1:2-3 — How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
John 6:68 — Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Romans 12:19 — Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
‘A Prayer in Darkness,’ by Richard Foster:
O God of wonder and of mystery, teach me by means of your wondrous, terrible, loving, all-embracing silence. Amen.