AS A preacher, I share the gospel, which includes key ingredients of any meaningful life: the explanation of sin, the importance of acknowledging sin and the constant presence of God's forgiveness to cleanse that sin.

Like any pastor, I would love to see our churches packed to the rafters with people eager to hear that message, but many are more concerned with other things; football in particular. People often pay more attention to professional sports than they do to the things of God. But those who skip church to watch the game these days can get an unexpected and valuable lesson on the virtue of forgiveness.

The past week has been an interesting one for both lovers of sports and lovers of animals, with the furor surrounding the acquisition of Michael Vick by the Philadelphia Eagles. I know this issue is one with very strong feelings on both sides, but I would like to express my point of view as one who is an advocate of justice, a hater of abuse and a member of the human family.

As one who is an advocate of justice, it is clear that Mr. Vick has paid for his crime, and has lost much of his personal wealth in the aftermath. He has spent time in jail and his reputation has been permanently tarnished as a result of his actions.

What Mr. Vick did was horrible, insensitive and totally inexcusable. There is nothing in me that would seek to justify what he did.

The challenge in this case is to find where - or if - justice, crime and compassion intersect.

Or: if a person admits to his or her crime and pays for it under our judicial system, when does the punishment end?

In taking on Vick, I believe that the Eagles are being as bold as the Brooklyn Dodgers were over 60 years ago when they took on Jackie Robinson in the midst of much opposition.

No, Mr. Vick is not breaking the color line, but perhaps our inability to forgive people who have made terrible mistakes, particularly ex-convicts, is a new "barrier" we must overcome.

In the past week, it has been very easy to be publicly appalled at the Eagles. But remember, however much you deplore Vick's crime, that saying that an ex-convict who has made terrible mistakes should never be given a chance to resume his life after serving his time is akin to saying that every sentence should be a life sentence.

The Eagles organization is standing up for a fundamental principle of human nature - forgiveness - and for that they should be commended.

The masses of fans watching an Eagles game are not just cheering on a group of men chasing a pigskin around the field, although they may not realize it. They are witnessing a glimpse of the Gospel, in which we are taught to embrace the prodigal son who has gone astray, repented for his mistakes and returned as a new man.

I'm not encouraging anyone to stay home from church, but if you decide to, watch an Eagles game. You just might get a sermon anyway.

Gregory Johnson is pastor of Greater St. Matthew Independent Church on Race Street near 56th in West Philadelphia.

Each Saturday the Daily News offers men and women of faith the opportunity to share their words of life and comfort with our readers. If you are a minister, a priest, a rabbi, or the head of another religious organization and would like to submit a faith-based column, contact Lorenzo Biggs at 215-854-5816, or by e-mail at biggsl@phillynews.com.