Mar 31, 2019 Sermon
“The Perils of Reconciliation”
Old Testament Scripture: Joshua 5:9-12
The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
From now on, therefore,
we regard no one from a human point of view;
even though we once knew Christ
from a human point of view,
we know him no longer in that way.
So if anyone is in Christ,
there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!
All this is from God,
who reconciled us to himself through Christ,
and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;
that is, in Christ
God was reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them,
and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
So we are ambassadors for Christ,
since God is making his appeal through us;
we entreat you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become
the righteousness of God.
Sermon: "The Perils of Reconciliation"
Over the last several weeks, we've been exploring some of the themes of Lent. Reflection. Repentance. Reliance on God.
Next week, we'll begin to talk about our understanding of Jesus Christ. Over the next few weeks, we'll talk about his life, his ministry, his death, and on Easter, we'll talk about his resurrection.
But the main thing I want to say about the things we’ve done is that you all don't just talk the talk. You also walk the walk, and I am so appreciative of everything you do. Thank you for your big hearts and your generous spirits.
Now, I've been looking forward to preaching on today's scripture text for several weeks. This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. For me, it contains everything that I hope, everything that I need to be true about God. For me, it's the heart of the Gospel message.
Which makes it even more surprising how hard it was to write a sermon about it for this morning.
I just couldn't get started. I wrestled with it. I got stuck trying figure out what I wanted to say about this piece of incredibly good news. And I realized that maybe I don't know this passage as well as I think I do.
Because as I looked closer at it, I realized that it's not really clear what Paul is talking about. In fact, it's not really clear who we're talking about. Is Paul talking about God? Or, is he talking about Jesus? Is he talking about our relationship with God? Or is he talking about our relationships with one another?
And what on earth does the word "reconciliation" really mean?
Right now, of course the need for this word is all over the news. The bitter partisan divide in congress has provoked constant threats of using what is appropriately called the nuclear option when discussing even the most mundane bits of legislature. We are deeply divided, and it seems like reconciliation is a fool’s hope.
Reconciliation is seen as weakness, or even worse, a trick of some kind to gain an advantage. Only in Washington could reconciliation be turned into a four-letter word, if you catch my drift.
And I’m not sure what we actually think reconciliation really means. For accountants, to reconcile means to find ways to make the bottom lines match up. When we reconcile our checking accounts, we attempt to make sure that our expenses match our income.
I wonder if we think that spiritual reconciliation works the same way. That we think that we can, in some small way, through our goodness, our prayer, our worship, our actions, 'reconcile' our bank accounts with God. That the ledger lines of our relationship with God can be made to balance somehow, if we live our life correctly. That the expenses of our sins are somehow paid by the goodness of our actions.
Is this what Paul was thinking, when he writes to the Church in Corinth? Is he talking about an effort to pay God back for everything he's given us?
In an earlier time, in some places, it was not unusual for well-meaning people to urge the wives of abusive or philandering husbands to 'be reconciled' to their abusers, forgiving them, and in their forgiveness, find some sort of nobility in their sacrifice.
Is this what Paul was thinking, when he writes to the Church in Corinth about reconciliation? Is he talking about salvation through enforced submission?
I'm not sure we really know what the word reconciliation actually means. Is it a legal term? Is it an accounting term? Is it a religious term? We have a hard time wrapping our minds around the word itself.
And maybe that's because 'reconciliation' isn't a warm, fuzzy word. It's not like 'love' or 'hope' or 'forgiveness'. It's kind of clinical. Theological. Reconciliation is a cold word, somehow.
It's a word that assumes that there is something that needs to be fixed. It implies that one of the parties of a relationship have committed real offenses against the other. Offenses which require mending of the relationship.
And when the other is God, that sort of means that the ones committing those offenses is us. We are the ones in the wrong. And that isn't a happy thought for us. Reconciliation is a word which starts with a negative view about our relationship with God.
We have a hard time with the concept of reconciliation. And I wonder if that's because we see so few examples of it in our everyday life.
We don't live in a world where reconciliation is respected.
We live in a world where strength and demonstrations of power are the tools which get things done. Reconciliation has become synonymous with appeasement, and the words are often confused and used interchangeably.
We live in a world where weakness and signs of weakness are despised and taken advantage of. Reconciliation has become synonymous with compromise, and compromise has been abandoned in favor of taking hard positions on either end of any debate. Looking for compromise in this age is often not rewarded.
But, if we're unable to respect reconciliation, we can become oblivious to the damage we cause with our own assertion of what is right. We can become careless with our strength.
If we're unable to consider the idea of reconciliation, we run the risk of becoming a nation of swaggerers, drunk with our own power.
If we're unable to trust the results of reconciliation, we might become terrified at any sign that our immense wealth, might, or national security is in any way threatened by forces we don't understand.
It's no wonder this passage is a complicated bit of scripture.
it's hard to imagine the risk that it takes to be the one who reconciles.
But reconciliation is not impossible. There have been highly visible attempts at reconciliation.
In 1990, South Africa released Nelson Mandela from jail, after 27 years of political captivity. Four years later, the white National Party was put out of office, and the African National Congress was elected into power for the first time.
As a political prisoner for more than a quarter of a century, Nelson Mandela had every reason to be bitter. As the head of the black African National Congress, he had every reason to fear the return to power of the white National Party. As a human being, he had every reason to take whatever steps he thought necessary to rid the country of those who had promoted the racial segregation of Apartheid, which included the white Dutch Reformed Church.
But, he didn't.
Against the wishes of his own party, his own people, against the desires of the overwhelming majority of the country, against the expectations of the opposition, he designed a process by which members of the National Party who had committed politically motivated crimes of terror and intimidation were given the chance to publicly confess their participation in the systematic oppression of Black Africans and receive amnesty for their acts.
There was a recognition on the part of Mandela that the only way to bring the two races together after hundreds of years of separation was through truth and reconciliation. He deliberately mitigated the power of his position and did not take the steps most people expected him to take to punish the people guilty of the crimes committed under the state-supported regime of Apartheid.
From a position of strength and power, he made himself weak. He made himself weak in the eyes of his friends, and in the eyes of his enemies. He extended mercy and acceptance to the hated leaders and political thugs of the former government.
We find it difficult to understand or respect that kind of leadership. But the result of Reconciliation was the peaceful transfer of power from one group to another that was unlike any other revolution preceding it. With a minimum of bloodshed, an entire political structure was flipped upside down, and systemic forms of abuse and oppression were brought to an end.
Another example of reconciliation: In 1998, on Good Friday, the British Government and the political leaders of Northern Ireland began a process of ending the violence of what has been euphemistically called the 'Troubles'. The British Government, from a position of power, pulled their occupation troops from Northern Ireland. They gave wide legislative powers to Irish Political parties. The paramilitary organizations agreed to lay down their weapons.
Both sides made themselves weaker and began a process which has been largely successful in ending the ethnic, political and religious wars that have plagued that area for more than five hundred years.
And like any true process of reconciliation, it began with an initial step forward on the part of the stronger party.
It is this kind of reconciliation that Paul is talking about today. Not a legislative end run. Not an accounting technique. Not an enforced or presumed form of religious submission.
Paul is asking the Corinthians to see that in Jesus Christ, God has taken the first step. And not just the first step. God has gone all the way, he's become ultimately weak, in order that we might become ultimately strong. In Christ, God has become sin, in order that we might be sinless.
And, he's left the choice to us. Do we accept his offer of reconciliation, or not? Are we able to see ourselves forgiven of our Sin, or do we hang on to it? What do we do with the amazing trust God has placed in our hands?
It's no wonder we have a hard time wrapping our minds around this concept. It's foreign to our nature.
Reconciliation is a deeply vulnerable act. It is the act of the strong, making themselves weak, so that the weak are put into a position of strength.
Reconciliation is a deeply risky act. It hopes and believes that when the weak become strong, they will not use their strength for harm.
And this is what God has done for us.
But we don't want him to have to do it. We want there to be a different way.
We want our all-powerful God to take away our sins, but we want him to do it in a way that doesn't involve addressing the pain, the separation, the death that is the essence of sin. We want our sovereign God to reach into our hearts, and rip the sin out of us, but without hurting anyone. We expect our omnipotent God to just make it go away.
But God has more respect for us than that.
There is no doubt in my mind that God could certainly do those things. He could certainly make us not sin anymore. He could certainly force us to toe the line, to follow the rules. He could certainly control our hearts and our minds and pull the strings of our lives in such a way that we never, ever, do anything wrong again. God is capable of that, I'm sure of it. I’m personally glad he doesn’t, that he doesn’t turn me into a robot marionette, but I’m sure he could.
But this isn't a question about what God is capable of doing. It's a discussion about what he actually did. And, instead of using force to get his way with us, what he did was offer himself in weakness so that we might be able to be in relationship with him again despite our sin.
It's a mysterious thing, this weakness of God. It's a mysterious idea, that a humble God would extend a way for us to rejoin him in relationship. It's a mysterious God that calls us to himself, quietly, confident in our choices.
But the weakness of God is not the only thing that Paul is talking about.
Because he's also talking about what we do with this weakness.
He's asking us to be ambassadors of this weakness.
He's asking the members of the Church in Corinth to look at their dealings with one another, and to think about whether their actions model the grace shown in the weakness of God in Jesus Christ.
And the Corinthians find that to be a difficult act to follow.
Because in order to live in this Christ-given space of reconciliation, there are three things that they would have to change about the way they think about the world.
The first thing they would have to do is see people as worthwhile, as beloved by Christ, even when they find themselves at odds with them.
And boy, is that hard. I know that for me, the first step to winning an argument is to label someone. Labels are convenient ways of pigeon-holing someone who disagrees with me. It's much easier to really go for the jugular vein when I can first label my opponent a conservative, or a liberal, or a heathen, or a religious nut, or a pagan, or a fanatic, or an illegal, or any one of the really horrible names we attach to people from different countries, races, or ethnicities.
Because when they are one of those, then we don't have to take them, or their feelings, or their concerns, seriously. We don't have to see them in the same light as we see ourselves, because they are not us. They are them, and therefore are not deserving of the same grace, or care, or rights that we accord those we recognize as being on our side.
But Paul tells the Corinthians that they can't look at people in this ugly way anymore. He tells the Corinthians to look at all people in ways that reflect the full meaning of Christ's death and resurrection. Because Christ didn't die for just his friends. He also died for his enemies.
Paul is calling all of us to look at our enemies through Christ's eyes. He's asking us to look at our enemies the same way that Christ looks at us.
The second part of living a life of reconciliation means taking the first step from a position of power. Let me be clear, here. Reconciliation is NOT an act of submission on the part of someone who is already in a position of weakness. Reconciliation is not about groveling, it's not about demands. Reconciliation is a move that can only be made from the high ground, a move initiated by the strong.
And it's from an ultimate position of strength that God comes to us. And He does this before we even know that we need him to come. There is no expectation on God's part that we need to do something to earn the grace that he so freely gives us. There are no shrill demands for submission. This is the Gospel Message in its simplest, purest terms. In Jesus Christ, God lays down his power and might, and invites us to join him, once again, for ever and ever.
Paul expects the Corinthians to adopt this posture as well. He encourages them to take the first steps, to humble themselves, to bring themselves down a notch or two, or ten. He asks them to abandon their position of strength, and give themselves in love, not just to God, not just to each other in their little church, but to the whole world. Reconciliation begins with the stronger person in the relationship, and it involves giving up power, not hanging on to it.
And finally, the third part of living a life of reconciliation is trust. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to remember the trust that Jesus had in his God, that, ultimately, his life, and his death was in God's hands. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they live and die in Christ. Our trust is not in hedging our bets. Our trust is in living as though the same God who claimed Jesus from the dead also claims us in our life.
In reconciliation, God meets us again, where we are, and provides a way for us to take steps toward him. As ambassadors of Christ, we are invited to provide a way for those we are fighting with to take steps towards us. When we do this, we see for a moment the new creation that Paul is talking about.
Now, I wish for this next part of the sermon I could use names and exact circumstance to make my point clear. But I want to let those involved remain private. But the reality is, I have seen some absolutely amazing acts of reconciliation in this congregation. Forgiveness of old hurts, letting go of old grudges, trusting in the love of each other.
And I wonder if maybe the church is one of the last places where we might see reconciliation on a regular basis. That the church is one of the few places that reconciliation is not a swear word, or a mark of weakness.
If that’s the truth, the world needs the church more than ever. The world needs powerful men and women who are willing to weaken themselves in order for the weak to become strong. The world needs to see that hurt feelings and old offenses can be overcome, when we are willing to trust each other. The world needs to know that reconciliation is not only possible, it is a way of life.
That’s the work the Apostle Paul is calling us to today.
But it’s not going to be easy.