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Jesus Answers the Headline News: Reconciliation

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. - John 3:16

The following was published last September referencing 22 years since 911:


People at baseball games sang “God Bless America” with reverence. The national anthem meant something… Our family members had been slaughtered and now it was time to band together and kick some…


How long did it last? A couple years, maybe, until we decided that our enemies were the same people we wrapped our arms around. We started eating ourselves from the inside out. And today, two days before the 22nd anniversary of that horrible day, we are as divided as a nation as we were in the days preceding the firing on Fort Sumter. Oh, there are no standing armies from a coalition of states battling another, but the battle lines are most certainly drawn.


Twenty-two years after the most galvanizing act since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which ushered the USA into World War II, we are a broken country. Not only are there no viable solutions, but there is no appetite to find any solutions. There is too much anger and hatred for our brothers and sisters. No family could survive what we are doing to ourselves.*


It is a rather cynical assessment but clearly there is some truth to it.  


Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, trust in government is at historically low levels, with faith in businesses, nonprofits and the media having declined significantly “Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America”.** 


Fully 71% think interpersonal confidence has worsened in the past 20 years. And about half (49%) think a major weight dragging down such trust is that Americans are not as reliable as they used to be. (Pew Research, 2019)


Two thirds of Americans are part of an “exhausted majority” who are tired of the “us vs them mindset and eager to find common ground.” Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’ Polarized Landscape”.*** 


To answer these problems of division Jesus gave His life. It is why He died. Jesus’ answer to these headlines is not only an answer for our country but an answer for everyone. Our problem of division, though worsened in past years, is the fundamental problem of humanity – estrangement from each other, from ourselves, and most of all from God. Jesus’ answer is reconciliation.


As John tells us God “so loved the world” that the Son came down from heaven to heal the rift between God and humanity. As Ephesians tell us, “God is reconciling all things together through Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10) That is the good news that, as Christians, should make us ever hopeful and confident that this enmity will not last.


Jesus is our savior but that is only His secondary purpose. He is not saving us to go back to the same life. He saves us that we might once again be in perfect harmony with God…forever. It is the gift of the Lord’s Prayer when He invites us to pray, “Our father.” This is an incredible gift. Jesus is The Son of the Father, but He adopts us to be a part of this holy and sacred unity.  


And as His disciples He tasks us with the joy of working this reconciliation with the world; to heal the rift. It begins with each of us working on our own personal relationships. Jesus commands, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23)


Next, it not only means admitting our own wrongs but being willing to let go of our grievances against others. Remember, on this Palm Sunday Jesus received accolades of joy but only a few days later the crowd will be shouting “crucify Him.” He forgave them and we are told, “Forgive one another as the Lord has forgiven you.”


The next step in reconciliation is to move to peace in society. As the church we have a special commission to work for the reconciliation of society. Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church was prompted by deep divisions within surrounding gender roles, leadership, disrespect for the poor, abuses of the Lord’s Supper and more. And to this Paul writes about Jesus’ work:


All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)


We are ambassadors to the world because Jesus knew that He would be judged by the world by the behavior of His followers. After all, if the church is a “hot mess” why would anyone want to be a part of it? So He tells us, “The world will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another.” He does not say by the sound doctrine you propound.


The church all too often has been confused. We have thought our primary job is to hone our doctrine, disseminate belief, and train our children. All of these are our tasks, but it is not why Jesus founded this group.


We are to be a community, a family, bound by God’s love, responding with joyous praise, empowered to witness to this love in the world; to be the body of Christ in the world. And today in order to examine more deeply our role God would have us to play in the world I want to go over some recent church history and use the church as an object lesson.


I served as an Executive Presbyter in Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia during a time when our denomination was in the throes of working through ordination issues surrounding LGBTQ siblings in Christ. It was a terribly disheartening time in some ways and very hopeful in others. I remember Sessions, on advice of their lawyers, physically encircling their pastor so that I couldn't talk to them, and ironically, women thrusting their Bibles at me shouting that it's God's Word that tells us man is the head of his wife. 


And then I dealt with the same issues as pastor in Spartanburg, South Carolina.


I remember an evening spending 4 1/2 hours with a dozen congregants examining me, grilling me, scolding me, weeping over my views of scripture. And I must say I relished those Biblical debates. Because inevitably they would cite a handful of passages from what we might consider obscure portions of scripture and say the Bible says it and so it's true! Remember this was Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia (states and people I truly came to love) so I asked them (I probably should not have done this) what they thought about Leviticus 11:7, that tells us it is a sin to touch the skin of a dead pig, and that is exactly what our football players were doing every week, not to mention the scrumptious barbecue we ate at those same games. 


Unsurprisingly, that argument did not sway anyone. More seriously though I asked them what they believed scripture called them to do when they were in deep disagreement with their brothers and sisters in Christ. That if they believe the PC(USA) had strayed so far from God's Word, what guidance did God's Word give them? And it was clear that this question had never occurred to them. 


And then I shared the story of my grandfather. Back in the early 1900s he was a conservative Christian who believe that the PC(USA) had erred and strayed from the Bible and as a result he helped form a new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he served as president of their seminary in Philadelphia and was a leader for 20 years in that movement. But he became disillusioned, he saw this newfound denomination that sought to be a more pure form of Christ’s Church split two more times. And then he opened the Bible to try and answer the exact question that I had asked the fellow members of my church – what does the Bible teach us to do when we disagree with each other? And it actually has a lot to say. 

It teaches us in those moments to mutually forebear one another, to not be too quick to judge each other, to speak the truth only in love, and that God is the one in the end who will judge and separate the wheat from the tare. That is not our task. The early churches to which Paul wrote were filled with conflictual people and he didn't teach them to separate from each other, he taught them to hang in together because God had put them there with one another for a reason. They had something to teach each other and that they needed to demonstrate to the world how it is you can work through deep and profound differences and still demonstrate respect and love for each other.


Eventually many of those members and congregations left the PC(USA). And in some ways, it helped. It certainly reduced the conflict and it enabled members of our LGBTQ community to serve openly and without the constant barrage of judgment, scorn, and sometimes even worse things.


And yet it saddened me greatly.


It was heartbreaking for several reasons. One, I valued their presence. Though I vehemently disagreed with their reading of scriptures, I knew most of them to be people of good will that genuinely wanted to seek and do God's will. And I know that they had things to teach me about the faith even as I believe I had things to teach them.


And I believed that if most of them had stayed in our community and our denomination that over time God would change their hearts. I believed it because a few decades before a similar conflict arose surrounding the question of women's ordination. And I saw how my pioneer mother, 50 years ago, claimed her pastoral authority as a servant of God, not through passionate debate around theology, but through devoted, faithful service to all people whether they be counted as friends or those on the other side of the ecclesiastical and political aisle.  


And it is her example, and my grandfather’s example, that have shown me the reconciling power of Christ’s love, and that if we try our very best even as we fail, indeed, the world will know Christ, by our love. And love is unconditional, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”


It is the love Jesus will show us as we journey through His betrayal, His sacrifice and His enduring triumph over the grave. Amen.


 

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