One of the most fascinating subgroups in American culture might be the Amish communities that can be found in parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. The Amish are a group of Christians that come out of the Mennonite and Anabaptist traditions. Led by Jakob Ammann, the Amish formed in the late 17th Century with the belief that their fellow Mennonites and Annbaptists had fallen short of the teachings of Menno Simmons, who founded the Mennonite tradition.
The Amish eventually immigrated to America in the 18th Century and settled in Pennsylvania. They soon moved to other parts of the young nation and established communities that have a unique ethos and practices. Some we are familiar with. For instance, we might know that the Amish are known for their literal interpretation of Scripture, their resistance to technology, their agricultural lifestyle, or even that each community establishes their own practices.
There is one other aspect of Amish communities that, I believe, is characteristic of their tradition. That is that the Amish, as a people, are known for the grace they extend to others, whether they are people within their communities or not. The Amish are forgiving people.
No place do we see this to be true that in the aftermath of the Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania school shooting that took place in October, 2006. It was a shooting that made national headlines. It occurred when Charles Roberston, who was not Amish, broke into a one-room Amish schoolhouse located in the local Amish community and kidnapped several of the students. He would eventually shoot 10 students, all girls, which led to the death of five students. Robertson would also kill himself.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the entire world experienced the willingness of the Amish to forgive and seek reconciliation play out on television. Almost instantly many in the Nickel Mine Amish community offered words of grace and forgiveness towards the perpetrator and his family. The book, Amish Grace, helps to explain the ways this happened. Members of the Amish community visited Robertson’s widow and even attended his funeral. To many it seemed like the Amish were quick to forgive, especially towards someone who had committed such a horrible act. The Amish of Nickel Mine didn’t see it that way. Instead, they saw their willingness to forgive and seek reconciliation as a normal and proper response to their love of Christ.
Seeking forgiveness and reconciliation are not easy. While it may seem that the Amish were quick to forgive, the Amish of Nickel Mine admit that some elements of forgiveness are difficult. The authors of Amish Grace write that many of the Amish of Nickel Mine admitted they struggle with forgiveness. This is especially true when they need to forgive a member of their own community.
We can relate to this. It is hard to forgive someone close to us, whether it is someone in our families, a close friend, or even someone in our communities of faith. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the biggest and most notable reason is that it is easier to express our anger and frustration with someone than it is to seek avenues of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
This might be why Jesus speaks, as he does, about anger and the need for reconciliation in Matthew 5:21-26. We continue, today, with our look at the difficult and challenging aspects of the life that Jesus calls his followers to take on. Jesus is beginning a discourse in Matthew 5 where he expresses the deeper meaning of the Law. Chapter 5 includes six short teaching statements, or antithesis, that begin with phrases similar to “You have heard it said.” Many of these teachings are built on the words found in the Ten Commandments with Jesus expressing the deeper way of being his follower through them.
In this passage, Jesus builds upon the words found in Exodus 20:13 and the commandment not to kill others. At the surface level, this law appears to be a cut-and-dry. Followers of Christ are called not to kill or murder others. We are called to value the image of God that is found within each person and to honor the value of life.
However, Jesus wants us to look much deeper than the surface meaning of this law. He says that it is not just the act that breaks God’s desire for us to live holy lives. It is also the emotion behind our actions that create separation between us and God and each other. The anger and frustration we express towards others, Jesus says, will lead to a distance in our relationships with each other in our communities and, ultimately, God.
The reason this is so is that when we are filled with anger or frustration towards someone it prevents true community from taking place. It prevents us from loving each other and hearing the viewpoint or needs of another. When anger and frustration fills our communities, it replaces unity with discord and allows distrust to be what defines our relationships with others.
Anger and frustration within a community has the ability to do so much harm and can take us away from our purpose to share the love of God with others. This is why Jesus speaks about anger here. He knows how much harm it can do and how it prevents us from being “one in Christ and one in ministry to all the wold until Christ comes in final victory.” When we expereience anger or frustration towards someone in our community it impacts us all, because it hinders true growth, connection, mission, and ministry from taking place. When one hurts, truly, we all hurt.
However, let us be honest and transparent for a moment. Anger and frustration will occur in our communities. It is unavoidable. We are human and we will all do things that might frustrate or hurt someone. No place that is defined by deep connection or community, such as a church or family, will be immune from feeling moments of anger or frustration. This is not because we desire conflict or intentionally seek it out, but because we are all people in need of God’s grace who sometimes do things that make us frustrated.
Jesus recognizes this, and that is why he says that when we experience these moments of anger and frustration we must find ways to offer forgiveness and seek reconciliation. We’re called not to let our anger fester. We’re not called to let it smolder and create attitudes of resentment towards each other. Instead, Jesus calls us to people and a community who offers grace and forgiveness to each other. We are called to seek opportunities for peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness to be expressed. Truly, it is up to us to heal the wounds, offer grace, and to be reunited to one another, in Christian love, when we feel anger or frustration towards someone.
Reconciliation is ultimately about renewed relationships and peace. To let go of the pains that divide us, and to find opportunities for us to reconnect as brothers and sisters in Christ’s love. Reconciliation and the offer of forgiveness is about renewed friendships and the offer of peace, so that all of us may be the people who Christ calls us to be. Where there was once brokenness, we are called to offer healing, hope, grace, and love.
We do this in response to the fact that we have been reconciled with God through faith in Christ. Our sin and acts of disobedience created a distance between ourselves and God. We broke what was once perfect in our relationship with the Lord. Yet, Jesus took it upon himself to offer the means of grace and forgiveness that allows for renewed relationships with the Lord. Jesus reconciled us with God through the cross. Truly, the cross is the means of reconciliation that heals the wounds of our broken relationship with the Lord. Jesus did this freely out of his love and offers reconciliation unconditionally to all.
As people who have been reconciled with God through our acceptance of grace, we are called to be reconciled with each other by offering unconditional grace and forgiveness to those whom we may express anger and frustration towards. We are called to find opportunities to mend fences, to reconnect, and to offer grace, so that Christian love and community may be what defines our relationships. When we are angry or frustrated with someone, it is up to us to find ways to rebuild our relationship with that person, so that true community may be experienced once again.
Jesus places a deep importance on this work of reconciliation. He says it is so important that it should occur before a community gathers for worship. Taking the time to be reconciled with someone we may be angry with takes precedence over entering this time of worship with that anger still on our heart. Why? Jesus says this is because when that anger comes into our time of worship, we cannot truly connect ourselves with God’s love and the people we are in community with. Our heart and soul becomes distracted by the feelings and emotion on our heart.
Reconciliation is crucially important to our communities of faith. As followers of Christ, we are called to be like the Amish in Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania and find ways to seek reconciliation and forgiveness with others, especially when it is difficult or challenging. The rewards of doing so, of renewed relationships and community, are too important and life changing to let these words of Jesus go unheard or unpracticed. We must be people who seek to be reconciled with others as Christ has reconciled us.
Each of us can think of a person we may have some feeling of anger or frustrations towards. It may be someone in our familiy. It may be someone we work with. It may even be someone we worship with today. No matter who that person is, what would it look like if we took the first step of offering forgiveness and grace towards that person? What if we took the step of bringing forth reconciliation into these relationships so that true community may be experienced?
Whoever that person or persons may be, I pray we will be known as people who seek reconciliation towards others. I pray we will be a people who forgive others, in the same way Christ has forgiven us. I pray we are willing to do the costly in offering unconditional grace, so that true community will be experienced not just by us, but by all people.