Fan or Follower: Followers Forgive Others

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. Continue reading

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Sunday’s Sermon: Reconciliation in Christ

In the movie Grumpy Old Men, John Gustafson, played by Jack Lemmon, and Max Goldman, portrayed by Walter Matthau, are two retirees who are at odds with each one another. Their feud dates from their childhood and started when Goldman accused Gustafson of stealing his girlfriend. The spat continued into their golden years as they competed for the love of another woman.

It is a feud that is exhibited through practical jokes and name calling. There is, of course, one moment when the feud erupts into a physical confrontation, which had to be separated by Gustafson’s elderly father.

As the movie goes along, it seems that outsiders, typically their children, are wanting John and Max to settle their feud and admit they actually like one another. Max’s son is the one who is really making the push for peace between the two, but his dad wouldn’t budge. When confronted Max’s only response is that John was the one who started it.

While watching this movie the other day, I couldn’t help but think about how it is symbolic of how we seek forgiveness. We do not easily make that first move toward forgiveness. Sometimes, we need someone to help us to make that first step. Of course, sometimes we wait for the other person to make the first move. Forgiveness cannot take place until someone makes that first step.

If this is true for our relationships with our family and friends, then what about our relationship with God? Reconciliation, or forgiveness, in our relationship with God, and we’ll talk about why we need this reconciliation in a moment, occurs when someone makes the move to heal the brokenness that exists between us and God. Who is the one who makes the first move? Does God make the first step? Do we?

When we think of reconciliation, we are thinking about the reunification of a once broken relationship. Reconciliation ends the hostilities and heals brokenness. It takes the discord that existed in a relationship and replaces it with peace.

In this way, reconciliation with God is not something we initiate. We cannot. It is something God initiated. In an expression of the Lord’s love and holiness, God provided the means for reconciliation that healed the broken relationship between God and humanity. This is a central theme in the New Testament and all of Scripture. It is also a central theme in our passage, this morning, from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. God makes the first move in reaching out to a people that the Lord loves and desires to be in relationship with. God makes the first move in our lives to bringing us back into the Lord’s arm.

Why is reconciliation needed? To understand why we need to look at the entire history of humanity’s relationship with God. In the beginning, God created this world out of nothing. Everything was made perfect. Humanity was a key part of God’s creation. We were made to reflect the image of God. Even more, we were made for a relationship with the One who created us.

Scripture tells us that this relationship was broken when sin entered the world. Sin is the act of disobedience to a known will of God. It first came about through Adam and Eve disobeying God’s commands in the Garden of Eden. Sin is part of each of our lives today. Through our words, thoughts, actions, and deeds, we do things on a daily basis that disappoints God. We disobey what we know to be true about God’s love. Sin severs the relationship of love between us and God. It tarnishes what God created perfect.

It creates a void in our soul. Something is not as it should be. All of us have tried filling that void in some way. We try filling it through pouring ourselves into our work. We might try through our relationships with others. Sometimes, we will try to fill it through destructive behaviors that harm our lives, and sometimes, the lives of others. The one thing that is for sure is that in whatever way we try to fill our holes nothing will fill it. Nothing we can do will fill the hole.

The only one thing that can fill that hole is being reunited with God. Only God can fill that hole and offer reconciliation. The great thing about God is that even though we created the distance in the relationship, God never stops reaching out to us. God’s love is so great that the Lord took the initiative in healing the relationship and paying the cost of our sin. Scripture tells us that an atoning sacrifice is needed to heal the brokenness. This was done, in the Old Testament, through the High Priest who would offer a sin sacrifice on behalf of himself and the entire community. It was an act that would have to be repeated.

In Jesus Christ, reconciliation with God took its fullest form. In Christ, the Son of God, the reconciliation between God and humanity was fully secured. Jesus’ ministry is the “ministry of reconciliation,” as Paul writes. Jesus’ ministry was focused on bringing humanity back into a relationship with the Father and showing us what it means to live in response to this new relationship.

On the cross, Jesus built a bridge between God and humanity. On the cross Jesus served as the High Priest who offered the atonement sacrifice for our sins. Jesus, the one born without sin, claimed our sin and died the death we deserved. His death atoned for our sin. He died for you. He died for me. He died for every person in the world.

It is only through belief that Christ died for us that we can receive the benefits of the cross. That benefit is justification and to be known as forgiven in God’s eyes. We become a new creation. We enter a new relationship with the Lord that allows us to live in grace and hope. When we are reconciled with the Father that void that exists in our lives is no longer present, because we are reunited with the One who made us, shaped us, and has known us from the very beginning. Nothing we could do could achieve what Christ did for us. We didn’t earn salvation or reconciliation with God. It is grace and the mercy of God that led Christ to the cross. Through faith, we can receive the benefits of it by accepting what Christ has done for us.

Reconciliation, truly forgiveness, is a great thing, but it also shapes us for how we live in response. Paul says we are to live as ambassadors of reconciliation. What does Paul mean by this idea of ambassadors of reconciliation? When we think of an ambassador, we might think about a representative of a country who serves on behalf of that country’s interest. The ambassador represents a country’s views and speaks on behalf of that country.

This is what it means to be an ambassador for reconciliation. We live lives that reflect what God has done for us in Christ. This means we represent Christ in our communities. Our lives are to reflect the character, hope, and love of the Father who sent his Son so that we might be in a relationship with the Lord empowered by the Holy Spirit. We allow the grace of God to transform us into a new creation so we can inspire others, through our words and actions, to see what Christ has done for them in their life. In this way, we become messengers of the greatest thing that has ever happened to us by being sharers of the grace of God.

It is a great joy to being reconciled with God. It is the freedom of a new life in Christ and a new lease on the world. It calls us to live our lives in thanksgiving for what the Lord has done.

As we approach Easter morning this conversation on reconciliation comes with a reminder. It is a reminder we are all in need of reconciliation with the Lord. We have all done things that disappoint God. None of us are immune from separating ourselves from God. We are in need of reconciliation with God, of being restored to a relationship with the Father as it was intended from the beginning of time.

God has made the first step in offering forgiveness. The gift of Christ’s grace is available to every one. All you have to do is believe that on the cross Jesus died for you. Accept that grace today, for the first time or the hundredth time, and allow it to transform you in the depths of your soul. However, don’t just hold onto that gift as a possession. Share it with others. Share it with the person you work with. Share it with the person you know who needs grace. Share it with the person whom you’ve never related to simply by the way you live your life.

The grace of God – reconciliation – is available to us all. Will we accept what God has done for us? Will we allow that grace to shape how we live in this world?

Sunday’s Sermon: Stories of Resurrection – Response to Love

Do you love me?

It’s a question we have all asked at some point in our lives. As children, we probably asked it of our parents after we were disciplined, or we questioned if they wanted us. In turn, we’ve probably have asked our children the same question when they have done something that meets our disapproval.

We likely have asked it of our spouses. When we are first dating, we will look long into each others eyes with that relationship-defining question. It is also asked when we’ve had a bad fight or the relationship is not as strong as it was. It’s asked not to see if a relationship is going to move to the “next level,” but if it will remain intact.

Each of us can think of other situations where we have asked this question. Why do we ask it? For the most part, it is because we want to hear the words “Yes, I love you.” We each have a deep desire to be loved and to know that others love us. When we ask a question such as “Do you love me,” we do so to seek confirmation of our deepest human need of giving and receiving love.

Today, I believe this question is being asked of us. I’m not the one who is asking the question. Jesus is. As we worship today, Jesus ask us this simple, but life-defining, question.

Do you love me?

In John 21:15-23, Jesus asks the question three times to Peter. It is also a poignant question addressed to you and to me. Do you love me more than these? Do you love me with all you have? Do you love me?

The question isn’t asked in isolation. There is a reason that the question is asked. Jesus is wanting to show Peter, and the other disciples, what is truly in Peter’s heart, what it means to truly love Jesus, and how that love inspires a mission.

Jesus finds Peter and the other disciples along the lake shore. After Jesus’ death, Peter and the disciples who had been fishermen decided to go back to work. They had to provide for their families. All the disciples would have been experiencing grief at the loss of their Teacher and Friend, but Peter’s grief might have been the most prevalent.

Peter was the first among the disciples to make a public affirmation of who Jesus truly is. When Jesus asks the disciples who he is, Peter is the one who makes the announcement that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the One who would save humanity from its sin. It was on Peter’s affirmation, Jesus tells us, that the church would be built.

Peter was also the disciple who denied Christ three times during his trial. Jesus even knew that he would would. In John 13:31-38, Jesus says it is the time for him to “enter into his glory,” which meant that it was time for him to fulfill the redemptive work on the cross. Hearing this and that Jesus would only be with them for a little longer, Peter responds that he was “ready to die” for Christ. Jesus tells him that he really wasn’t and, in fact, Peter would deny him three times when Jesus needed him the most.

Now, let’s not act as if Peter did something more horrendous than the other disciples. None of the disciples were there when Jesus needed them the most. It was Peter, though, who said he would never leave Jesus, and it was his words that came back to haunt him when he denied the very existence of Christ during his trial. The first disciple to make the affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah would make the loudest denial by his words at the trial.

It is for this reason that the question, “Do you love me” is so important, and it is why Jesus comes to the lake shore early that morning. After telling the disciples how to find better fish and sharing in a meal with them, Jesus takes Peter off to the side for a personal and public moment. Jesus knows what is truly in Peter’s heart, but he wants Peter to examine his own heart and also wants the disciples to hear Peter being reinstated into the mission of the church.

Three times Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him, perhaps significant of the fact that Peter denied Jesus three times. Each time Peter replies in the affirmative. It was more pronounced on the third where Peter shows some of his frustrations at Jesus’ continued asking of the question. He says, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Peter never stopped loving the Lord. In this emotional moment, Peter is receiving healing from the Lord and making a public announcement of where his heart truly is.

Why does Peter love Jesus? Why do we love Jesus? We love because to love Jesus is the proper response to his redeeming act on the cross and his resurrection. Salvation and the fact Christ lives today demands a response. When we have met the presence of Christ and the reality of what Christ did for us, we are called to receive grace. We are also called to love Christ. To love Christ means to show Jesus the proper adoration and affection that salvation and resurrection requires. It means to make Jesus the first in our devotions and hearts.

Let us not quickly say “Yes, Lord you know I love you,” without knowing what it means to say those words. We can easily say the word “love” and say Christ is my priority without really knowing what it means. Loving Christ means to put worshiping and serving Christ as our first priority. Our love of Christ comes before our love of our family, before our responsibilities, and before our own lives and agendas. When we place others before Christ or attempt to make Christ more comfortable, we are not truly loving Christ but instead loving a reflection of our own self and desires.

Peter responded to what Jesus did for him by receiving the grace of forgiveness and responding in love. He knew that Jesus died for his sin. He accepted the grace of forgiveness and responded with love. When the question is posed to us how are we responding? When Christ is looking at you and asks you if you love him, how would you respond?

Look deep within your heart, your soul, to find the answer.

Do you love Jesus? To feel the love of Jesus is to experience the same “burning heart” of the receipt of redeeming love that John Wesley felt at Aldersgate. There, Wesley felt that Jesus truly did die for his sin, not just humanity’s sin.

Do you love Jesus? Loving Jesus is to have him at the center of your heart and the primary devotion of your life. Loving Jesus means your faith in Christ is more important than your family, more important than your home, more important than your bank accounts, more important than your careers, more important than your political party, and more important than your hopes and dreams. To love Jesus means to look beyond ourselves, look deeply into the heart of Jesus, and find ourselves there..

Do you love Jesus more than these? If you do, God bless you and hold on to that love and never let it go. I pray you continue to grow in the love of Christ each day. If not, know God’s grace is here for you today to experience the love and redeeming work of Christ in your life and your heart.

But, the story of love doesn’t end here. After each of Peter’s responses to Jesus’ questions, he is given a calling. Peter has already been called to be a fisherman of people, which means to go out and spread the name of Christ so others will become disciples. Here, he is given the additional calling of shepherding the people of God. Peter is called to care for them. This means to provide for their spiritual growth and discipleship in their relationship with Jesus. In this intimate moment, Jesus responds to Peter’s affirmation of his love by calling him to look after the children of God.

Our response to God’s grace, through the redeeming act of Christ, is love. The affirmation of our love is the catalyst for our ministry and mission. As followers of Christ, when we affirm our love in Jesus, we are given a ministry and mission in response. Jesus doesn’t call us to remain in the emotional high of a response of love. Jesus sends us out in love to share the love of Christ with others.

Each of us have a mission and purpose. This isn’t just for a select few or those with certain degrees or ordination certificates. If you have the love of Christ written on your heart, you have been redeemed for a purpose. That purpose is two-fold. First, it is to love Christ. Second, it is to have a faith that “expresses itself in love.”

This expression is going to take on different forms. For Peter, it was to be a fisherman and shepherd. My expression of love is to proclaim the Word of God, to be a prophetic voice in our world and community, to lead people and communities of faith to deep transformation, and to guide people to faith in Christ. Your expression of love is going to look different, and it is going to be as unique as the personality that God gave you.

Some of us might be called to be prophets who speak out in our world. Some of us are called to be teachers who share some aspect of knowledge with others. Some are called to do the miraculous. Some are called to be conduits of healing, whether it is by their words or the use of their hands. Some are called to be leaders. Some are called to speak passionately. Some are called to be parents who raise the next generation of followers. We could go on and on, but our point is this: Christ didn’t call you to love from the sidelines. He has called you to show your love so that you might glorify God and be a witness in ways that others come to know Christ.

What is your mission in response to your love of Christ? What has Christ tasked you with out of the gifts and talents you have received? If you’re not sure what your mission is, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal it to you. Ask the Spirit to open your heart to the desires of God and the calling God has placed in your heart. Be vulnerable and humble enough to allow the Spirit to open your eyes, your heart, and soul to the amazing mission that has been set for you.

Be willing to serve Christ in all that you do in response to what Christ has given you – salvation and grace. If you do and if we do, I promise you that the mission field around us will be reached. We will reach out in new and inventive ways that share our gifts in service of Christ that offers the love of Christ to each other.

During a General Conference morning worship, Bishop Peter Weaver of the New England Conference addressed the delegates on the idea of a “resurrection revolution.” In the sermon, he paraphrased the Charles Wesley hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Weaver said, “Love’s redeeming work is done, but God’s transforming work has just begun.”

Our mission in response to love is our participation in God’s transforming work that is ongoing in our midst. Let us join what Christ is doing by using our gifts in love so that others will come to know Christ and be transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Sunday’s Sermon: Witnesses of Reconciliation

Peace is  hard to achieve and harder to maintain.

To achieve peace, which I define as a harmonious relationship between two or more individuals or entities, requires someone to work to bring the sides together for discussions. Sometimes we believe the work of achieving peace is the hard part, but I disagree. It is relatively easy to get people to talk about the problems they have with someone else. Once peace has been achieved, the difficult work comes in maintaining this condition by refusing to return to the previous situation of hard feelings and frustrations. This hard work produces some amazing fruit. When peace is introduced to a relationship that was once defined by hostility, we catch a glimpse of the condition we will all experience when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness.

In our lifetimes, we have a number of examples of the difficulties of achieving and maintaining peace. For me, the best example of working for and maintaing peace came in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In November of 1989, two groups separated by a wall, West Berlin and East Berlin, were reunited. This led to the end of East Germany and contributed to end of the Soviet Empire. Where there was once fear and anxiety, the people of Germany were united by a common desire for peace.

We don’t have to think about peace on the global scale to really see it played out. All of us can think of times when we have had to work for peace in our homes and in our relationships. Peace comes about when two people put aside their resentment and are reunited in a relationship. More than likely, we have experienced this in our own lives. The extension of peace comes when we have been reconciled with a family member, such as our spouse, after a fight, or when we have reestablished a relationship with a friend who hurt us. When we forgive someone of a wrong committed, it leads to the potential and possibility for peace to exist.

This idea of peace is our way of understanding reconciliation. Today, we conclude our Lenten sermon series entitled the “Journey to Forgiveness.” The title of the series is a little misleading, because it can lead one to believe that forgiveness is the end of the road. It is not. Forgiveness does not necessarily lead to two once-hostile groups returning to a renewed relationship. Sometimes, we forgive someone and have no desire to renew a relationship with that person. To seek reconciliation is something that is difficult, but holy. It is to do the hard and difficult work of bringing two or more people or groups back into a relationship built on mutual love and trust.

Reconciliation is important to understand and do. I believe reconciliation is an expression of God’s love for humanity. Each step of our series has worked towards this moment of seeking reconciliation. At the start, we said sin was an act of disobedience against God’s will. We walked through what sin looks like, and how there might be a sin we are struggling with during this season of Lent. When we are confronted with sin, we said we are to admit what that sin is and also repent from it. Remember, we said repenting was different than confessing. Repentance is a complete reversal and desire to move away from our sin. Finally, last week we said forgiveness was the grace that washes away the guilt of our sin, by Jesus’ act on the cross.

Throughout this entire journey, God has been right in the middle of it. God is actively involved in the work of forgiveness and reconciliation. Every moment and step was initiated by God’s Spirit with the purpose of bringing humanity back into a relationship with God. From the moment sin entered the world, God set a course to seek humanity’s salvation. It is a process that has its climax with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Reconciliation is the message Paul proclaims in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. In this passage, Paul is working through a contentious situation with the church in Corinth. The people began to doubt Paul’s authority, because he had not visited them as promised. Paul and the Corinthians are working towards the goal of reconciliation. Notice what Paul says. It is not a human act that brings reconciliation. It is an act of God out of God’s great love for all people. Reconciliation is a gift that expresses the depths and lengths of God’s love.

How did God secure reconciliation? It came on the cross. Jesus voluntarily gave his life up for us and our sin. In this, Jesus served as the High Priest who took it upon himself to be the officiant and the sacrificial lamb that secured humanity’s atonement. On the cross, Jesus took on the Levitical sacrificial ritual in a one-time sacrifice for all of humanity.

Something else happened on the cross. Paul makes notice of this when he says Jesus was “reconciling the world to himself.” Why was this needed? Sin creates a distance between us and God. It has been this way since the first sin of Adam’s disobedience. Just like someone sometimes needs to help bring us back into relationship with someone who has hurt us, Jesus does the same in our relationship with God. He became the mediator. Jesus reconciled God’s holy love and humanity in order to restore the bonds of a relationship that we broke.

By faith in Jesus Christ, we are reconciled in our relationship with God. When we receive this free gift, we are able to experience the peace and transformation that comes in knowing that God will no longer count our sins against us. Christ’s death and resurrection is the key that opens the door to this relationship. That is the promise of the journey that we have been on throughout Lent. When we sin, Christ’s act of mediation brings out God’s grace to all who would believe. That is a promise that we can hold onto today, tomorrow, and for all time.

Reconciliation is not something we hold onto as our special possession. Paul says we are to be Christ’s ambassadors, which means we are to be ambassadors of reconciliation. What does Paul mean by this and what does it mean for us today? I think it is clear what Paul is saying. The free gift of God’s grace and reconciliation is something we are called to receive ourselves and proclaim to others. All Christians are called to be ambassadors of God’s peace and to be peacemakers.

Being peacemakers is at the heart of what it means to be a reconciler. As children of God, we are called to be like Christ in seeking and proclaiming reconciliation. This is not an easy calling, which is why Jesus says in Matthew 5:9 that those who work for peace, those who seek and proclaim reconciliation, will be blessed and called children of God. It is hard to work to be peacemakers, reconcilers, but it is a rewarding and deep calling that we are all called to participate in as a fruit of our own reconciliation with God.

The first place we can be a witness of reconciliation is at home. This is the place can be the most meaningful and difficult to practice God’s love for all and desire for all to be reconciled. We do so by seeking to be reconciled with those whom we have harmed. We take it upon ourselves to make the first step in restoring relationships that have been broken by our hurtful action. As well, we also help others, among our families and friends, experience reconciliation by being mediators between two people who are upset at one another. Of course, this isn’t easy. It is possible we are going to be in the middle of some nasty dialogue. Our role as reconcilers with our family and friends is like being the negotiator of a peace treaty. Negotiators sit and compassionately listen to the wrongs and help both sides see their need of each other and the greater value of love and forgiveness.

We can also be reconcilers in our world. It is hard for us to live as reconciled people if we are unwilling to be people who are proclaiming reconciliation in our communities and world. Here, I am thinking of two specific ways. First, we can be reconcilers who proclaim justice. In his historic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These words were true when he wrote them, and they are true today. As witnesses of reconciliation, we are called to stand for justice and be advocates of peace. We do so by uniting our prayers, our voice, and our heart with those who are hurting and who have been harmed by injustice. The call for justice should be the mantra of the church, because God is deeply passionate and concerned about justice.

We are also witnesses of reconciliation by being unifiers in our communities and world. The church has a strong message of God’s reconciliation and what it means to live as people reconciled with one another in response to God’s love. As Christians, we are called to be mediators who help mend the brokenness in our communities and seek to bring groups who see nothing but hate to experience love and respect for one another. We can be people who help bring down the walls that prejudice, racism, injustice, poverty, ignorance, stereotypes, and bigotry have for centuries built. As witnesses of reconciliation, we can be people who proclaim the unifying love of God’s grace.

This can begin for us today. It is disheartening to hear the reports coming from Sanford, Fla., of 17-year-old Tayvon Martin who was allegedly killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman who believed Martin was a threat. Martin was unarmed and was killed because of one man’s stereotypical response in believing a black man wearing a hoodie was a threat. We must not be silent. We must take off our fear of being persecuted for our love Christ and love of God’s desire for justice and take on Christ’s call to be unified with the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed. As a response to God’s holy love, we should seek to stand with all who are oppressed simply because of the color of their skin.

The world needs to hear from the church and it needs to hear that God’s loves all people. Friends, we live in troubled times and times that desperately need God’s love. It will only hear that message if we are willing to join with the Holy Spirit in being witnesses of reconciliation. We cannot ignore God’s call to be ambassadors of reconciliation when a world needs to hear this message so desperately. This message goes beyond racial, cultural and socio-economic lines. It is a message that God has done the work of reconciling all of humanity, because of God’s love for them. We must share and live into this message.