Tuesday, November 15, 2011

God's Power: Hands Together

Preached on Sunday November 13
Scripture readings: Psalm 18:16-19, 43-50; Matthew 18:21-35; Romans 15:1-13

Sometimes I can still remember what it was like to be young and in love, and to walk down the street holding hands with the girl I loved. It felt really good; such a seemingly little thing as holding hands. It felt very good!

The goal of the universe is the goal of a feel-good moment like that. But it will not last only for a moment. It will last forever. The whole creation, all heaven and earth will hold hands. That will be the day when the whole creation enjoys the reality it was created for. The universe has grown old in the absence of the joy it was created for. It will become a new heaven and earth.

This is the point of Jesus’ coming: to bring all cultures, all nations, all individuals together as the people of God. The point is so important and exciting for Paul that he awards it four quotations from the scriptures. It is his way of saying that this future of holding hands in the presence of God is the message of the scriptures, and the great quest of God himself.

My hand-holding days did not turn out to be very productive. The hand-holding days that Paul hopes for are sure to come, and he knows it; but there is a problem in the present. He looks forward to the hand-holding of the estranged, of the alienated, of the enemies, of the opposites. And God has created the church to be the foundation of this; the first evidence of this.

You can see that this presents us with a difficulty. There may be a hand you do no want to hold.

It is the whole point of the Gospel. The word gospel means good news. It is the good news of Jesus. It is the good news that God has come to an estranged and alienated world; and God has done something in the life of Jesus, in the suffering and death on the cross, and in the defeat of sin and death in the resurrection. Something in that miracle (God’s staggering offer of himself) bridges an unbridgeable gap, pays an unpayable debt, reconciles irreconcilable differences.

Paul uses some shorthand to describe the gap. The classic shorthand of the Bible for this is the difference between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews are Israel; the people of God. “Gentiles” just means “peoples” or “nations”.

Some Indian tribes originated names for their tribes that just mean “the people”. In their concept of identity, you are either one of the people or you aren’t.

That is how it was with the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were “The People of God” The Gentiles (or “the nations”) were just everyone else. You might as well say that the Jews versus the Gentiles were the ultimate insiders versus the outsiders, or the ultimate old-timers versus the newcomers.

Anyone who has lived in a place where people are either old-timers or newcomers knows that there can be a nearly unbridgeable gap between them. You can live in a place and be a part of it for thirty years and never be an old-timer. Individuals on either side my hold hands, but the groups (as groups) do not.

Now the church of Paul’s day included Christians of Jewish origin, and Christians of pagan origin; the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jewish Christians were the original Christians, the old-timers of the Church. The Christians of pagan origin were the cutting edge, the growing edge of the Church. They were inclined not to want to hold hands on their way to heaven and the new creation.

The other shorthand was the pairing of the strong and the weak. Basically Paul means what he calls the strong in faith and the weak in faith.

Paul has discussed the issue of the strong versus the weak all through the fourteenth chapter of his letter. The really important thing is that Paul considers himself to be one of the strong. If we happen to be someone who likes to be strong, we will like the thought of being on Paul’s side. But then (wouldn’t you know it) Paul manages to spoil it all by turning strength on its head. He says that the real calling of those who are strong is to adapt them-selves to serving the needs of those who aren’t.

Here was the problem of the strong in faith versus the weak in faith. The strong would say that the good news was about living in the power of the Holy Spirit and with the mindset of Christ, and so don’t worry about all the laws and rules of the tradition that tells you what pleases God. Stop being a scorekeeper. This is what Paul calls living by faith and not by the law.

But Paul gives an awful lot of advice to those who need to follow Jesus better. Aren’t those rules?

The so-called strong in the faith would say that they were living boldly. The so-called weak in faith would say that the so-called strong in faith were living carelessly.

The so-called weak in the faith would say that they were the true conservatives and the original faithful. The so-called strong in faith would say that the so-called weak in the faith were obsessive-compulsive, and just plain silly.

The strong in the faith would probably be like those who text. The weak in the faith would probably be like those who still practice their penmanship and write notes on real stationary.

The so-called weak in the faith would go to worship because the discipline of worship is a healthy habit for the soul; or because it was one of the rules. The so-called strong in the faith would go to worship because they want to practice resurrection. But neither the strong nor the weak would sleep in on a Sunday morning.

The pairs of Jews and Greeks or weak and strong were not friendly pairs. They found each other (at best) annoying, (at worst) dangerous. They were not inclined to hold hands on the way to the new heaven and earth.

But that failure was a sin, as Paul understood the plan of God. How could they expect to hold hands like lovers in the new creation when they didn’t want to hold hands now? Why did they think that Christ had come, if not to join them together?

God’s scheme of things was that he wanted to right the wrong created by human sin. The nature of sin is to break and divide everything that God has made. God came into our world to put us back together.

Human sin had divided the world from God. It had created imbalance in the creation. It had created conflict in the whole realm of human relationships. Human sin even broke our own inner wholeness so that, in so many ways, we seem to be at odds with ourselves. God wants the broken pieces of creation to join hands.

God, the insider, became an outsider in Jesus; ostracized by his own people: killed. God became an outsider in Jesus to make insiders of all people. The new heavens and earth will be a place where all people who want to come in will be welcome.

I sometimes tell kids who are graduating and going out into the world that these small towns of ours are places where they will always belong, as long as they want. At least, to my mind, that is what these places are for.

Paul says “accept one another”. I can accept lots of things without liking them. But the Greek word he uses is a much stronger word than that. It means “receive” and “welcome”. Paul says, “Accept, receive, welcome one another, then, just as Christ accepted, received, welcomed you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15:7) God is praised and glorified when diverse people, different people, people with different temperaments and personalities, and different ways of living their faith and expressing their faith welcome each other. Paul says it. All we can say against this is, “Yes, but!” And I don’t want to say “yes, but” to God.

Jesus did, by his cross, what the great Old Testament King David could not do by conquest. Jesus could bring people into his kingdom through his love. The cross shows us a different use of strength.

Jesus has died for the sins of all, and risen to give victory to all, so that all people can sing together about the praises of God and his kingdom. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

The forgiveness that Jesus’ story (about the king and his servants) talks about is not at all like cancelling a debt; at least not if cancelling a debt means crossing out some numbers on a page or deleting them from a computer chip. Forgiveness is not a legality but real work and real effort. Jesus did, by his cross, what a king could not do by canceling debts from his ledger.

The Greek word for forgiveness carries the thought of putting something away, or sending it off. The Hebrew Scriptures share the same way of thinking. Psalm 103, verse twelve, says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has the Lord removed our transgressions from us.”

Our sins, and the sins of all other people, have been removed from us and put upon Jesus. “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Romans 15:3) All of the sins and evils of our world, and of our lives, are like living insults against the God who created us for good and for love. And they have all fallen upon Jesus on the cross. If we know Christ, as he is on the cross, we should know that our sins have been sent away to that place where Jesus has died for us.

But the same truth holds true for others. If we see something in another person that seems to divide them from us, then we should know that that difference, and that division, has been carried away by Jesus on his cross.

What Paul calls bearing with others, building others up, pleasing others, is not about casting a blind eye to any real wrong or evil. In fact Paul tells us to “hate what is evil”. (Romans 12:9) But we are called to use our understanding of Jesus in order to understand others, and encourage them in the right direction, and build them up.

The small town where I first served as a minister, after I was ordained, had an amazing number of people who had been in jail or in prison. And there were people who went to jail or prison after I had gotten to know them. And they went to jail or to prison for some very good reasons. I needed to give them the dignity of using my understanding of Jesus to know how to listen to them and what to say to them that would bear with them and build them up.

We are called to use our knowledge of other people to guide us to Jesus. We seek Jesus to find his answers and his guidance for what we are to say next and what we are to do next in the world of other people.

There is a story in which a person sought to understand the difference between heaven and hell. This person had a dream in which they were led into a room where there was a huge banquet table with a feast set laid out on it. The diners sat around the table, and they could see and smell the heavenly feast, but they were all starving to death. Their forks and spoons were all four feet long and they were unable to feed themselves. So they were starving to death. That was the picture of hell.

This visitor was guided to another room where the diners were also seated around a feast, just like the one in the room of hell. The utensils were still four feet long, yet everyone was eating to their hearts delight. They feasted because they used their long spoons and forks to feed each other. That was heaven.

That is what the church is for. The church is a table set with the love, the peace, the joy, the hope, the faith that come from God, through his Son Jesus.

It is the grace of God that we really cannot feed ourselves at the church’s table (at the Lord’s Table). If we think we are feeding ourselves, it is only the dying dream of a starving soul. We live by feeding others and by being fed by others.

We must feed each other. In the end, it is not what we do for ourselves that makes us thankful, and satisfied, and full, but what others have given us, what others have shown us and how they have fed us. And our lives are full because we have fed others.

Paul sees that the church is a family where people feed each other, and this is our holy calling in Christ. We are to give to others what Christ has given to us. “For even Christ did not please himself.” (Romans 15:3) How else can we claim that we have anything to do with him?

Christ has fed us with himself. We must be feeders, too, by the very nature of Christ living in us. There is no other way to get to heaven. There is no other way to the new creation but by holding hands.


  1. Good morning Pastor.
    Thanks for visiting, and for your kind words. So...you cam read portuguese...veery well...
    I thank God for all the things I have...I feel His blessing...all around me. I ask for forgiveness, too...
    Well, my husband is recovering well. That is very good!
    Another reazon to thank for!

    Now i'm going away to read your "post" (because the last time I was here I did't read it, remember?) I was in a hurry!

    See you soon.
    BlueShell (Isabel- my name is Isabel)

  2. Yes, God came into our world to put us back together. Sometimes we do not see that. Jesus has died for us. He carried our sins.
    And we can’t forget that we live by feeding others and by being fed by others. (That is the purpose of the Church – the big family) We have a big responsibility : We must be feeders, too,
    Very good preach, Pastor. Very deep and inspiring.
    The story about the difference between heaven and hell is a good metaphor.

    God Bless you and your family!


  3. Pedra Altar

    Às vezes fico um instante
    Aquela pedra contemplar
    Solitária no meio da mata
    Parece um grande altar
    Devoto alguns instantes
    Uma prece a meditar
    Ofereço a ti ò Deus
    Meu corpo naquele altar
    Assim como Isaque
    Também me poupará
    A pedra é um convite
    Ao seu alto me levar
    Quem sabe lá de cima
    Meu caminho avistar

    God Bless you

  4. To Isabel: thank you for your thoughts, and I am glad your husband is doing better. I don't read Portuguese, but only a little Spanish from school days. My cousin has a beautiful little granddaughter named Isabel Gomez.

  5. To Antonio: Again, I do not speak Portuguese, but the lettle Spanish and a little vocabulary from other languages helps me to get feelings and thoughts from your poem, perhaps in the way that stones and roads and forests speak to us for God. I often offer my whole self to God and if only I could remain there on the altar, it would be a beautiful thing. Thank you for your thoughts.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Nice Blog.




  8. I Pastor, I'm waiting for yesterday preach.
    Your words are priceless and inspiring.
    God bless you.
    I'll return later.