Monday, April 29, 2013

Jesus Started It: The Force of Reconciliation

Preached on Sunday, April 28, 2013

Scripture readings:  2 Corinthians 5:11-21; Acts 9:1-19

Saul, in our reading from Acts, is our very own Apostle Paul who wrote so much of our New Testament. This man Saul was a devout hater of Jesus. He was a devout hater of Christians. He would have been glad to see us dead. He was murderous.
Photos Taken Around Washtucna WA in April 2013

Then he became a devout lover of Jesus and a lover of Christians. He was willing to die for Jesus, and for people like us. And that is just what he did, in the end.

Have you ever become the friend of someone you started out hating?

If you think back, you will remember a time in your childhood when the word “hate” and the rage of hatred comes far too easily. Babies and little children are breathtaking in their angers and their hatreds. Good parents, in our part of the world, carefully teach their children not to hate.

So I hope that you were unable to answer my question because you weren’t aware of ever having hated anyone. But, have you ever made friends with someone you started out strongly disliking; someone who maybe represented something that was totally the opposite of you?

There was that kid named Chris who was high up in the pecking order of my high school because he was an athlete. He was one of the guys who formed that gauntlet of hecklers in the hall. He was one of those guys who laughed at and humiliated us lesser beings who were forced to walk between them on our way to classes.

Then he needed help with his studies, and I changed from being a victim, to being a helper, to being a friend. We were even planning to go to Humboldt State University, up near Eureka on the north coast of California, to study forestry together. I had such enormous powers for evading the will of God in those days.

I remember talking, years ago, with a member of a church I served, and they were passionately complaining about another member. Suddenly they realized what they were doing, and stopped themselves by saying, “Oh he’s a friend of yours, isn’t he? But everyone is your friend, aren’t they?”

In my first church, one Sunday morning, just before Sunday school started, I handed my class over to another teacher because a drunk whom I knew pretty well came into the church to see me, and he was having a spiritual crisis. At first I didn’t realize how drunk he was. It turned out that he was so drunk that it took him about a half hour before he suddenly realized that it was Sunday morning, and there were all these kids around, and people coming and getting set up for worship.

That other Sunday school teacher was one of the main people who wanted to get rid of me, a few years later. I have always wondered if there was some connection to the events of that day.

It is not unusual for God to require me to be the friend of the most outrageous and scandalous people. God does not require my approval of what they do. God forbids my being an enabler of them. But God does require me to act as a friend out of respect for what God has made, and for what God may intend for them.

Saul, who became our friend Paul, began as a hater and turned into a friend because Jesus made him do so. This is an impressive miracle.

We may think of the appearance of Jesus as a miracle. We may think of the blinding and the healing of Saul as a miracle. But the greatest miracle was the change of Saul from a hater to a lover of Jesus and us.

Nothing prepared Saul for this surprise. He was completely committed to his hatred. He was consumed by it and he would have been outraged at the very thought of any compromise. His hatred was a righteous and clearly justified hatred against a dangerous faith and those who were spreading it.

The way of Jesus humiliated the majesty of a righteous and holy God. It was the message of a God who set aside his glory, and became a human carpenter, and took upon himself the sins of the world in the ugliest possible way (because the cross was an ugly form of death). Then the very person who started this poisonous faith came to Saul and called him by name. Jesus came and reduced Saul’s anger to friendship and devotion.

Saul and his friends in the Temple thought that they had understood what their Temple represented. They thought it meant the meeting place where sinful people found a sacrifice to pacify the anger of a holy God. Jesus turned out to be the place where a holy God reached out to sinners, and won their hearts by being their sacrifice and carrying their sins.

Jesus showed himself to Saul and won his heart. Saul, who was so devoted to being Jesus’ enemy, became his friend.

The God whose light shown brighter than the sun at noonday spoke to Saul with a voice named Jesus, and this God did not need to be reconciled to Saul the enemy. God, in Jesus, reconciled Saul to himself.

When Saul became Paul, he called this the message of reconciliation; the ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation is the making of peace by the changing of hearts, and minds, and lives.

What we call the gospel means the good news of God in Christ. The good news is that peace does not come when we make the right appeal to God, but when we receive God’s appeal to us. It is about God reconciling us. It is about our being turned from enemies to friends.

If we understand what it means to have a God, we realize that God is so big that he cannot be himself with us (he cannot be God with us) if we try to keep him smaller than we are. We try to keep God small by keeping him under control, or by not letting him change more than a fraction of what we are; a small, pre-approved part of ourselves.

This message and ministry of reconciliation is the very heart of what God wants to do. It is very much a God-thing and it cannot be contained in only one part of any life where his presence takes root. The power to change you into being God’s friend has got to overflow into the power to change you into being your enemy’s friend, for God’s sake.

I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase/translation of the verses we have read from Second Corinthians: “All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.”

We see this in our reading from Acts. God, in Christ, makes Saul his friend. Then God uses a disciple named Ananias to make Saul know that the disciples of Jesus were now his friends as well. Ananias went to Saul and touched him and called him “brother” before he did anything else for him.

The power of the good news of reconciliation in Christ makes all Christians brothers and sisters. The gospel makes us all each other’s friends. Everyone knows that a real friend must act as a friend. A friends act like friends when they are together and when they are apart. Even those who are brothers and sisters in Christ must faithfully put into action with each other the friendship they claim to have with Jesus.

We are not called only to believe and receive the gospel. We are called to embody the gospel. We are called to be the gospel in every action, and in every word we say, in every expression on our face. How can we claim to believe we have received the gospel (even though we were the enemies of God) if we do not believe that we are called to give and embody the gospel to our enemies?

Heaven is the spiritual state of reconciliation on an eternal and infinite scale. Hell is the spiritual state of alienation. If we let alienation work through us, then we are certainly not letting heaven work through us, but something quite different. Who we really are, or who our actions are declaring us to be, is at stake here.

The Holy Spirit empowers the good news of reconciliation. The Holy Spirit unites, and does not divide.

This is the absolute truth. And yet, if we use this truth in order to judge others, or if we use the truth to justify ourselves as any better than others, then we are not using the truth to reconcile others. We are using the truth the way that Saul and his friends were. They were using God’s truth as a club or as a stone in their hands.

If we use the truth about Christians being friends as a weapon against others, then we are still not in the service of the Holy Spirit. We are not representing Jesus.

In college, I knew a girl named Christy who always talked about Paul’s word in Ephesians about “speaking the truth in love”. (Ephesians 4:13) She could say the most blunt and hurtful things that way. She said that, when she did this, she was only “speaking the truth in love”.

I would somewhat unlovingly tell my Christian friends that Christy believed that speaking the truth was love, and they would smile back in a similarly unloving way. I was using my own truth as a weapon, and I was just as wrong as Christy was.

We find that the Book of Acts brings this matter of turning enemies to friends into the world of prayer. Saul prayed for days. Ananias prayed to the Lord who ordered him to seek out Saul, his enemy (the enemy who might try to kill him), and call him brother, and heal him.

This reconciliation business requires a lot of prayer. Prayer is the only way to understand it, and prayer is the only way to carry it out.

It seems difficult, but it is the real thing that Jesus gave you when he gave you himself. Reconciliation is the gospel. It is salvation. This is what Saul received, when he received his sight. It was what Saul gave to others.

When you have Jesus you have the power of reconciliation in you. It is part of your hidden resources in Christ.

This power led Saul to friendship with his enemies, the Jewish Christians. Later it led him to his enemies, the Gentiles; and that means it led Saul to us.

I have not taken the time to tell you how difficult this is. After Saul changed into Paul, he wrote his Second Letter to the Corinthians because this reconciliation was not working out. It was not happening; not even in Paul’s churches, and this was breaking his heart. This is God’s word to us.

I squirmed at the very thought of asking you if you have ever become a friend to an enemy. It was not a friendly question. It was a preacher’s question. It was a parable in the form of a question.

And now I ask you to look at the power that God’s force of reconciliation has for you. How committed and involved are you willing to get in the use of that force of reconciliation? How long are you willing to keep at it?

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