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September 6, 2020 Sermon – Pursuing Change for Christ: Reconciliation

September 6, 2020 Sermon
“Pursuing Change for Christ: Reconciliation”

1st Scripture Reading – Romans 5:6-8

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 

2nd Scripture Reading – 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

“Pursuing Change for Christ: Reconciliation”

Reconciliation.  It’s an important word in our society today…at least, it SHOULD be an important word in our society today.

  • Clearly, there is some reconciliation needed between people of different races in this nation.  News headlines portray members of racial minorities as continuing to feel like they are treated in unjust ways by members of the white majority and by the systems of power in our nation.
  • There is also reconciliation needed between people of different political parties…perhaps now more than ever.  When so many people – on both sides of the aisle – feel like they can’t voice their opinions, their beliefs about a whole variety of things without experiencing catastrophically negative consequences, we need reconciliation.
  • There is reconciliation needed between people of different faith groups.  I read this week that acts of anti-semitism are occurring at rates not seen in decades, if ever.  As Christians, we know there are powerful groups opposing OUR faith.  And I can’t imagine what it must be like for Muslims in this nation.  Even right here in Grand Junction, we’ve seen Muslims in need of the protection of others just to be able to worship safely.
  • I would imagine we need some kind of reconciliation between the sexes, as well.  Far too many women are victimized by men.  And a great many more FEEL fear and anxiety as a result of what has long been a male-dominated world.  And, as certain aspects of the power imbalance change, some men are starting to feel discriminated against in ways that have them lashing out.

And these are but a few examples of how badly our society is in need of reconciliation. 

(PAUSE)

Two Sundays ago, we began a sermon series that seeks to answer one of the most fundamental questions of our faith: given that we live in a world that God desperately desires be transformed into something different, something BETTER, HOW are we supposed to pursue change?   Are we supposed to pursue change the way people around us are pursuing change, or are we supposed to pursue change in ways that are DIFFERENT – meaning, what kinds of strategies and tactics should we be employing?

We spent the first two Sundays of this series considering Paul’s letter to Philemon.  In that book, we discovered that God desires our general approach to change to be an approach of love instead of hate, love instead of anything else, really, especially love for the people who are most DIFFICULT for us to love as a result of their sins.  We even discovered some specific strategies we could, we SHOULD, employ for pursuing change.  For the rest of the sermon series, we will look beyond the book of Philemon for other specific strategies God offers us through the scriptures.  The first of these strategies is RECONCILIATION.

Why did I choose reconciliation as one of the topics to discuss during this sermon series?  The answer can be found at the beginning of our second scripture reading:

17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about followers of Jesus being NEW CREATIONS.  That’s change, right?  You can’t become something new without change.  And Paul reveals in the very next two verses that the KEY to pursuing God’s desired change, the key to BECOMING God’s desired change, is reconciliation:

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 

Y’all, reconciliation is not just one more in a series of potential tactics for pursuing change for God, reconciliation is FUNDAMENTAL to pursuing change for God.  Reconciliation is THE strategy, the approach, God took for pursuing change through Christ.  It’s the approach Jesus took for pursuing change.  And whom do we FOLLOW?  So, we should do the same.

But, what does reconciliation mean?  How does reconciliation work, with regard to pursuing change?

Sadly, I’m not sure we – we in society or even we in the Church – have gotten this reconciliation thing right.  We’ve got a model for reconciliation that gets propped up, that gets promoted, that even gets USED but that doesn’t result in the change God desires, the change we pursue, the Kingdom of God.  We’ve got a model that is FROM this world, OF this world, and so leads to MORE of this world…which isn’t what we in the Church are supposed to be about.  It’s a model for reconciliation that doesn’t actually RESULT in reconciliation.

The model looks like this.  Let’s imagine Group A commits a sin, a crime, an atrocity against Group B.  (By the way, you can insert “person” for “group” – this is just an example.)  Society’s model for reconciliation demands the sinner, Group A, confess its sinfulness, approach Group B in a position of lowliness, offer a heartfelt apology, and beg for forgiveness.  And then, Group B, the victimized party, gets to choose to reconcile or not.  That’s the model I see all around me in the world.  It’s EVEN the model I’ve been taught in the Church.

This model, I think we as Christians have adopted it, have believed in it, as a result of a mis-reading, a mis-understanding, of something in the Old Testament.  Think back to some of the big stories of the unfaithfulness – the sinfulness – of God’s people against God:

  • When God and Moses were discussing the commandments up on a mountain, the Israelites made a golden calf and worshipped other gods, so God decided to destroy them.  I think we remember that God decided to NOT destroy them only after the people repented, after the people approached God and asked for God’s forgiveness.
  • After the Israelites settled into the Promised Land, during the time of the Judges, we remember what biblical scholars call “the cycle of sin”:  the Israelites consistently turned against God and worshipped foregin gods, which led to God allowing the Israelites to be overtaken by foreign adversaries.  I think we remember that the cycle only STOPPED after the Israelites approached God and asked for God’s forgiveness.
  • After the Israelites were overtaken by foreign adversaries and sent into exile, during the time of the Prophets, a time when God’s people thought God had completely ABANDONED them because that was God’s remedy for covenant violation that God built into the covenants, I think we remember that God allowed God’s people to return BACK to the Promised Land only AFTER God’s people approached God and asked for God’s forgiveness.

In other words, we remember that people, the party who WRONGED the other – the other being God – had to make the first move.  That’s the ways so many Christians remember the Old Testament.  But, y’all, that’s NOT…WHAT…HAPPENED.

  • In the golden calf story of Exodus 32, God was going to destroy Israel and start over with Moses; that’s what God told Moses.  But God changed God’s mind after a conversation with MOSES, not after any change at all, any movement at all, took place on the part of the Israelites.  GOD, the victim of sinfulness in that situation, made the first move of reconciliation.  Check it out in Exodus 32.
  • In the time of the judges, when we read in Judges 2 that “the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt…”, it wasn’t the Israelites, the SINNERS, who made the first move of reconciliation; no, it was God, who “raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them” (Judges 2:16.)  If you read Judges 2, you’ll discover that the Judges worked to reconcile the people with God even though the people REFUSED to listen to the Judges.  According to Judges 2, “they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them” (Judges 2:17.)  Just like in the time of Moses, it was God, the aggrieved party, the victim, who made the first move of reconciliation.
  • And in the time of the Prophets, through prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, God revealed that God’s steadfast love for Israel would lead God to allow God’s people BACK to the Promised Land, BACK to being God’s treasured possession.  God revealed these things well before Israel had an opportunity to make the first move.  Check out the prophecies of Jeremiah 29 – “I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jeremiah 29:10) – and Isaiah 43 and 44.  Check out God’s vision to Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones.  As in the time of Moses and the time of the Judges, it was God, the aggrieved party, the victim, who made the first move of reconciliation.

 My friends, in the Old Testament, what God ACTUALLY modeled was a process of reconciliation in which the WRONGED party, God in these cases, makes the first move of re-establishing relationship with the SINFUL party.  From God’s perspective, that is how reconciliation happens.  Oh, and by the way, since I haven’t made it clear yet…this re-establishment of relationship that has been broken by one party or another, THAT is the meaning of biblical reconciliation.

And then, of course, we get to the New Testament and our scripture readings for today….which are essentially summaries of the gospel message.  You know the gospel message, right?  Jesus said it plainly in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  The Apostle Paul summarized the gospel message in Romans 5, verses 6 & 8: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly….God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  Y’all, the gospel message is that God, through Jesus, made the FIRST move, the ULTIMATE move, of reconciliation to a bunch of people, to all of humanity, BEFORE people made a move toward God, BEFORE people sought forgiveness, BEFORE people even sought reconciliation with God.  And God did that through Jesus, the One whom we are supposed to follow.

And just in case you’re not sure if I’m understanding this right or you’re not sure this means we’re supposed to follow in God’s model of reconciliation, consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians:

  • “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”.  In verse 18, Paul reveals that reconciliation is about the aggrieved party, the SINNED-AGAINST party, not counting the trespasses of the trespasser against them.  THAT is how reconciliation happens.
  • And speaking of this SAME ministry of reconciliation in verse 18, Paul claims God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation”.  In other words, WE – the Church, followers of Jesus – are supposed to follow God’s model of reconciliation.
  • But more than just FOLLOW God’s model, Paul tells us in verse 20 that we’re supposed to be “AMBASSADORS” of this reconciliation thing.  In other words, we’re supposed to do more than live by it, ourselves; we’re supposed to convince others to do the same…because God has “entrusted the message of reconciliation to us” (verse 19).

I hope you see that this means that we, the Church, aren’t supposed to simply revel in the sense of John 3:16 – “for God so loved the world”, we aren’t supposed to simply revel in the reality that God modeled a reconciliation that is very different from the kind of reconciliation practiced in the world.  No, we are also supposed to RECOGNIZE  that God calls us to LIVE BY what God modeled, to reconcile with those who sin against us by seeking to renew relationship with THEM even BEFORE – even if they NEVER – apologize or seek forgiveness from us!!!!!

And you might be wondering why: why would God desire us to reconcile in this way, this way that goes against  pretty much everything we were raised to believe?  I mean, if someone commits a sin, a wrong, against you, isn’t it THAT person’s responsibility to make the first move?  Isn’t it THAT person’s responsibility to seek forgiveness?  Isn’t it THAT person’s responsibility to set things right?  Isn’t it just WRONG to expect even more from us when we’ve been victimized?

Well, in the ways of the world, this is how things work.  But, in case you haven’t noticed, this kind of reconciliation doesn’t work all that well…doesn’t actually lead to a restored relationship most of the time.  And there’s a very good reason for that.  In order for true reconciliation – true restored relationship – to take place, it’s not actually the heart of the sinner that needs to be changed.  No, it’s the heart of the VICTIM of sin, the victim of broken relationship, that needs to change.  When you’re hurt and harboring anger, hate, resentment, and all kinds of negative emotions against another person or group, restored relationship will NEVER happen.  God knew that…so God modeled something different.  Our desire for the sinner to make the first move, it’s not about restoring relationship; it’s about PUNISHING the sinner; it’s about vengeance, whether we’re willing to admit it or not.  And punishing is not what will restore relationship.  FORGIVENESS is what will restore relationship.  And, let’s face it, the sinner is NOT the one who needs to forgive.  God knew this all along; God KNOWS this; God has been trying to TELL us for millennia.  If only we would listen; THEN, we could pursue lasting change that would restore broken relationships between people and groups of people.

So…what does this look like in practical terms?  Before I answer that question, I’ve got to tell you, the practical application will make some of you, maybe most or all of you, uncomfortable…because God’s ways are so NOT the way of our world, even NOT the way of congregations for far too long.  But, here are some practical applications in the world today:

  • With regard to race relations, God’s model suggests true reconciliation, true restored relationship, will NOT take place as a result of the historical majority race finally giving up ENOUGH to satisfy the wronged minority races.  No, reconciliation, true restored relationship, will ONLY happen when people of the races that have been wronged for too long decide to forgive those who have wronged them and become willing to begin anew, no strings attached, no expectations, no lingering grudges.  It’s the ONLY way.  I’m sure it’s not popular; I’m sure there are people who won’t like me saying so, but it’s the way modeled and even commanded by God.
  • With regard to political division, I imagine ALL of us are feeling wronged, aggrieved, victimized by those on the other side of the aisle right now…which means we’ve ALL got some movement to make.  It’s time for every person who feels wronged by those on the other side of the aisle to make the first move, to find a way to forgive, to find a way to re-establish relationship WITHOUT expecting the other to change.  Basically, we’ve all got to recognize the HUMANITY in the other, rather than repeating our external and internal dialog that tells us the other is just plain bad and unworthy of our love or attention or relationship.  We must each make the first move…because we ALL feel wronged.   It’s the only way.  I’m sure it’s not popular; I’m sure there are people who won’t like me saying so, but it’s the way modeled and even commanded by God.
  •  With regard to people of different faith groups, I’m not at all suggesting we need to affirm the faiths of others that are different from ours as true, as correct.  That would be going against God’s commands in the scriptures.  What we NEED to do is find a way to forgive the wrongs, find a way to stop viewing people of different faiths as having no value as people.  After all, Jesus died for THEM, too.  God – Christ – values them, loves them, desires relationship with them.  We should, too.  It’s the only way.  I’m sure it’s not popular; I’m sure there are people who won’t like me saying so, but it’s the way modeled and even commanded by God.
  •  And with regard to needed reconciliation between the sexes, women and men, I’m going to change the topic just a bit to address the more general category of abuse.  I know, abuse isn’t the only reason for animosity between the sexes, but you can apply most of what I’ve said about race relations to issues between the sexes…except for abuse.  I’ve encountered so many women who’ve been harmed, abused, by men in terrible ways.  And so many of them, they’ve adopted a posture of hatred – or at least hostile suspicion – toward all or most men in response.  I’ve known a smaller group of men who’ve been abused by women and who feel the same way toward women.  When it comes to abuse, please don’t hear what I’m about to say as minimizing the abuse – abuse is wrong, abuse is terrible, abuse (whether physical, sexual, or psychological) cannot be condoned.  BUT, if you’ve been abused and want to live a life that is not completely DOMINATED by that abuse, if you want to stop letting your abuser STILL have control over you – YOU have got to make the first move.  I don’t mean you have to let the abuser back into your life to continue the abuse.  I don’t mean you have to try to return to the same kind of relationship you had with the abuser.  No, that would be a bad idea.  But YOU have GOT to forgive in a way that allows the pain and hatred and anger to depart from you.  And THEN you’ve got to move forward down a path of restored relationship with others who remind you of the abuser.  In other words, women who’ve been abused need to work on restoring relationship with men instead of categorically hating or avoiding them and men who’ve been abused by women need to work on restoring relationship with women instead of categorically hating or avoiding them.  It’s the only way.  I’m sure it’s not popular; I’m sure there are people who won’t like me saying so, but it’s the way modeled and even commanded by God.

(PAUSE)

My friends, God sent Jesus to reconcile with people – with US – while we were STILL sinners.  God’s way of reconciliation is for the party who has been harmed, who has been sinned against, the “victim” we would say, to make the first move of restoring relationship…not because it’s easy but because it’s the ONLY way to not just pursue but actually ACHIEVE real, lasting change, the kind of change that could be characterized as the kingdom of God.

Amen!