Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Reconciliation’

New Creation in Christ

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“New Creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:11-21; Philippians 2:1-11)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 10, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The Early Church: Conflict and Unity
There’s an old joke that you’ve maybe heard – the one about the first car mentioned in the New Testament? Acts says the disciples were all in one “Accord” (Acts 1:14). (Some jokes should come with a warning label. Sorry, that’s the best I can do after a week of delegate meetings!) Yet as the movement started to spread, and as more and more people became a part of the church, divisions arose, and divisions turned to bitter conflict. Missionaries were undermining one another. There were fundamental disagreements regarding the nature of sin and salvation. And even the apostle Paul, who had himself had a powerful experience of God’s grace, often penned words that were not always altogether full of grace, so much as impatience, pain, and frustration (e.g. Gal. 5:12!).

The early church didn’t all stay in that “Accord” for long. They were a people of differing races, languages, cultures, religious perspectives, geographical location, social standing, and fundamental understandings of God. Yet the fact that somehow they managed to stay together at all, the fact that they could remain a church even with all the divisions, is testimony to the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit to unite diverse peoples in Jesus Christ as God’s family. And it is out of this deep, painful, frustrating, seemingly endless conflict and division that we find some of the New Testament’s most compelling and beautiful words of forgiveness, grace, unity, and peace.

Paul and the Corinthians: It’s “Complicated”
The apostle Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians was particularly messy. Paul had gotten word that rival missionaries had been undermining him in Corinth (2 Cor. 3:1-3; 10:10; 12:14-18), and he decided to go and visit, which was disastrous. He was publicly humiliated by a member of the congregation, and left furious and disgraced (2 Cor. 2). He responded with a blistering and anguished “letter of tears” (2 Cor. 2:1-4; 7:8) to the congregation (now lost to us).1 And you know how it is when you have a painful disagreement with someone – you keep on replaying what happened in your mind, you keep on getting more and more worried and anxious and frustrated, and it just comes to dominate you. Paul was so distressed by the conflicted state of the relationship and the pain he had experienced that he could not even continue his missionary work (2 Cor. 2:12-13).

Paul’s friend Titus finally brings Paul news that the congregation regrets hurting him (2 Cor. 7:5ff), but also that Paul’s ministry is continuing to be undermined by those who apparently have letters of recommendation. They have apparently begun to question whether someone so often imprisoned, someone so afflicted, someone so scarred, someone so unsuccessful could really be the bearer of God’s blessing and gospel. Paul responds with this letter of reconciliation and clarification of his own apostleship, preserved in 2 Corinthians.

Embodying the Gospel
And that is why in our passage from 2 Corinthians for this morning, the twin themes of reconciliation and apostolic calling emerge together and are intimately tied together. So Paul isn’t writing a theological treatise called something fancy like “epistemology of apostolic vocation and ontology of reconciliation in Christ’s atonement” (even though sometimes he sounds like it!). Rather, he is writing from deeply personal experience about real people in real situations of pain, conflict, and suffering, and what it means to embody our faith, and what it means to embody the gospel – what it means to embody reconciliation, what it means not only to preach the gospel, but to embody it in our very own lives as well.

Paul doesn’t want to just be someone who tells people about the gospel; he wants to embody it in his very own life (e.g. 2 Cor. 4:10). He doesn’t want to just be someone who talks about Jesus Christ:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Php. 2:6-11).

Paul didn’t want to just talk about that gospel, and he didn’t want the church to just preach that gospel – that good news of what happened and happens in Jesus; he wanted to have the very same mind in himself that he had in Christ Jesus (Php. 2:5), and he wanted the same for his church. He wanted to have that same mind, he wanted to have that same life conformed to the pattern of the cross, not to grasp after power and authority, but to empty himself, taking on the form of a slave, becoming obedient to the point of death, and therefore also to share in the glory of Jesus Christ.

This was Paul’s passion; this was how Paul understood what it meant to be in Christ, and he wrote about it repeatedly. In Romans, Paul questioned his readers:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin (6:4-6).

Paul spoke of us being “conformed to the image of [God’s] Son.” (8:29). We are to be transformed “into the same image of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 3:18), Paul said, and we know him “by the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings” (Php. 3:10). “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19b-20a).

If you are in Christ, then your life must be conformed to the pattern of Christ’s cross and resurrection (Rom. 6; Gal. 2). It’s as if Paul is saying to the Corinthians, “You’ve had other apostles who come to you with letters from other folks saying their message is true, and now you want to see our letter of recommendation? Look at how our lives conform to the cross, and look at how your lives conform to the cross of Christ. ‘You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts!’ (2 Cor. 3:2-3, NRSV).”

It’s as if Paul’s saying, “Look, those things about us and about you that you’re ashamed of – our afflictions, our imprisonment for the sake of the gospel – that’s what you should be proud of, because that’s what is embodying the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ!”

Four times in this short passage, Paul makes a statement of the gospel, and then describes how we are to embody that gospel. In v. 15: Christ died for all; therefore those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them (new creation).

In v. 18: All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ; therefore, God has given us the ministry of reconciliation

In v. 19: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them; and entrusting the ministry of reconciliation to us.

In v. 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 – so that in him, we might embody the covenant faithfulness of God, who has fulfilled the covenants and promises of old in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has identified himself with us – even in our sin, so that we might identify ourselves with him in his death, and that in him, we might embody God’s covenant faithfulness and indeed, God’s new creation.

Embodying Reconciliation (Mennonite Church USA Convention Reflections)
At convention, we talked a lot specifically about embodying Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. Shane Hipps, in his keynote address at our opening worship, compared reconciliation in Christ to a drop of water falling into an ocean. As it falls, it is distinct; it is tossed to and fro by the elements, until it lands securely in the ocean, where it is incorporated into something much, much larger. So too, we fall, blown about by the seductions of the world, until God reconciles us in Christ and incorporates us into something much, much larger.

Shane went on to say that in human conflict, and especially in church conflict, there are often two poles: those advocating for justice and inclusion, and those advocating for purity and holiness. The early church was divided by those who wanted justice and inclusion for Gentiles, and those who wanted to maintain traditional Jewish purity in keeping the Jewish law. And of course both justice and purity are well-meaning and indeed virtuous biblical values, but the problem is that they become fueled by anger, hurt, and fear.

But if we are to live lives embodying the pattern of Jesus and his cross, Shane said, then reconciliation becomes the higher virtue, overarching the other virtues. And reconciliation is not fueled by anger, hurt, or fear, but by compassion, courage, and creativity.

Shane talked about how our distinctiveness is critically important, how our being different draws people, and that’s how he got to know Mennonites. But he also challenged us that too much distinctiveness has led to divisiveness, and too much division becomes cancerous. Reconciliation, he said, is the cure for the cancer of division. Shane urged us to reclaim our fundamental, over-arching distinctive that he found so fascinating – of loving enemies and seeking reconciliation.

And reconciliation begins with repentance. So often, we want to be reconciled, but expect the other to make the first move. Too often, we want to point out others’ faults, but executive director Ervin Stutzman urged us to take the plank out of our own eye first and use it to build a bridge of reconciliation.

Shane reminded us of Paul’s famous words from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ,” and he invited us to insert the issues that polarize us today into that statement: singing the national anthem, immigration, human sexuality, politics, and much more, and told us that in Jesus Christ, those divisions begin to fade.

I was greatly moved simply by seeing the gathering of the delegate assembly and the youth assembly (and the word for church literally means assembly). You could look across the great hall, and see thousands of people – people of many skin colors, many races, many cultures, many languages, many regions, many ideologies, many religious traditions, each with their own questions, agendas, struggles, fears, hopes and dreams, with many issues that divide us. But, in a culture rank with division and resentment, this assembly of so many beautifully different people was united by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit by one thing: our shared confession of Jesus as Savior and Lord, our shared love, allegiance, and following of Jesus Christ, and our deep love for his body, the church, for there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:5), and we experienced that at Pittsburgh.

During our delegate sessions, there was always opportunity for people to come to a microphone to share their thoughts with the whole assembly, and so many different people shared such wisdom, with such grace even in disagreement, that you could tell the Holy Spirit was present and active and alive. And every once in a while, someone would say something that would cause the entire assembly to bread out into applause as we celebrated God’s life and presence in us and among us, calling us to purposeful mission.

Shane Hipps left us with three questions:

1) How are you putting your focus into only purity or justice

2) Whom do you need to forgive?

3) From whom do you need to seek forgiveness?

If anyone is in Christ, then they have been buried with him in death through conforming to the pattern of the cross, dying to the old self, being buried with Jesus, and also raised with him to new life and new creation in the Spirit, to continue living the apostolic calling to cruciform life of self-emptying and reconciliation. And it is there, in Christ Jesus who was raised from the dead, we find God’s new creation. May we, as we embody the gospel in our apostolic calling to self-sacrificial love and reconciliation, become that foretaste of God’s new creation.

Notes:
1. Some say it’s preserved in 2 Cor. 10-13; others say this section of the letter reflects a second breakdown of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, following the reconciliation.

Love one another (and yourself)

May 4th, 2011 No comments

“Love one another (and yourself)” (John 13-17)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
April 10, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A veil of confusion and anxiety
It is night. A veil of confusion and anxiety settles in among the disciples as long shadows cast fear into their souls and trouble their hearts. Indeed, the night will yet bring calculating betrayal and careful deceit as Jesus comes into the hands of those who have been plotting his death. His disciples themselves will turn away in fearful denial, and the Word who became flesh, through whom all things have come into being, will endure the shame and the agony of the cross.

And as all these shadows are stretching into the eventide, Jesus knows that his hour has come, and he gathers his disciples one last time. During supper, Jesus stoops to wash his disciples’ feet, and then he begins to help them through what is to come. As their teacher and friend, Jesus helps them to find their way among the fearful shadows gathering around.

These past weeks, we have been on a journey toward reconciliation as we follow Jesus along the way of the cross. It’s a journey that has its origin in God and in God’s desire for reconciliation with us, and it is a calling that we share for our lives together as God’s people, and as God’s ambassadors in the world.

Jesus’ disciples have followed Jesus along this same journey, and now, as shadowy forces are gathering around them, as the stakes are raised, and anxieties soar even higher, Jesus gathers them together as his friends. There are no clever parables to unravel at this hour. No sequel to the challenging and inspiring sermon on the mount. There’s nothing like the lofty and evocative rhetoric Paul would later use in his letters.

A new commandment
His disciples are fearful and uncertain. Their hearts are troubled, and Jesus knows this is no time for a big theological lecture. A comprehensive final examination is not what is called for. Instead, Jesus enters their worries, walks with them among the shadows, welcomes their timid questions, and embraces their fears with his love.

Jesus gives to his followers one singular new commandment, something solid to hold onto. Love one another. And he repeats it several times to be sure they get it. “I’ve loved you; now love one another.” Perhaps that’s what all this discipleship training boils down to: “Love one another.” Sure, it’s more complicated than three words – any congregation can tell you that – and the Spirit would later teach them more, but for right now, this is the core that they need. This is to be their overarching vision as they adjust to what it means to follow Jesus apart from his physical presence.

John would later even go so far as to say that just as Jesus revealed God, so too, the love of the community reveals God: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). The whole world will know that they are his disciples, Jesus says, by their love (John 13:35). “I give you a new commandment: Love one another.”

Loving ourselves
Now, I’d like to leave that all-encompassing new commandment above us and before us as we chase down an important little rabbit trail at this point. There’s an important part of loving others, and an important part of the journey toward reconciliation that we haven’t touched on yet and that the church has often struggled to find appropriate language to talk about, and that is loving ourselves.

I think that often we in our little corner of the church are acutely sensitive to the many ways that love of self becomes excessive, and the ways it wreaks so much havoc and distortion in relationships, or how excessive love of self leads to so much fear and pride and idolatry and violence. We’re so sensitive to it that we even struggle to talk about the gifts God has given us to be released in the church and in the world.

But equally dangerous to excessive love of self isn’t so much that sort of undue modesty, but rather an inability to see ourselves as God sees us – as God’s people, created good. I believe that inner loathing and shame distorts our relationships with God and with others in very different ways and for very different reasons – many of which we don’t even really begin to understand, but it is there nonetheless.

Shame and fear
Grace May, a Chinese American, grew up in a severely dysfunctional family, which ultimately resulted in her father abandoning them. In her community’s culture, such a family was considered to be incredibly shameful. Grace carried this shame and embarrassment with her for many years, trying to cover it up. She hated that part of herself, that family from which she could not escape. She recalls that as she grew older, “instead of treasuring friendships as gifts from God, [she] sought to win people’s affection. Then, after [she] had gained the trust of a friend, [she] would sabotage the relationship” because of this inner shame and self-loathing.1 It’s hard to love one another when we despise who we are.

Teacher Doug Frank observes:

I wonder if it is not nearly universal that, in varying degrees, we experience the world as an unsafe place, a place where we cannot really be ourselves, cannot be confident that we are acceptable, that others will love us, no matter what. I would hazard a guess that inside most of us, in relative measures, hides a person who feels small, perhaps pathetic or ridiculous or confused or inadequate, and often rather scared.2

We so often assume that we’re the only one who feels that way inside. “That’s what shame is about: it always singles you out as uniquely damaged goods,” says Frank.3 To hide ourselves and our shame and those bits about ourselves that are so fearful and awkward, we adopt disguises. The disciple Peter tried to disguise his inner fear and insecurity with false bravado, “Lord, I will go with you to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33). Yet by morning, he had denied Jesus three times.

Where does this fear of being exposed for who we truly are come from? Frank notes that it’s almost as if we’re born into this world wondering, “Is this a safe place for me to be me? If I am me, will I be taken care of, accepted, affirmed, loved?”4

I think here in these final moments with his disciples, part of what Jesus is trying to do is to help them know that they can be who God has created them to be, even in his absence. I think Jesus knows how when a parent belittles a child, or ignores a child, or has an angry outburst at a child, the child gets the impression that deep down, she or he is “fundamentally deficient or ridiculous.”5 How much more so when a child suffers outright abuse.

Was Peter afraid that if he showed who he really was deep down inside at that moment – confused, afraid, troubled – that he would lose Jesus’ love? Is that the reason for the false bravado? Don’t we often feel as though we’re under constant scrutiny – whether from parents or peers or authorities, or even God – that someone is just waiting for us to mess up, to show who we really are. Isn’t that why we go to great lengths to conceal our weaknesses? Don’t we fear that those around us are judging us, even though they most likely love us? Do we even fear, deep down, that God is condemning us, even though God is love? Is that why we’re so afraid of having our weaknesses exposed?

Perfect love
John would later write that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), and Jesus gave his disciples a picture of what that perfect love looks like: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Again, Frank: In the cross, we see Jesus “in a most ungodly pose – naked, bound wounded, exposed to our contempt – and yet compassionate toward those who hung him there.” Jesus reveals that God is “more truly present to us as one who is vulnerable, seemingly powerless, and infinitely forgiving.”6

“What we have learned to be ashamed of in ourselves – our fear and helplessness and vulnerability – Jesus displayed openly”7 on the cross. We work so tirelessly to hide our nakedness and our vulnerability and our weakness, but Jesus has willingly embodied all this before our very eyes, “despising its shame” (Hebrews 12:2).

Part of the great mystery of Christian faith, part of the great power of the cross is that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, that when we are vulnerable, then Christ dwells within us, that when we are weak, then we are strong. When this happens to us by the Spirit’s power, when we start to wear what we consider weakness more openly, then shame starts to lose its power over us. Then our neighbors start to experience us as safer, and maybe they can become more honest about themselves instead of hiding behind relentless masks of confidence and perfection.

Free to be who we are as God’s people
I believe that part of the message Jesus was trying to communicate to his disciples, and part of the significance of the cross that stands before us, is that nothing, nothing, as Paul once so beautifully put it, neither life nor death, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39)!

We are free to be who God has created us to be because this perfect love has cast out fear. Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me. I chose you.” We’re called to embrace reconciliation with God in Christ – no doubt. We’re called also to seek reconciliation with others. That’s perfectly clear. And I think the biblical call to reconciliation also extends to seeking reconciliation with ourselves – of accepting who we are as God’s children, indeed chosen and dearly loved.

The world is not a safe place for us to be who God has created us to be. . . but Jesus is. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27). I have said this to you,” he said to his disciples that night, as the shadows were gathering, “so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Grace May, the Chinese American who grew up in a deeply dysfunctional home, remembers that a turning point in her life, when she began to emerge from the shadows of self-loathing and paralyzing shame, was when her congregation was sharing communion, and the pastor said to them, “If you feel unworthy, this table is for you.”8 And Grace began to find healing in her weakness, no longer hiding behind disguises masking her family’s “shame.”

Love one another
I think part of any ability we have to keep the new commandment to love one another comes from that assurance, from those words of peace and affirmation that we are no longer servants but friends of Jesus, that we are welcome at the table. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek to grow ever more into Christ’s likeness. But the more we can embrace who we are, the more we can be vulnerable to love one another, and I think the more we can even be honest and open before God, who loves us. How much freer are we to love others and to love God when we know at the core of our being that God loves us?

On the night that he was betrayed, as the shadows of fear were assembling their deathly power, Jesus concludes his last moments with his disciples by praying to God, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23).

In our love for one another, in our unity with one another and with Christ, we become a witness to the world that God is love. May we, by God’s perfect grace, find that unity within ourselves, with one another, and with almighty God as we hear afresh those simple words to us: “Love one another.” Amen.

Notes:
1 Grace Y. May, “The Family Table,” in Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, ed. Mark Baker, 139.
2 Doug Frank, “Naked but Unashamed,” in Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, ed. Mark Baker, 125.
3 Frank, 124.
4 Ibid., 126.
5 Ibid., 127.
6 Ibid., 131.
7 Ibid., 132.
8 May, 140.

Christ is Our Peace

April 6th, 2011 No comments

“Christ is Our Peace” (Ephesians 2:11-22; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
April 3, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Boundaries: Why we build
As we traveled throughout the Holy Land this past January, we came to appreciate why Paul liked to talk so much about walls and buildings and stones. Paul saw stones jutting out of the land everywhere he turned; he passed through walls upon entering the major cities; to see a structure even a thousand years old was not uncommon.

These buildings, it seems, were enduring monuments to the legacy and values of those who built them. If you wanted to demonstrate your conquest or superiority or dominion over someone else, you’d break down their most significant buildings (especially their holy places), and build your own on the very same spot. Like everyone else, Paul knew all about the importance of building sturdy structures.

If Paul told parables like Jesus did, I’m almost certain he worked bodies and buildings into his stories. And he returns again to tearing down and building up in this beautiful and powerful passage from Ephesians 2.

Well, the first thing Paul sees here is a hedge, a fence, a wall, a barrier of some sorts. Now as a good Jew, Paul understands well how come barriers and boundaries are important. Paul knows well his people’s long and “rocky” history among the nations. He is well aware of his people’s long struggle to remain loyal to God amid the lures of neighboring deities.

He knows the story of the faith crisis of repeated exile. He even now experiences the melting pot effect of repeated occupying forces. The fact that every NT book is written in Greek and not Hebrew (the “official” language of ancient Israel) is testament in itself to the cultural mudslide of occupation.

What does it mean to be a part of the distinctive covenant people in a cosmopolitan world of occupation and foreign hegemony? For Paul and his fellow Jewish people, “One way of nurturing covenant faithfulness was to instill a clear sense of difference from those not of the covenant.”1 A letter circulated among the Jewish community over a hundred years before Paul makes it clear:

To prevent our being perverted by contact with others or by mixing with bad influences, [Moses]. . . hedged us in on all sides with strict observances connected with meat and drink and touch and hearing and sight.2

Like many occupied peoples experiencing cultural pressure to give up their distinctiveness, Paul’s people put up barriers in the form of strict observances to maintain their particularity and identity as God’s covenant people.

Today, we may laugh at some of the disagreements of our faith heritage – over whether or not men could wear ties, or appropriate hair length for women, or zippers versus buttons – but these were not mere childish quibbles. These were the presenting issues of communities seeking to maintain their distinctive identity in a cosmopolitan world of seduction. The Anabaptist tradition in particular, like Paul’s own tradition, has known the importance of being different, of “radical obedience to God’s commands. . . [maintaining] the boundaries to ensure the integrity of the community’s faith and practice.”3

Paul knows that boundary markers between what is acceptable and what is not are important, and he recommends his own fair share of boundaries for the churches receiving his letters. I think Paul would encourage us to keep our boundaries before us.

We have a need for boundaries to restrict what influences us.4 We know the reality is that we need boundaries for the well-being and safety of our children. We need boundaries within ourselves – of how far we will go, of what we will and will not do.

We too need boundaries to maintain our identity. We need boundaries between ourselves and others. I need to know the boundaries of what makes me uniquely “me,” of who I am with respect to others. Where I end and where you begin. And our community of faith needs boundaries to maintain our identity.

We even need some sort of boundary between ourselves and God, so that we bear in mind that for all our skill and knowledge and intelligence, we are neither the Creator nor the Redeemer, nor the ultimate Judge; so that we remember it is God’s kingdom to build not ours.

As a good Jew, Paul knew full well the importance of boundaries and barriers.

Boundaries: When walls become eyesores
These boundaries and barriers are important to Paul – no doubt! – but here, in Ephesians, these barriers and walls have become for Paul a real eyesore on the horizon of faith. Centuries of war and hatred had driven the walls higher and higher and thicker and thicker. Gateways from one side to the other were closed off.

[It’s kind of like the story I once heard of a pastor whose church was just around the corner from a night club. And this pastor would frequent this night club to visit with the regulars there, and started really connecting with some of these folks. Well, his congregation heard about it, and they were not happy with the pastor. It’s not that they didn’t want to open their doors to whoever might come. They just feared the pastor was sending the message (especially to their children) that what went on at the night club – and particularly what went on when people left the night club two-by-two – was perfectly OK. Of course the congregation was right to want there to be some boundaries, but perhaps they had forgotten that Jesus got himself a reputation for associating with the wrong kind of folks, because for some people, that’s the only way he could invite them to follow him.]

Paul is looking specifically at this wall separating Jews from Gentiles, insiders from outsiders, a wall that was no doubt keeping the covenant people distinct. The problem is that this wall is obsolete – a part of the old regime, the old community, the old order. Gentiles who were following Christ were being excluded from the new people of God. A new order – a new creation – has arrived in Jesus Christ, and this dividing wall must now fall.

John Howard Yoder gets it exactly right: “The messianic age has begun; Paul simply proclaims that fact. . . Because it has begun, status differences – whether sexual, ritual, ethnic, or economic – are overarched in a new reality.”5

From the viewpoint of the folks inside the wall, the Gentiles were once “without Christ” (v. 12) – that is, “without the Messiah” – because this gigantic wall excluded them from the community to which the Messiah would come. As outsiders, beyond the wall, they were “aliens to the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise,” and they were therefore without hope, and from a certain perspective, without God.

But, now in Christ Jesus,” Paul says, that has all changed. The shocking surprise of God’s grace has arrived. Paul proclaims that through the cross, those who used to be outsiders, those who were once far off, those who were once in exile,6 have been brought near. Paul nearly quotes the famous “welcome home” text to the people who were in Exile in Babylon from Isaiah 57:19: “Peace, peace, to the far and the near” (cf. Eph. 2:17). The Gentiles have come home to the family of God.

Building Up
But “by no means” does Paul underestimate the enmity that exists between Jews and Gentiles. These were not only the theological skirmishes that continue to exist between Catholics and Protestants, or between Protestants and Anabaptists, or however you want to draw those boundaries. This was the life-and-death conflict of centuries of occupation and revolt, of centuries of hatred and dominance and fear.7 The wall was its own sort of peace agreement – if you can call peace by separation peace.

Yet together, they have become part of God’s family. The ugly wall has come down, and a new and sturdy structure is emerging and growing by the dynamic and surprising power of the Holy Spirit. Again, Yoder: “The message is that Christ has begun a new phase of world history. The primary characterization of that newness is that now within history there is a group of people whom it is not exaggerating to call a ‘new world’ or a ‘new humanity.’”8 The structure of the new order is emerging on the ruins of the old, as the living Christ leads erstwhile enemies across the old walls and presents them together before God.

The church Paul envisions

is not a collection of individuals, each with their own personal peace arrangement with God. The church is the familial community of reconciled enemies. . . If true to its Lord and its calling, the church is as such always a community on the lookout for walls to breach, for enemies to befriend – with each other and with God.9

When it comes to people estranged from God and God’s family, there’s always more room in God’s household. How odd and disheartening to think, then, how often throughout the past two millennia Christians have lined up opposite each other on the battlefield, or in the courtroom, or in those verbal and emotional hostilities – instead of gathering around the table as God’s family.

Yet we are not merely reconciled with each other. Those who were once without God, Paul says, are reconciled in one body to God. The widest and highest wall is finally not between two groups. As Mennonite scholar Thomas Yoder Neufeld observes, “Enmity in the human community constitutes a violation of God’s designs for humanity, and is thus a terrible affront to the loving Creator.”10

He goes on:

All of Ephesians is one long celebration of the fact that the same God whom humanity has offended is the one who has taken the initiative to end enmity. . . God has taken the initiative to reclaim humanity through Christ. The ultimate actor in this drama of Christ as peace is none other than God.11

During his career, the famous Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder spilled not a little ink to share with the wider Christian community the centrality of peace and reconciliation to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He puts it boldly: “If reconciliation between peoples and cultures is not happening, the Gospel’s truth is not being confirmed in that place.”12

Here in Ephesians 2 (one of Yoder’s favorites), Paul so eloquently proclaims that through none other but the cross, Jesus has made peace, has reconciled both groups to God, has put hostility to death by death, has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between enemies of God and God’s family, and has created a new building, a new humanity in place of the two. Indeed, the cross reveals that Christ himself is our peace, and that just as we have been reconciled to God through the cross, so too we are given the calling and mission of reconciling others – Amen!

Christ is our Peace
In closing, you may have noticed that I find the theological intricacies of this beautiful text to be fascinating and inspiring (and you can thank me later for letting you get home in time for lunch), but this is not finally some idea to be passed around in clever books or theology classrooms. This is finally a message of joy and hope to be proclaimed and to be lived.

When I read this beautiful passage of Scripture, especially during this Lenten season when the cross so tangibly awaits us on our pilgrimage, I cannot help but to be filled with wonder and hope for this broken world, because at the far end of every broken relationship, there is the cross; atop every wall of hostility, the cross of Jesus Christ is persistently hammering in cracks; for every estranged member of God’s family Jesus speaks the simple word, “Peace, come home.” Beyond every division and distinction and far beyond the reaches of any exclusion and enmity, I see Christ gathering up the new humanity from amid the ruins of boundaries and barriers, piecing together the household of God, as the new family of God.

If you would have asked me on June 1, 2002, how many brothers and sisters I had, I would have said, “Two. My two brothers James and John.” My brothers whom I dearly love. My brothers who share my genealogy, my brothers who share with me our family’s history and story and legacy of faith. My brothers who even probably all agree 90% of the time.

But the next day, that changed for me when I was baptized into the body of Christ and the family of God. That day, as I was joined to Christ and to his Body, I gained 200 brothers and sisters in my congregation, as part of the new family of God. That day, I gained over 100,000 brothers and sisters across the nation in my immediate Mennonite family; and 1.6 million brothers and sisters worldwide. If you ask me how many brothers and sisters I have, I can no longer say that I have just two brothers; now I have over 2 billion brothers and sisters worldwide – most of whom don’t look like I do, most of whom don’t think like I do, most of whom don’t speak like I do, and most with whom I have significant differences of theology, church, worship, and discipleship.

But we’re all one family because God has said so through the Cross of Christ, whom we all believe in, whom we all trust in, whom we all devote our lives to, whom we all seek to follow in truth in life. Some spend year in contemplating the many mysteries of God. Some have devoted their lives to worship; others to service and peacemaking, to being the face and hands of Christ; others to inviting folks outside the old wall to come on in; but all of us flow together into the one body of Christ

What that means to me is that whenever I meet someone whom I may consider to be an enemy or an outsider or a stranger – whether that person is a part of my family of faith or not – I am called to have the very same mind as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself even to the point of death on the cross. I’m called to participate in the divine nature (as Peter put it) – the nature of God revealed first and foremost at the cross, where we see the primary means of God’s dealing with enemies (and outsiders and strangers): by absorbing hatred, violence, and even death itself by death on the cross.

Because I know that if there is ever any victory I can win, if there is any barrier or wall I can climb over, if there is ever any enemy I can overcome, if there is ever any stranger or alien I can embrace, it is not by my will (and perhaps not even truly of my desire), not by my power or strength or wisdom or abilities or any argument I could muster, nor by any carnal weapon made of human hands I could ever wield against any enemy –

But if I ever overcome anything, it is by the word of testimony to Jesus Christ, and by the blood of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 12), the blood through which we have all been brought near to God (Eph. 2:13), the blood which I trust courses through my own veins by the power of Christ who lives within me (Gal. 2:20), the same blood that I myself am called not to keep to myself but to pour out for others as I also seek to carry in the body the death of Jesus, that his life may also be made visible in me (2 Cor 4:10) in reconciliation, in welcome, and in embrace.

It is the Christ who lives within me through whose death God seeks reconciliation with God’s enemies, and through whose life God saves (Rom. 5:10). It is this Christ who tears down hostile walls and who is himself the cornerstone of the household of God, in whom we are all joined together and grow in the Spirit into a dwelling-place for God, a truly sturdy, beautiful, and enduring household of God, by the reconciling grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the boundless love – even of enemies, strangers, outsiders, and aliens – of God, and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Notes:
1 Thomas Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary, 116.
2 Letter of Aristeas 139, 142; quoted in Yoder Neufeld, 116.
3 Yoder Neufeld, 134.
4 Or how it influences us. Spending time with a group of narcotics users could influence us positively – toward greater compassion and healing presence; or negatively – toward substance abuse.
5 John Howard Yoder, Body Politics, 37.
6 Paul’s language here hearkens back to Isaiah 52:7 and Isaiah 57:19 – two texts, interestingly enough, aimed at comforting the Hebrew exiles.
7 Of course, the 16-century violence does give us a window into the persistent suspicion, fear, and hatred.
8 Yoder, 37.
9 Yoder Neufeld, 134.
10 Yoder Neufeld, 121.
11 Yoder Neufeld, 121.
12 Yoder, 38.

The whole assembly kept silence and listened

April 6th, 2011 No comments

“The whole assembly kept silence and listened” (Acts 15:1-35)
By Pastor Katherine Goerzen
March 27, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Acts 15, the passage just enacted for us, tells the story of conflict in the early church: Now after experiencing the power and good news of the resurrected Christ, the apostles were empowered and sent out to preach the gospel of God’s grace to all of the world, not only to God’s chosen people, the Jews, but also now to Gentiles, the other nations, the ones previously thought to be excluded from God’s people, the ones previously thought to be excluded from God’s favor and grace. But now all people were included in the plan for God’s salvation; so the apostles were sent out among the nations to preach the good news “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”1 And slowly household after household converted to the faith and became house-church after house-church; and these conversions “brought great joy to all the believers.”2

But there were some questions that the new converts and the apostles had regarding the requirements of becoming a part of the followers of Christ. As the Christian movement was a part of the Jewish faith, they wondered whether new Gentile converts then needed to fulfill all of the requirements of the Law; and one of these requirements that was especially troubling to them was the issue of circumcision. Now the thought of circumcision was uncomfortable to the men who were new to the faith, and this was a risky, and even life-threatening, procedure, especially for adults. Were they really required to go through with this? There were some members of the early church who didn’t think so; they believed that God was doing a new thing, and that the more important thing was “the circumcision of the heart,” an inner transformation rather than this specific outward sign.

But there were some members of the early church who still saw circumcision as an important mark of being included in the people of God, and they continued to insist that all men who had been converted to the faith still had to be circumcised; after all, Jesus himself had been circumcised. This was not an issue of ethnic exclusion; none of these believers objected to preaching to the Gentiles. The issue for them was that circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant and blessing. They wondered how a male Gentile who was not circumcised could possibly participate in the blessings promised to the covenant people if he did not bear the mark of the covenant. They wondered whether these Gentiles could possibly be saved.3

Now these members who still saw circumcision as important began going around to the new converts and insisting that the men become circumcised. As you can imagine, this frustrated both the Gentile men who were new to the faith, as well as the other believers who did not see circumcision as a necessary part of the faith. What were they to do? Well, like all Christians do at some point or another, they got into an argument with each other. One Bible translates this as “no small dissension and debate,” but more than likely this was a heated debate or argument, where both sides claimed to have the truth, both sides claimed to be more in keeping with God’s will.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I think of the early church, the thought of them arguing is never the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, the early church seems to me like a golden era, a time when they built each other up, with lovely metaphors of the church as the Body with each member having a vital role to play, a time of sharing everything they had not only with each other, but with others in need. Yes, we know that they faced persecution, but didn’t all of this come from outside of the church, from the Roman empire? Weren’t things going well within the church itself? Didn’t they all get along as followers of Christ? It’s difficult to picture them arguing with other members of the church, saying hateful things in forceful tones. These were the men and women who had known Jesus, who had walked with him and learned from him. These were the men and women who the Holy Spirit had descended upon during the time of Pentecost, who had been empowered and sent by God. Yet here we have an account of these devoted believers debating and disagreeing with each other. Even among the early church there were arguments over what was required of the believers. But let me emphasize that there were heartfelt, sincere believers on all sides of this issue (for as with any issue, there are always more than just two sides) but there were heartfelt, faithful believers on all sides just as there are in any church conflict today. People on all sides were faithfully trying to follow where they felt God leading them. People on all sides saw support in the Scriptures that they held to be dear. People on all sides had experienced the saving power of Christ and were interpreting this into their own situations and experiences. People on all sides had found grace either through the practice of circumcision or through new-found freedom in Christ.

But we may wonder, if there were heartfelt, sincere, faithful believers involved on all sides of this conflict, then why was there conflict in the first place? If they were all faithful followers of Christ, shouldn’t there be unity within the Body? Wouldn’t everything go smoothly and peacefully if those sympathetic to the other side of the issue would just “get right with God?” Many of us see conflict as sin, as a sign that everything is not right, and indeed we do live in a fallen world and there are very, very painful conflicts that we find ourselves in the midst of, conflicts that owe as much to Sin as anything else and are very hurtful to all who are involved. But I wonder if conflict per se is instead part of the natural order of things, and not an indication that the world is fallen. I know that conflict can be caused by our sin, but I wonder if conflict is not sinful in and of itself.

In his book The Journey Toward Reconciliation, John Paul Lederach wonders, based upon his reading of Genesis 1-3, whether conflict was inherent in the order of creation even before the fall. He says that “each human was created in the image of God with the capacity to think, reflect, feel, and act. And yet each was created as a unique individual, and each has the freedom to choose. All of this was built into the creation before the Fall.”4 God gave us the power to choose when the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was planted in the garden, even before Adam and Eve chose to eat its fruit. And with the wide diversity and uniqueness with which each of us have been created by God, all with this ability to think and reason and choose for ourselves, Lederach concludes that “built into God’s original plan before the Fall, humankind was conceived in such a way that made differences and conflict inevitable.”5

Well, if conflict is natural, if it is, in fact, inevitable, then how do we begin to deal with it? I believe that Acts 15 gives us a window into how the church has responded and how the church can respond to conflict in its midst. There are three things that I would like to highlight that I believe we can learn about conflict in the church from this passage. The First thing that the early apostles seemed to do was to recognize that there was conflict and to name it for what it was; they identified the issue that was causing this argument. “After the early church members had a sharp argument and disagreement with each other, some of them were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.”6

They acknowledged the conflict that they had with each other. Now often we fear to admit that there is conflict in our midst or we fear to bring it up with those we are in disagreement with for we are afraid that by naming the issue, we will put a strain on our relationships and make things worse. And it is true, simply by naming the conflict with those we are in disagreement with, we make ourselves vulnerable, and it can be uncomfortable and painful to do this.

But those whose story is told in Acts 15 seemed to understand that recognizing and naming the conflict that they had with each other was an important part of their commitment to each other in the Body of Christ. They seemed to know that even though they disagreed with each other, that their relationship was important enough that they would be transparent and vulnerable with each other rather than simply pretending that everything was fine between them. They would risk acknowledging the conflict rather than continuing to mask their pain by smiling on the outside while hurting on the inside. But they also knew that their disagreement with each other did not need to lead to separation and severed relationships, but that it could instead lead to an increased understanding of where their brothers and sisters in Christ were coming from, it could lead to strengthening the relationship that they already had with each other, and it could lead to growing together in their understanding of how God was moving among them.7 So when there is conflict, and there will be conflict, may we find the wisdom to know when to acknowledge it and the courage to name the conflict before those with whom we disagree.

Second, the people in Acts 15 created a space where they could come together to discuss this issue where all sides could be represented. Those on each side of the issue didn’t meet together secretly to discuss what could be done with those unbelievers on the other side. “They went to Jerusalem, where they were welcomed by the church, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of these believers stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses.’ So they met together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, others stood up and gave their own testimony.”8

Now in reading the text, it seems as though the issue was settled quickly, as the writer glosses over the discussion before Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and James spoke up. But it says that they spoke only after there was much discussion and debate. And we see from the text that both those who saw circumcision as important and those who did not were given a chance to speak; all present were given a voice. Now if church conflict today is any indication of how they handled it here in Acts, we can assume that things did not all go smoothly. More than likely there were some heated arguments that went back and forth, and perhaps some of them even said hateful things that they wished they could take back. But all were given a chance to speak; and after all of their debating and discussion, the writer saw it important enough to include that “the whole assembly also kept silence and listened.”9 So when there’s conflict, and there will be conflict, may we create a space so that all voices may he heard.

Which brings me to the Third thing that this passage has to say to conflict in the church: perhaps the most important thing that we can do in conflict is to listen, to truly hear what those who disagree with us are saying so that we might understand them as well as understand where they are coming from, as all of us are trying to be faithful followers of Christ. The people involved in this conflict here in Acts knew how important it was to create a space for people not only to speak (for when we simply speak during disagreements, we usually end up speaking past each other), but they created a space to listen to each other, for in doing so, they would not only hear the other, but they would also hear the voice of God. For God was speaking through the members of the early church; God was indeed doing a new thing even though God had certainly done a lot of good and had shown much grace through “the way they had always done it before,” but God was moving in new ways for a new era. And yet not everything had to change, as there were still important things from the past that they held on to, as the letter to the congregations suggests.

After they listened to the voice of God speaking among them they reached a peaceful consensus (although perhaps not all of them agreed at the end), which they in turn spread to the surrounding churches who received this news with joy. It is perhaps an odd thing to think that God could be speaking through our conflict, but if conflict was indeed inherent from the beginning, perhaps God did this so that we might hear God speaking to us, so that we might recognize God moving us in a different direction. So when there’s conflict, and there will be conflict, may we take time to truly hear each other, for in doing so we may hear the very voice of God.

But how do we listen to each other? In a world with so many distractions, with so much busyness, it’s hard enough to listen to each other when things are going well, let alone when there is a heated disagreement. So often “in conflict, before we even hear what the other side has said, we assume we know what they mean. We have already attached motives to their messages. Often, even before they have finished, we are developing our response.”10 Too often we think of conflict as something that we need to win rather than an opportunity for growth and new understanding. This all perpetuates the vicious cycle of speaking past each other and misunderstanding each other. This cycle does not allow for growth and it leaves all sides feeling as though they were not heard. So how is it that we truly begin to listen to each other and to God’s voice speaking among us? When it comes to conflict in the church, we need to approach any disagreement out of genuine love and affection for the other person, for our brother or sister in Christ, for another vital member of the Body. When we talk with them, we should not do so to convince them that we are right and to get them to agree with us, but so that we might listen to them to truly understand them. “So that we might not so much seek to be understood as to understand.”11 So that after they are done speaking we would be able to paraphrase everything that they said. This does not mean that we have to agree with what they’re saying, but this at least gives us an opportunity to learn why this other person feels or thinks the way that they do. We do this out of our deep love for our fellow members of the church.

None of us has the whole of God’s Truth, yet all of us have a part of God’s Truth. As all of us were created in God’s image, let us truly seek to listen for that which is of God in each of us. For in doing so we may come to a new understanding or we may hear the very voice of God. “Conflict does not have to be seen as a disruption in our otherwise peaceful lives.”12 Conflict instead provides a space for God to speak to us; and this can happen when we seek to truly listen to each other and to seek God’s voice together. May it be so in our lives together. Amen.

Notes:
1 Acts 1:8.
2 Taken from Acts 15:3.
3 William H. Willimon, Acts Commentary, Interpretation Series.
4 John Paul Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation.
5 Ibid.
6 Acts 15:2 (paraphrased).
7 Ideas from this paragraph and from the following paragraphs are from Lederach.
8 Acts 15:4-7 (paraphrased).
9 Taken from Acts 15:12.
10 Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation.
11 From the Prayer of St. Francis.
12 Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation.

Hidden Dreams

April 6th, 2011 No comments

“Hidden Dreams” (Genesis 37-50)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 20, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Today we continue our Lenten journey with Jesus, a journey which will inevitably bring us to the cross. Jesus has, as Paul put it, “broken down the dividing wall between us. . .” and “put to death that hostility through [the cross]” (Eph. 2:11-22), so our Lenten journey is also a journey toward reconciliation – both with God and with one another. It is to this that we turn our attention along our annual spiritual pilgrimage to the cross this year.

Today, as we continue to look toward the cross, we take a look backway back – to the famous story of Joseph and his brothers, from the end of Genesis.

This is one of those stories that seems to keep saying something new every time you tell it. Sometimes when I hear it, I’m filled with hope because of what God has done in preserving the promise; sometimes I’m filled with despair because I know that the family’s move to Egypt means that 400 year of slavery await them. Sometimes, I’m inspired by Joseph’s wisdom in dealing with and testing his brothers; sometimes I’m appalled at how he manipulates them. I’m impressed with Reuben and Judah, who try to stand up for Joseph, but shocked that they do little else to help him. I’m amazed at Joseph’s rise to power in the world’s great empire, and disappointed at how he uses his power and foresight to seize land for Pharoah from the Egyptians.

Joseph’s narrative is a story about intrigue and empire; it’s a story about God’s sovereignty in hidden ways; it’s a story about dreams and promise. Today, since we’re looking toward broken-down walls, we want to look at this as the story of a family on a journey toward reconciliation and into God’s future.

Cocky 17-Year-Old
Joseph was a seventeen-year-old boy when it all started. Well, he gets back from helping his older brothers tend sheep, like usual, and delivers an unflattering report of his brothers, like usual – and the report is maybe at least partly true. And of course, Jacob believes this favorite son of his.

You can imagine that the older boys don’t take too kindly to getting chewed out by their dad while Joseph quietly smirks at them, plenty pleased with his lot in life. A regular occurrence in the house of Jacob, I imagine. Jacob spoils Joseph all the more; Joseph’s brothers deplore him all the more.

Then, one day, things get worse. Seventeen-year-old Joseph has a fantastic dream. Surely this dream confirms his superiority in every way over the less-favored brothers. And, in good favored-child fashion, Joseph dawns his royal favored-child robe with sleeves and many colors, and goes and tells his brothers all about it, making sure they don’t miss the part where they bow down to their younger brother.

His brothers roll their eyes as he starts up again. “There we were,” Joseph says, retelling this dream for the thousandth time, “binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf!”

It’s not too surprising that his brothers get sick of it all pretty quickly, and start hating him more and more each time their cocky kid brother opens his mouth. Dreams are not something that these brothers appreciate. What really sets them off, though, is when Juvenile Joe starts telling an even more outlandish version of the dream. “The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

Was even his deceased mother to bow down to him? Well, apparently hotshot young Joseph went way too far with that one, drawing even the rebuke of his father, who ordinarily spoiled him. Nonetheless, Jacob, the father of young Joseph, kept the dream in mind.

Joseph’s Brothers Scorn the Dream
Well, his brothers kept it in mind too, except they have it in mind to murder him. They aren’t dreamers, you see. One day, while they’re out a ways pasturing the flocks, Jacob sends Joseph out like usual to bring back a report, as if would be any less unflattering than usual.

Seeing him coming, the older brothers get to scheming with one another, “Here comes this dreamer,” they say to one another, not bothering to conceal their contempt for the boy. “Let’s kill him!” one of them cries. “Yeah, and throw him in the pit.” “And tell Dad a lion killed him!” “Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams,” pipes up one of them, and the brothers roar with laughter.

Now, old Reuben, he has at least a half a conscience about him, and recommends that instead of killing him, they just throw him into the pit. Judah, who also seems to have at least a half a conscience, recommends that they just sell him into slavery instead – and make a little money to boot. So off to Egypt young Joseph goes, and all his dreams with him.

And the brothers have their scheme together. They tear Joseph’s fancy robe, smear it with goat’s blood, put on their faces of alarm, and dash off to father Jacob. “Look what we’ve found! Is it your son’s robe?!”

And Jacob wept and wept for his son, and saw no end to his grief until the time would come for the grave to claim him. As for the brothers, they are free of their arrogant little brother and his grandiose dreams. Such fanciful things they do not wish to believe. Deceit, grief, favoritism, rivalry, cutoff. That’s how you describe Jacob’s family.

The Brothers Come for Food
Skip ahead a number of years. The family is still at odds. Having long forgotten the dreams of his youth, Joseph has miraculously risen to be the Pharaoh’ s right-hand man, among much drama and intrigue. He has interpreted the Pharoah’s dream about the years of plenty and the years of famine, and has shrewdly prepared for the famine that is now at hand.

The famine has stretched all the way to the land of Canaan, where Jacob and his sons are living. Jacob, having heard of the storehouses of grain in Egypt, sends his sons to go and buy grain. Except he keeps home his second-favorite, Benjamin, the younger brother of Joseph, and the one when his favored wife Rachel had died during childbirth. Jacob, anxious and grieving, simply cannot lose Benjamin too.

Soon the ten brothers find themselves before their younger brother, Joseph, whom they cannot recognize. Joseph, on the other hand, recognizes them, but treats them harshly, accusing them of spying, and he throws them into prison. One wonders whether a smirk crossed Joseph’s face as he at last remembered the long-forgotten dream of his youth. It would seem he was finally getting his just vengeance upon his brothers for their treachery of long ago.

But he still longs to see his brother Benjamin. Keeping Simeon hostage, he sends the brothers on their way with the grain with instructions to bring Benjamin back. Little do the men know, Joseph has slipped their payment back into their sacks, making them liable to accusation of robbery.

When they get back to Canaan, however, Jacob, unable to part with Benjamin, will hear none of the plan. He chooses instead to leave Simeon in jail in Egypt rather than risk losing Benjamin. When they find themselves hungry once more, they need to take Benjamin with them to get food, but Jacob responds by blaming his sons for revealing that they have another brother at home. It’s their fault. They need Benjamin in order to get food, but Jacob won’t hear of it – he’s too busy playing the blame game.

Stuck
Stuck. That’s what Jacob’s family, this family in conflict, is. The brothers finally realize that their bitterness has brought such anguish upon them. Joseph’s relentless testing literally has one brother in stuck in jail. And Jacob – it was his flagrant and repeated favoritism that got them into the whole mess to begin with – first with Joseph and now with Benjamin. It’s as though Jacob won’t exist apart from these two favored sons. And God’s role in all this is mysterious, behind the scenes, difficult to name and decipher.

So they’re stuck: 1) The family is starving once again. 2) The brothers don’t know who Joseph is, and still have not taken responsibility for their actions. 3) Joseph won’t release more grain without seeing Benjamin. 4) Jacob won’t let Benjamin go. 5) And who knows what God’s hidden purposes though all this have been!

Stuck in fear and conflict, and all they have is an old, forgotten dream that has caused so much conflict and fear, an old forgotten dream hardly worth believing. Seems like all of God’s promises have come to a screeching, grinding halt.

How is it that we so often find ourselves stuck like that? How do we end up in those binds where someone needs to make a new move to break the grief, but no one has the courage, where each person thinks it’s the other’s responsibility? How is it that we’d often rather assign blame than work together toward resolution? Do you ever look around and just wonder how on earth you ever got so stuck?

Maybe in some ways, that’s the human problem we acknowledge and confess during the season of Lent. We’ve gotten ourselves stuck. You don’t have to look much further than the front page of the paper (or in a mirror, for that matter!) to figure out how badly stuck we are – in our relationships with each other, in our stewardship of God’s creation, in the ways we care for one another, in how we witness to the world, perhaps even in our ability to trust and worship God. Lent is a season that drives us to our knees in confession that we’ve gotten ourselves stuck all right, and we can’t get out on our own.

Being stuck is frustrating. And the more frustration there is, the deeper you get stuck. Accusation follows accusation. Reuben was full of typical “I told you so”’s. That didn’t help. Jacob yells accusations at his sons. No help there either. Judah responds with his own exasperated speech.

Jacob Trusts the Dream
And then, something happens. Somehow Jacob makes a move. Somehow Jacob breaks through his grief to release young Benjamin. I don’t know how or why Jacob finally changed his mind and released Benjamin. Maybe he finally realized he’d starve, and his whole family with him.

But I wonder if there’s more to it than that. Jacob, you’ll remember, was the one who kept Joseph’s scandalous dream in mind. “May El Shaddai – God Almighty – grant you mercy,” Jacob finally says. Jacob “invokes this old name for God and hopes for mercy. Everything is staked on that one name.” At a time when every promise of God seems to be in jeopardy, Jacob “dares to think of a new possibility. In his boldness, he breaks the cycle of his own grief and loss. And at the same time, he breaks the sons’ spiral of betrayal and deception. Jacob is a picture of faithfulness that permits newness. He is able to care and grieve and therefore to hope.”1

And look what happens. Jacob clearly had a big role in getting the family suck in the first place with his constant favoritism, but Jacob’s courageous hope, his risky vulnerability, is what finally gets the wheels moving again. The brothers are able to go, finally. Joseph runs them through the wringer again, but Jacob has enabled Judah to make a moving and selfless speech to Joseph: “Throw me in prison, not the boy Benjamin.” And then Joseph, so long hidden from his brothers but now greatly moved, is able to reveal himself. “I am Joseph, your brother. . . Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves. . . God sent me before you to preserve life. . . You meant to harm me, but God worked it for good.”

Meaning of the Dream
The meaning of the dream is finally revealed. Joseph’s dream, it turns out, wasn’t about some cocky kid lording it over his brothers, as Joseph had imagined it in his youth. It wasn’t about humiliation or rivalry, as his brothers had imagined it. It was a dream about provision for God’s future and for God’s promise.

To Joseph, it meant his superiority over his brothers. To his brothers, it meant humiliation. But really, the dream was of provision for God’s people in their time of need, in their time of famine. It is after all, originally God’s dream – the dream of a people to bless the nations, the dream of a people to bring healing and hope and release to a world that’s stuck.

Not even the flagrant favoritism of a father can obliterate the dream; not even the arrogance of a spoiled youth can derail God’s purpose; not even the bitterness and murderous jealousy of the unappreciated brothers can cancel out God’s dream, which works through, with, and in human actions and even in spite of human plotting and disobedience.

I have to wonder if maybe Jacob caught a brief glimpse of this dream for God’s future, and that’s why he could finally let Benjamin go. At any rate, it is because of the dream that we find Joseph finally weeping with his brothers, reconciling with them, and after so many years of rivalry, finally actually talking with them.

Trusting the Dream in the Shadows of Grief
But Jacob knew not of this future reconciliation when he drew up the courage and released Benjamin. Jacob is hardly a heroic figure. Judah and the other brothers didn’t even like the dream to begin with. Joseph was still dead to Jacob and still trapped in his suspicion. God’s actions were as yet mysterious, undetectable, unclear, when Jacob said “go.”

Jacob didn’t release Benjamin, didn’t get the family system unstuck, in the light of the reconciliation to come and the revelation of what God had been doing. That all came later. No, Jacob was still in the shadow of his own grief, reaching for God amid the thick fog of pain and ambiguity, most likely severely doubting God’s promises, when he chose to trust the hidden dream. Jacob is the picture of trusting God among the shadows, the grief, the conflict.

It’s like when the power goes out in the middle of the night, and everything is pitch black. You take a few steps and realize you’re disoriented. You can stay stuck right where you are, afraid of what might happen – what you might break, which stairway you might fall down – or, you can trust the dream and take a step. And it’s just that step, that one step, that gets things unstuck and starts to make reconciliation possible.

This, you see, is a season that beckons us to trust the hidden dream, the hidden call, the hidden promise, the mystery of God, the scandal of the cross, even in our moments of injury, of confusion, of fog, of conflict, of stuckness. Perhaps those are the moments when faith is most fully revealed and the Holy Spirit empowers us to follow Christ, and to say, “I am your brother, I am your sister.”

For it is God’s dream, and what God has dreamed will come to pass.

Notes:
1 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Series, 339.

Go and Be Reconciled

March 15th, 2011 No comments

“Go and Be Reconciled” (Matthew 5:21-26; 18:15-20)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 13, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I’ve always thought a little well-placed humor goes a long way when it comes to conflict. Apparently John Paul Lederach, long-time Mennonite peace maker and peace instructor, thought so too. He retells the passage we just read together, according to what he calls the “Actual Practice Version.” It goes as follows:

Actual Practice Version

When you have a problem with somebody in the church, check it out first to make sure you are not alone in this problem. There is a good chance that if you have had a problem with this person, somebody else has as well. Go and pick a good friend who is likely to understand and agree with you. If she agrees with you that this person is a real turkey, then talk to some more people to see if there is broader consensus. . . If a friend, a small group, and a lawyer agree, then tell it to the church, preferably in private to the pastor and elders. When you tell them, say it is a concern that you have prayed about for some time and that there is a group of people who share the concern. . . Truly I say to you, from that point on, it is the responsibility of the pastor and elders to take care of the problem. Your task is to make sure they do it right.

Anger/Conflict Denial
The contrast between the Jesus version and the Actual Practice Version “shows the many ways we tend to avoid and actually extend the conflict within the community.”1 That is to say, conflict in our relationships with one another is tough. And Jesus doesn’t seem to make matters any easier on us. His teaching here in Matthew 18, and also in Matthew 5, sounds tough. Why, skip back to Matthew 5, and it even sounds like Jesus says you’re not supposed to ever be angry!

Now of course, I think most of us have tried not being angry, and all the variations upon that theme. After all, isn’t the first unwritten commandment of being Mennonite, “Thou shalt always be nice?” So we deny our anger or frustration. We go ahead and just bury that nasty thing someone said, that disagreement we had, that time we weren’t listed to like we should have been. We just go ahead and bury that under a nicely finished veneer of smiles and “Oh, it’s no big deal”’s. And it works great for a while. Years, maybe.

But have you ever noticed what happens little by little when we pretend to deny our anger or our frustration, when we bury it and pretend everything’s OK? Have you ever noticed, how lots of little things start adding up, and before you know it, you’re questioning the motives of everything the other person does. You get that tight feeling in your stomach every time you see that other person. Before you know it, just about everything the other person says is an attack on you.

They say something innocent enough like, “Hey, nice haircut,” and you start wondering why on earth they would say such a terrible thing – such horrible sarcasm. Soon enough, you’re disagreeing with everything the person says, and no doubt sneaking in a few snide remarks now and then and maybe even start doing those sorts of things that we call “passive aggressive.”

And sometime down the road, there’s something that comes up – maybe even something totally unrelated – some disagreement or discussion, and you feel compelled not to give an inch. But you’re not angry. No, you smile and say, “Oh, it’s no big deal.” Yeah, right. Surely some of us have been down that anger and conflict denial road.

Transforming Initiatives
Well, I sure hope Jesus didn’t mean never to be angry, because that road of denial just doesn’t end well. And I recall reading about a few times when Jesus himself got angry. Well, you know, if you read it closely, you discover that Jesus didn’t actually say, “Don’t be angry.”

What he did was to warn about what happens when we get angry with each other, how angry insult comes after angry insult, how things start spinning out of control. You know how conflict tends to escalate. Insult follows insult. Accusation follows accusation. One person draws in one friend. The other draws in another friend.

We know the same thing is true even if we try and pretend there’s no conflict. It still escalates, just more subtly. Anger multiplies whether we insult someone directly, or whether it’s the inward bitterness and fear that grows over time. Jesus knows where all kinds of outward anger and inward bitterness lead. He knows how it corrupts our character over time, how it distorts our relationships with one another, how we start seeing everything in terms of conflict, how that coil of bitterness winds its way inside us and starts to choke out the life. How ultimately it compromises our unity, our witness before a watching world, and our faithfulness to Christ.

Jesus knows how frustration eventually comes to express itself in verbal, emotional, and physical violence. Like a doctor diagnosing an illness that will lead to death unless the patient takes certain actions, Jesus diagnoses a vicious cycle that will lead to judgment and destruction if not dealt with.

But he doesn’t say, “Don’t be angry,” either. He doesn’t say to pretend everything’s OK. Instead, here in Matthew 5, he says to do five things to transform the relationship from anger to reconciliation:

1. Leave Your Gift
First, if you’re offering your gift at the altar, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there. Now, the best way to tell if your brother or sister has something against you is probably if you yourself have something against a brother or sister.

And if your brother or sister has something against you, and you feel yourself getting frustrated about it, you could continue on and offer your gift as if nothing is wrong. You could respond in kind with more anger and frustration and bitterness and take another loop around the anger spiral.

Yet Jesus seems to be saying that the anger and frustration we have against others affects our worship and our relationship with God. How are we glorifying God by harboring bitterness towards others in the church? How is the Body of Christ honoring its head if its members see each other as the enemy. Anger and frustration are normal, but when they spin out of control, we don’t worship God.

Jesus says that rather than going on like usual and offering the gift, rather than letting the vicious cycle of bitterness continue, stop. Leave the gift on the altar. Break up the ordinary by deciding that as far as it depends on you, this bitterness will come to an end.

Last week, you may recall, we reflected on Jesus’ teaching about forgiving one another, about how forgiveness puts an end to the vicious cycles of bitterness and vengeance. I think leaving the gift behind at the altar is a lot like forgiveness. Leaving the gift, letting go of the claim on the other person, forgiving, is what makes reconciliation possible.

And yet, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf adds,

Forgiveness is necessary, but will it suffice? Forgiveness is the boundary between exclusion and embrace. It heals the wounds that the power-acts of exclusion have inflicted and breaks down the dividing wall of hostility. Yet it leaves a distance between people, an empty space of neutrality, that allows them either to go their separate ways in what is sometimes called “peace” or to fall into each other’s arms and restore broken communion.2

“Going one’s own way” may be the “boldest dream. . . a person caught in the vortex of violence can muster.” That sort of separation may be “all that is possible or even desirable”3 at times for some relationships, but it is clearly not yet the peace and reconciliation Jesus desires for God’s creatures.

2. Go
Second, Jesus therefore says, “go.” It’s also the first step of the so-called “rule of Christ” in Matthew 18. Go to that person who has caused you pain, and the way these things usually work, whom you’ve probably hurt as well, whether intentionally or unintentionally, or simply by the bitterness you harbor in your soul. Jesus says to do the one thing most of us would much rather not do: go to the person with whom you have a conflict. Go to the person with whom you’re frustrated or angry or bitter.

We’re called, oddly enough, to move toward “the very source of our fears.”4 Isn’t it just so much easier to go and talk to a friend or someone who will take your side? Doesn’t it just feel so much better to unload all that bitterness and anxiety on someone who will take your side? Isn’t it just so much easier to talk about people than to talk with them?

We drag other people into the conflict to take some of our anxiety, and maybe even some of our responsibility. Soon enough, we’ve got a whole group of folks sharing our bitterness and probably not fully understanding what’s going on. So there are secrets and half-truths and behind-the-back whispers, when we don’t go directly to the person.

Of course, there may be times when we need a trusted friend to help us figure out how best to respond – how to find the strength and grace to move toward the other – how best to “go,” but that’s different from unloading our bitterness and getting like-minded folks on our side so we don’t have to “go.” Instead, Jesus says, “go.” Go.

Now, I don’t think that Jesus means we have to go and have a big discussion with someone every time we’re walking down the sidewalk and someone bumps into us. There are lots of things that we can just let go without any trouble. But when you’re up at night mulling it over, or when it’s eating at you the next day, and the day after, that’s a good sign that it’s time to leave your gift on the altar and “go.”

3. Be Reconciled
Third, Jesus, says, “be reconciled.” It’s one thing to go to the brother or sister with whom you have the conflict; it’s quite another to go and be reconciled. Our instinct is go to accuse and blame our brothers and sisters, and to defend ourselves, or we seek to show that we were right.

Reconciliation is more difficult, more risky because we go and become vulnerable. We become vulnerable to having our efforts to reconcile rejected, or to admitting that we had some role in the conflict and perhaps that we were in the wrong, or to giving up some of the certainty we thought we had, or to seeing things differently.

When we go for reconciliation, we make ourselves vulnerable, going with open arms, making space within ourselves for our brother or sister. But reconciliation cannot be forced. We go with open arms, and then we must wait for the other person. And that waiting may take years. In Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son, the father had to wait for a long time for his son to return. The process of reconciliation takes dedication, prayerful vulnerability, self-awareness, and grace.

4-5. Offer your gift; Make peace quickly
Then, Jesus says, come and offer your gift. Our worship of God is the most genuine when we are in right relationship with others. And finally, Jesus adds additional counsel: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser.” Don’t force reconciliation when it cannot happen, but don’t delay it either. Delayed reconciliation allows for bitterness to mount and vicious cycles to spin out of control. Jesus urges us to act quickly. When you sense hostility rising between you and another person, drop what you’re doing, go to the other with open arms, talk with the other, and seek peace, Jesus says.

Handling conflict in the church
In closing, Jesus also knows that sometimes reconciliation doesn’t happen. Sometimes wounds are so deep, misunderstandings are so immense, that we can’t find reconciliation on our own. So, hopping back to Matthew 18, he says to try it alone first, and then ask someone to help. The additional person involved must create a holy space where the parties in conflict can safely be vulnerable and honest. The additional person is not there to solve the problem but to be a source of accountability for all involved.

Then, Jesus says, if that doesn’t work, tell it to the church – perhaps a small group, or Sunday School class, or leaders, or the entire congregation. What this means for all of us is that conflict resolution is spiritual work. It requires prayer, discernment, openness, growth, and transformation. It also means that “the church is a place to process and work with conflict, not a place that is free from conflict.”5

And Jesus says an interesting thing – if you can’t solve the conflict, the church is to treat the offending parties as Gentiles or tax collectors. And I think we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He reached out to them, healed them, ate with them, and died for them.

Sometimes we’re embarrassed by conflict – either in the church or in our families. We see conflict as a symptom of weakness, of lack of discipline, even of sin. But that’s often not the case. God has created and shaped us all in beautifully different ways. And when we all get together, we’re not going to see and do everything the same way, and there’s going to be conflict. In fact, I’ve wondered if you could find a family or congregation that truly trusts and knows one another and has absolutely no conflict.

When you go to the gym to lift weights, your muscles tear just a little bit. And if those tiny tears are allowed to heal, the muscle becomes stronger. But if they are not allowed to heal, the muscle becomes injured. Conflict is a natural part of growth, and it can be healthy if it is handled properly; if it is not handled properly, it causes injury.

As we continue to reflect on the reconciliation we share in Christ this Lenten season, when we encounter conflict or bitterness or anger, may we find deliverance from vicious cycles of living in anger and resentment, and deliverance into “transforming initiatives that build community.”6 Reconciliation is challenging and risky and often seems impossible. This Lenten season, as we look to the cross, we are reminded that it is impossible apart from the saving work of Christ.

May God grant us the healing empowerment to leave our gifts and drop what we’re doing, together with our claim of vengeance; may God give us the courage to face our fear and anxiety and go to the brother or sister; may God give us the grace and creativity and compassion to find reconciliation; may God give us the joy of worshiping in right relationship; and the wisdom to seek peace sooner, rather than later., and hopefully a touch of divine humor and grace to lift us up. Amen.

Notes:
1 John Paul Lederach, Journey Toward Reconciliation, 123.
2 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 126.
3 Volf, 127.
4 Lederach, 124.
5 Lederach, 131.
6 Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 196.

Echoes of Forgiveness

March 15th, 2011 No comments

“Echoes of Forgiveness” (Matthew 18:21-35)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 6, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

“Pay what you owe!”
Next week, we’ll get to look at the prequel to this story – Jesus’ famous teaching to his disciples about how to deal with conflict and discipline in the church. Well, after class, Peter was looking over his notes, and he had a question – a good question, really. How many times must I forgive? How much grace is needed before someone finally must come under judgment and face the full brunt of consequence for his actions? Where do you draw the line? How long before you say, “Look, this just isn’t working”? Seven times sounded like a generous, nice, round number. How many times must I forgive?

Well, Jesus had a story to help Peter out with this one – a challenging parable about the king of a large kingdom and his servants – probably his regional governors. Well, to skip ahead in the story a bit, one of these governors had been generous enough lend some money to a fellow governor when he had come up short – a hundred denarii, maybe a few thousand bucks. Not exactly pocket change, but among governors, not exactly a life’s savings either.

When the loan comes due, the governor discovers that his debtor is a deadbeat. He isn’t good for it. He doesn’t have the cash. Finally the governor has had enough of it. He takes hold of this delinquent debtor and demands payment. When his fellow governor still can’t pay, he does what any sensible creditor or bank would do. He forecloses on him and throws him into debtor’s prison until his family pays off the full balance of the debt.

That’s what you have to do with delinquent debtors. If you let everyone’s debt slide, soon you go bankrupt yourself. It is his money, after all. Why would he let it slide? Wouldn’t that let the debtor off the hook? Wouldn’t that encourage others to do the same? Wouldn’t that be dethroning justice? Wouldn’t that be condoning the delinquent behavior?

Why should he forgive the debt? Forget forgiving seven times. Why forgive even once? Besides, don’t most of the wounds we carry run much deeper than our bank account balance? Sure, maybe it makes sense to forgive when someone unintentionally hurts us. But even so, why let offenders off the hook? Doesn’t it send the message that their actions have no consequences? Moreover, doesn’t forgiveness passively condone evil? What about abusers, murderers, terrorists, and the world’s evil dictators? Surely their unspeakable crimes are unforgivable. Wouldn’t forgiveness deny the suffering of their victims? Wouldn’t it be a horrible offense to justice? How does forgiveness help the victim?

We are left with the question, Why should we forgive? What’s wrong with enthroning the claims of justice? What’s wrong with reclaiming the debt?

So also to every one of you
Well, as you and I know, the king in this story has ten thousand reasons why this governor was wrong to reclaim the debt, and to our satisfaction, he hands this ungrateful governor over to be tortured until he can pay the full balance of his debt. That’s all fine and good, but the way Jesus wraps up the parable has always been challenging for me: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” he says, “if you do not forgive your brother o sister from your heart.”

It’s one thing to cancel someone’s loan, or to forgive a minor offense. It’s quite another to be deeply physically, emotionally, or spiritually violated. What I wanna know is, Why place this added requirement on someone who has already been so deeply wounded? Why burden the wounded with the guilt of hurting too much to be able to forgive? Isn’t that like saying to the victim, “It’s your responsibility to fix this”?

We followers of Christ may utter the words “I forgive you” freely enough, but do we every truly forgive from the heart? Do we ever really let go of the resentment? Think of those people who have hurt you over and over and over throughout your life? Wouldn’t it be great if someone would finally put ‘em in their place? Don’t we say to ourselves in the secret of our hearts, “Forgive them not, Father, for they knew what they did”? Can we ever truly forgive from the heart?

In Jerusalem, we met a man named Rami. One day, there was a suicide bombing in his community, and his 14-year-old daughter didn’t come home. He went searching from hospital to hospital, but finally found her at the morgue. How could anyone expect Rami to even begin to forgive those who had planned and executed such senseless destruction and murderous evil, which robbed him and his family of their young daughter, let alone to forgive from the depths of his heart?

Maybe our question isn’t just, “Why should we forgive?” but also, “How can we truly forgive from the heart?”

10,000 Talents
Well, I think that the king in our story would answer both of these questions with the same 10,000 reasons. Back up to the beginning of the parable. There was a powerful king who wanted to settle accounts with his regional governors. Well, there was one governor – the one we’ve gotten to know already – who owed 10,000 talents, an unbelievable sum of money comparable to the national debt.

But what’s even more unbelievable is his plea: “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything – all 10,000 talents.” “Just give me a few more days, and I’ll pay off the national debt.”

Yeah, right.

Now the king had in mind to confiscate all the governor’s possessions, and to sell not only the governor, but also his wife and children, into slavery. At least he’d recover some of his losses and get something for this pathetic governor. But upon hearing this miserable governor’s outrageous plea, which was clearly a lie, he decides to cancel the debt – all 10,000 talents. Apparently this king is a poor judge of character. Or he has a merciful sense of humor.

Well, as this fortunate governor is scurrying out before the king changes his mind, he runs into another governor, who owes him a relatively small sum of money, another governor who makes the vary same plea: “Just a little longer, and I’ll repay you.” And we know how the first governor chooses to respond.

10,000 Talents vs. 100 Dinarii
Back to the first question. Why should we forgive? To put it simply, we should forgive others because God has uncalculatingly and immeasurably forgiven us. “I forgave you all that debt,” the king said to the governor. “Should you not have had mercy as well?” We should forgive others because God has immeasurably forgiven us, because the vastness of God’s ocean of grace washes over all sin.

And there is also more, I think, to why we should forgive. It’s true that forgiveness is a sort of injustice in the strict sense. I give up my just claim on the guilty party. But the problem with justice is that it too quickly becomes retribution. It’s all too easy to charge interest on the debt. But more importantly, others’ lives – even those of our offenders – are so infinitely more complex than we can imagine that we mortals cannot possibly contrive true justice for any situation (more on this in a bit).

And in most cases, strict justice is simply impossible. The governor couldn’t possibly pay the king. No one could restore Rami’s 14-year-old daughter to him. We cannot undo the wounds we deal to one another, however much our hearts may ache to be able to do so.

But forgiveness enthrones justice. Forgiveness implies that the standard of justice is good and valid, and it has been violated. The king named the debt that was owed. That’s why it hurts a little to hear someone say, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness carries with it a condemnation of the wrong. Otherwise, there would be nothing to be forgiven. Perhaps that’s also why it’s difficult for some of us to say, “I forgive you,” for fear of being judgmental. It’s also why forgiveness can be manipulative. But when offered from the heart, forgiveness upholds God’s scandalous justice and grace.

A friend told me the story of his mother, who was afraid of death not because of God’s judgment, but because of God’s scandalous grace. She was afraid of seeing her husband again, who had abused her for many years before he died. A victim of Fidel Castro’s regime, worrying that Castro might repent before he died, bluntly said, “If Fidel gets to heaven, I don’t want to be there.”1

God’s forgiveness is truly a scandal to our cool sense of retributive eye-for-an-eye justice. And that is why our own forgiveness should not look like cool justice, but rather enthrone God’s scandalous justice and grace.

The Power of 10,000 Talents
But the second question still lingers: How can we forgive from the heart, when we have been wounded so deeply? Back to the 10,000 talents. The governor’s unbelievable debt had him destined for debt slavery. But the king’s merciful cancellation of the debt freed the governor. Without the burden of immeasurable debt hanging over his head, he was free to show mercy to his fellow governor.

I don’t know about you all, but I’ve made my fair share of poor decisions I wish I could reverse, said my fair share of things I wish I could take back. But I can’t. My decisions, my choices, my words, the things I say, are irreversible. As I was reflecting on this text, I was reminded of a time in Jr. High, when a very poor choice of mine hurt a good friend.

Years later, this friend talked with me about it, and I discovered that I hadn’t realized just how severely I had hurt him, a wound that he continued to carry. I wished with all my heart I could redo it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t. My friend had every reason to carry a grudge, had every reason never to want to see me again, every reason to blame me, to despise me. But he didn’t. “I want you to know we’re still friends,” he said.

What happens when we are forgiven? That surprising gift of forgiveness, though only a fraction of the 10,000 talents, has inspired and challenged and empowered me to forgive others as well. It has freed me, I think and I hope, to be more compassionate.

In Mark 2, Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic. The scribes in attendance complain in their hearts, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus didn’t disagree. It is God alone who can truly forgive sins.

Try as we might, we simply cannot. We cannot scrub all resentment from our hearts. Our scars remind us of our pain. We cannot overcome the anger and desire for revenge. As the great healer, Jesus knows that guilting hurting people into forgiving their offenders is not true forgiveness. I think he knows that true forgiveness from the heart is impossible.

He also knows that with God, all things are possible. I used to get frustrated when people would say that. It sounded like an easy answer, too simplistic. Now I see it just the opposite. I see how challenging it is. I see how difficult it is to let go of control, anxiety, pride, pain, and resentment, and yield to God’s purposes and Spirit. I see how difficult it is to put myself completely into the hands of God.

Yang-Won Son, one of the Korean martyrs, placed himself in God’s hands. Almost all his ministry was centered on the spiritual and material care of the residents of leper colonies. He resisted bowing down to the Japanese emperor, and suffered six years of imprisonment and cruel treatment. . . Son’s two teenaged sons were shot to death by. . . rioters when they witnessed to their Christian faith. . .Instead of being engulfed by hatred and revengeful thoughts, however, Son forgave the shooter, petitioned for his release from the death penalty, and adopted him as his son. We know how hard it is to forgive others. . . [yet] to even the hint of a suggestion that we cannot forgive, Jesus still responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26)2

The forgiveness we extend to one another is but an echo of Christ’s forgiveness.

Paul once said it in a different way: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Gal. 2:20). We might say, “It is not I who forgive, but Christ who forgives within me.”

And that is powerful. We may need to be angry at our offenders for a while. We may even join the Psalmist in raging against God. But anger placed intentionally in the presence of a God who cares looks different than the sort of anger that runs amok in people’s lives. Indwelt by the healing presence of Christ, 10,000 talents become power to forgive.

77 Times
When we’re hurt, we want justice. Often we want to claim retribution upon those who wound us. Rami, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber, wondered what he would do with his burden, with his anger. Would he get even? Would killing someone bring her back? Would causing pain to someone else ease his own?

He chose instead the difficult and costly path of forgiveness and reconciliation. Rami joined 500 other bereaved families from both sides of the conflict, who hope to spare others their pain. Family members donated blood to victims on the other side. When asked why he would give blood to the enemy, they responded, “It is far less painful to donate blood to the needy than to spill it unnecessarily.”3

That is the power of forgiveness. Rami could have returned the volley of hatred, but forgiveness causes cycles of vengeance and retribution and enmity to come to a stop. All the awkward posturing can come to an end now. The deathly tit-for-tat games we play can stop. We no longer need to bury the our resentment under a smiley veneer.

And finally, regardless of the benefit of inner peace, of inner freedom, of forgiving, forgiveness is costly to the forgiver. This Ash Wednesday, as Lent begins, we will be reminded of the cost of forgiveness as we receive the sign of the cross. In his forgiving grace, Christ has put to death hostility, broken the power of vengeance, and made peace.

The old spiral of vengeance broken by Jesus is as old as human history, Genesis tells us in the story of Lamech, who boasted of repaying murder for a mere wound, and vowed to avenge himself not merely sevenfold, but 77-fold. One day after class, Peter asked Jesus, “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” Jesus responded, by undoing the legacy of Lamech: “Not seven times, but 77 times.” May it be so.

Notes:
1 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 178.
2 In-Yong Lee, Chrstian Century (6 September 2005), 18. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3251
3 http://www.theparentscircle.com/stories/Rami_Elchanan.doc