Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reconciliation-part 2

I believe we are at the beginning of a major reformation of the Christian faith—a Reconciliation of believers across many boundaries that had once separated us and put us at swords with one another.
 It would be easier for any of us to remain cocooned, but the Lord is afoot and calling us to common cause: His.

Our denominationalism, our religious wars, our vitriolic doctrinal disputes, and the holy isolation we use to keep ourselves separate and untainted by each other’s patterns of worship and belief, belie any claim we make to all be Christ’s own. We each act like He is our private possession, formed according to our image of Him, blessing just our worship, and approving only our doctrine and our orders of ministry. We imagine that at best He tolerates the worship, doctrine, and polity of those who are not like us. What amazing pride we have.

Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he    prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

The Pharisee is certain that he knows it all, and it seems he has it all correct—doctrine, behavior, tithing, isolation from the sinful—but none of it counts before God. Yet the prayer of the sinner, seeking mercy, counts for everything.

The pattern for us is in heaven: All the angels and tribes around the throne aren’t arguing about who is most right, nor jostling to see who gets to sit at Jesus' right hand. They are not identical, but they are side-by-side, adjacent, in awe and ministering together to the Lamb.

The earthly incarnation of this heavenly scene is just how we should work together. It is the heart of Jesus, and it should be our heart as well. It should be your heart.

It should reflect this common desire: We respect each other’s tribe. We work and minister together, yoked to each other and to Him. We love each other as one.

Jesus makes this blazingly clear in His prayer for His disciples and for us:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23, NIV)

We have failed miserably to do this in our past. Perhaps now we can at last begin to do as Jesus commands.


So to restate the point: We have taken the narrative telling of Life With God, written down as Scripture, and (in a process that owes its methods to Greek philosophy) drawn from it multitudes of religious Concepts, and from them multitudes of ideas about doctrine, worship, polity, hermeneutics, behavior, dress, ordination and much more, and then we have separated into religious tribes, each idolizing and worshiping its own Concepts, and fighting the tribes that idolize and worship other Concepts.

The Concepts can have usefulness in drawing and introducing people to God, and in helping them understand what He desires of them. But as often as not, they grow instead into idols, and are worshiped in place of the God that they were developed to help explain.

Some may be more helpful than others, and some may well be quite wrong, but this difference provides no justification for the scorn and often violence we have shown toward each other. Worse, the way we have behaved is radically contrary to what Jesus has told us to do, and it is Him who we all claim as Lord!

For a true Reconciliation of the faith to occur, there must be a reconciliation of the faithful, and a coming together to embody the unity for which Jesus prayed. We do not have to surrender our favorite Concepts, or patterns of worship, polity, ordination, or even doctrine, to be reconciled. We can even continue to wrestle with each other about these, but we cannot do so without first acknowledging our own idolatry, confessing our lovelessness toward each other, repenting of it, stopping it, forgiving each other, and taking action to bless and protect each other—that is, we have to incarnate the love Jesus called us to do toward others.

He desires that unity from us—honoring, safeguarding, and building each other up—not just when we reach heaven, but now. But we each have to confess, forgive, and then live with reconciling love for the faithful, refusing any longer to scorn or harm each other in defense of ourselves and our religious Concepts.

Remind the people to respect the government and be law-abiding, always ready to lend a helping hand. No insults, no fights. God’s people should be bighearted and courteous.

It wasn’t so long ago that we ourselves were stupid and stubborn, dupes of sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life! You can count on this.

I want you to put your foot down. Take a firm stand on these matters so that those who have put their trust in God will concentrate on the essentials that are good for everyone. Stay away from mindless, pointless quarreling over genealogies and fine print in the law code. That gets you nowhere. Warn a quarrelsome person once or twice, but then be done with him. It’s obvious that such a person is out of line, rebellious against God. By persisting in divisiveness he cuts himself off. (Titus 3:1-11, The message.)

We need to stop trashing each other! It doesn’t matter how many religious words we use, how many Scriptures we quote, how much we disagree with the religious Concepts, doctrines, or practices of other believers—we do not have the right to treat them with lovelessness. In truth, we are required to treat them with love—action to bless them. And let’s be clear: Pretending to “love” someone by “enlightening” them with sarcasm, shame, or cruel words is not love. It is sin.


With any text as large and content-rich as the New Testament is, one could probably pick any of a hundred themes and construct a Concept out of it and proclaim it to be the central message of Jesus. Even knowing this, and being aware of all that I’ve just cautioned against, I’ll dare to suggest that Jesus’ key teaching is just exactly what has been addressed above—reconciliation—the reconciliation of people to God, and to each other. This is salvation, and the beginning of the covenant He offered.

This reconciliation unfolds through love, repentance, and forgiveness, but it begins with love. The character of love is embodied in how Jesus lived and opened the way to God for others. Though He made it clear that He had come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), He quickly recast the understanding of God’s intentions. God was not a rule-giver who required rule-following in order for anyone to have approval or access; rather, He offered openness to all, even those desperately lost in sin. He did not approve of sin, but He did invite sinners to come close to Him. When they came close, they fell in love, their hearts turned, forgiveness was granted, and they were reconciled with God. This was and is salvation, the initiation of Life in Christ, covenant with God.

The many stories of Jesus eating with and encountering sinners, which rankled the self-righteous religious people around Him, gives testimony to this open presence of love in Him. But perhaps one of the most compelling testimonies is also the shortest:

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! (Luke 15:1-2)

The second sentence shows how the religious people responded to what Jesus did with sinners, but dwell just a moment on the first sentence: “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.”

What a revealing insight: The despised agents of the Romans, and notorious sinners, somehow feel safe with Jesus. You know it wasn’t because He was saying their sins were of no concern. But does anyone suppose for a moment that they flocked to be near and learn from the self-righteous religious people who looked down on them and condemned them? Of course not.

Look at Jesus’ stunning encounter with the woman caught in adultery. The self-righteous said she should be stoned for her sin, to which He replied that the one without sin should cast the first stone. After they all fled, having been convicted by His words,

He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
(John 8:10b-11, NKJV)

Jesus doesn’t tell her the sin was not sin, but He implicitly forgives her for it, and then tells her not to do it again. Certainly the love she experienced in this encounter filled her and strengthened her not to fall so easily again.

She is treated as one beloved, who has been lost—not as one despised who must be publicly shamed and harmed.

All the way back in Chapter 2 I talked about salvation. This is it. It is being reconciled to God, and it comes not through our efforts to be good, or right, but by the love of God. When we realize our distance from Him, how we have wasted what we have received, and realized—at last—that life with the Father even in its most humble forms is better than life with the pigs, then He willingly restores us—joyfully, with abundance, with sonship! That is salvation; that is what the name Jesus means, in His very name, and in His teachings, life, love and sacrifice. He is the author and finisher of reconciliation, because our faith in Him brings all of us before Him, together. He is the foundation we all can stand upon together. He is the One who can bring unity to all believers.

All who know this love can stand adjacent together before the throne, fully reconciled though they differ in religious Concepts, doctrine, worship, polity and all the rest.

They honor each other’s tribe, and even honor what is important to that tribe, even when it is not essential to Salvation, or Sanctification, or Glorification.

They watch out for and protect each other, rather than themselves.

They do not fight over the pedigree of the other’s fellowship.

They cling to the essential, which is the reconciling love of God that Jesus offers, and the Life in Christ that it initiates.

They enter into covenant.

They listen and do simply as Jesus said:

Love God, neighbor and even enemy.

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

People matter. Things don’t.

There is no “yes, but…” There is confession, repentance, stopping, forgiveness, love and unity in the One who came to reconcile all of us to God, and to keep us in His covenant.

This truly is good news. Let’s choose to live it, beginning now.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reconciliation Part-one

It is my deep prayer that we all find our hearts broken by the lovelessness we have shown for one another in the Body of Christ. Though we all claim Jesus as Lord and Savior, we defend our religious Concepts, doctrines and practices as if they are our gods and other people as if they are obstacles to our worship of these gods. We act as though such things matter and people don’t.

We would rather be right in our own eyes than loving in God’s eyes. Even when we realize we have spoken evil of others, rather than repent, we justify our words or actions with a “yes, but…” and an explanation. Yet Paul said to:

Speak evil of no one … be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. (Titus 3:2, NKJV)

He also cautioned us to…

Avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. (Titus 3:9, NKJV)

Instead of real unity in Christ, we war over our differing Concepts about Him. What a mess we’ve made of fulfilling “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:21a, NIV)

     We can change this! Here is what we are called to:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

We are called to bring the Gospel message of reconciliation to the world, yet we ourselves have failed to be reconciled with one another, and have too easily discarded the Jesus’ clear commands about love of God, neighbor and even enemy!

God’s concern is always about love, always about loving relationships, always about building up and not harming. His concern is not about the mere fulfillment of ritual obligations, or the following of law.

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. … For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive everything promised to us who are right with God through faith.  For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, it makes no difference to God whether we are circumcised or not circumcised [that is, whether we have followed the ritual rules]. What is important is faith expressing itself in love. You were getting along so well. Who has interfered with you to hold you back from following the truth? It certainly isn’t God, for He is the one who called you to freedom. (Galatians 5:1, 4-8, NLT First Edition.)

I don’t know about you, but this is very scary to me. It is much easier for me to try to follow, apply and impose rules all the time. The rules were there for a reason. They helped us understand right from wrong. But the true love that allows us to live as God desires us to live requires transcendence. And it calls us to freedom.

That transcendence is given to us in the simple command, “Love God,” and in the simple application, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we do this, we have fulfilled the law, we have transcended the law, and we have been set free by transcendent love.

Love is transcendent, it comes from the Source of our creation, and it approaches people and circumstances with a heavenly view, not just a worldly one. Where the Pharisee saw a prostitute, Jesus saw a woman needing the love of God; where those who would stone an adulteress saw the Law violated, Jesus gave freedom from condemnation. Where others saw a despised tax-collector, or a Samaritan, or a blind man, or a demon-possessed man, or sick or dead, Jesus saw His beloved children, and His love brushed aside the judgments of men, invaded this kingdom of earth and its laws (even the laws of time and space), and revealed the transcendent love of the Kingdom of God.

It is to this that we are called.

So, how do we begin?

 Moving beyond winning

I’ve personally been involved in many reconciliations—and attempted reconciliations—between individuals and other individuals, or with their families, churches, and even their histories and identities.

The work of reconciliation stinks. It is enormously difficult and often nearly impossible. The primary cause of failure is self-righteousness. One side, usually both, thinks reconciliation consists of the other side confessing and admitting he or she was wrong.

This is not reconciliation. It is triumph! Even when I act all friendly and cooperative, saying that I truly want to reconcile with you, to be restored, my true-but-unspoken agenda is for you to admit I was right all along. I want to be vindicated and I want you defeated. If you’ll surrender, then we can be reconciled.

Generally people who are against each other have a long list of grievances, of “wrongs” done to them, accusations of revisionism (recalling history in a distorted, self-serving way), little willingness to reconsider their own actions and opinions, and even less willingness to actually love the other, especially in the sense that Jesus called us to. Oh, I might claim to love you, even make a show of reconciling, but afterward I want nothing to do with you again. I may forgive you for your sins—real or perceived—but I won’t confess or ask forgiveness for my own.

These flawed notions of reconciliation are even more pronounced when it comes to our favorite religious Concepts, and our denominations and allies—even when all involved call themselves Christians. It becomes all about our side winning. And though we seldom admit it, it is equally important to us that your side loses.

Our hearts are not right.

Reconciliation is never about winning and losing. It is about loving God and neighbor. This love is an act of blessing, not a warm feeling. It is faith lived out by showing love, care, protection, not by believing the right things.

Believing the right things is worthless when we are loveless. Faith is empty when it is without love.

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. For the same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not murder.” So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law.

So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.  How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?

Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.

Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works. (James 2:8-26)

This passage from James bears reading again and again. It is relentless in separating declarations of faith, and even right doctrine, from what really matters: love manifested by action. This love—agape in Greek—really means to bless or protect someone by action, rather than warm feelings or positive declarations that do nothing.

 Acting to serve and bless another is the core of such love. It may produce deep feelings of affection in its wake, but it is the willing action to show mercy that is its true character.

More, this willing action is not just to help those we like! It means everyone, including pagans, atheists, heretics, legalists, denominationalists, polemic authors, the self-righteous, those who refuse to reconcile, dangerous enemies and cranky neighbors. No exceptions. Jesus put it this way:

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’, and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

If we take these words seriously, surely they must bring us to our knees in repentance. Each of us, individually, is such a rank failure at loving in this way that we shun even looking seriously at our own sin here. It is much easier to justify my self-righteous scorn for those with whom I disagree, than it is to consider my own sinfulness in the way I have treated them, spoken of them and thought about them! I can call them “enemies of the Cross” or “the scarlet whore,” or any of a thousand other epithets, and justify my violence—verbal or physical—as a defense of Jesus and the Gospel, but I can only do this by ignoring the actual requirements of Jesus and the Gospel.

Step one in reconciliation is to repent for our own lovelessness, and stop it.

We have to actually admit that our attitudes, judgments, words and actions against others are partisan, unloving and scornful. In the worst of times they are even violent. They are sin, plain and simple. We need to stop.

More, such sin toward others cannot be excused by accusing them of the same sin, or by pointing out how wrong or hurtful their actions and religious Concepts might be. Even if we are absolutely right in our Doctrine, our scorn in its defense is divisive: It is heresy because of its lovelessness.

Jesus’ response to wrong Concepts, false charges and hurtful actions gives us the model of what followers of His are to do:

When false witnesses testified against our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, He remained silent; and when unfounded charges were brought against Him, He returned no answer, believing that His whole life and conduct among the Jews were a better refutation than any answer to the false testimony, or than any formal defense against the accusations. (Origen, Against Celsus, the very first sentence.)

Instead of condemnation of others, Jesus counsels loving action for their benefit. He demonstrated His love through His life and conduct, not through self-defense. Instead of judgment, He counsels not judging. Above all, even where we have been wronged (or where we believe Jesus and the Gospel have been wronged and we want to raise swords in their defense), Jesus says:

“Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 637-38)

So Jesus says don’t judge, don’t condemn, but give (this is love as willing action), and forgive.

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Step two in reconciliation is for us to forgive.

This is required even when it has not been asked of us, because until we forgive we are still bound to our adversary. The word forgive that Jesus uses means to set free. It does not mean to approve of what someone else has done. In fact, the idea really is to give up a legitimate claim.

True forgiveness does not require the other person to concede to me, to confess to me, to repent to me, or to ask for forgiveness from me—only that I forgive. And like love, it is not a feeling to be waited upon, but rather an action, a choice. Feeling will follow, but what matters is the action to forgive, to release the legitimate claim.

Confession, repentance, and even punishment for my enemies may be necessary for the well-being of their souls, but are not necessary for the well-being of mine. In fact, if I require them of others before I’ll forgive them, then I am still seeking triumph, not love.

Full reconciliation and restoration requires that both I and the other repent and forgive, but I cannot withhold mine until the other completes his or hers. Such a precondition keeps me bound.

My willingness to forgive without precondition is how I complete my second step in reconciliation. This willingness frees me from the bondage of desiring vindication, of needing to win, and needing my adversary to lose. This is true about sin done to me, whether about money, love, family, work, culture, oppression, abuse, or religious Concepts.

"You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.”(Matthew 5:38-40)

If we really dwell on what Jesus commands here, it must unsettle us deeply. He’s asking for more even than just forgiveness, which is the dropping of a just claim. Normal justice is getting back what has been taken—literally, getting even. Forgiveness is not seeking recompense, not seeking payback, not getting even. It is releasing the claim. Yet Jesus calls for more: love. Yes, love! No, not warm feelings toward an adversary, but action to bless them! That’s the point of offering the other cheek to someone angry with you, or giving your coat to someone who is awarded your shirt by a judge. It may not make a lot of sense to our rational mind, or in our litigious culture, or even to our sense of personal justice, but it is how Jesus says we are sons of God.

Let’s be honest: This is utterly beyond any of our normal concepts of equity, justice or fair dealing. It is downright outside of the box! Yet it is how we learn to truly love each other, even neighbor and enemy.

We might have a glimmer of understanding about the nature of such transcendent forgiveness in our relational lives, with family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, perhaps even political adversaries—and all the struggle and emotion these relationships contain. But we seem to fiercely resist forgiveness when we are defending our culture or our nation. We resist even more when we defend our religious Concepts. It’s as if their religiousness exempts us from the clear instructions of Jesus about forgiveness. It doesn’t!

Again, the issue here is not whether my Concepts are more “right” than your Concepts, or even if you’ve treated me badly in attacking my Concepts. It isn’t about getting even. The issue is whether I’m willing to do what Jesus asked of me, and that is to repent of my hard heart, and forgive you for yours.

God is not looking for repayment, but repentance. What heals a broken relationship is sincere love and contrition. What’s wrong with us isn’t a rap sheet of bad deeds, but a damaged heart, a soul-sickness, that plunges us into fearful self-protection, alienation from God and others. Paradoxically, this leads to death: “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Matthew 16:25).

With repentance and forgiveness, I can move beyond winning and discover reconciliation, which is, simply, to truly love God, neighbor and even enemy. But will I? Or will I persist in my self-justification and lovelessness?

It is time to decide.

Next week I will continue with Reconciliation Part-two.

In Christ,

Pastor George