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Grace and Reconciliation

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”  Romans 5:10 NRSV

Last summer I challenged myself to preach on the Epistles.  I like a challenge, and the letters of Paul and others definitely are rich with teachings and encouragement, as well as calls to accountability.  They also are often full of confusing contradictions (seemingly) and contain what I call the “round-about” passages.  These are the passages that seem to repeat the same words over and over again.  Maybe that’s part of the reason I tend to go toward the gospels and some of the Hebrew scripture passages.

Nevertheless, this coming Sunday, I chose Romans 5:1-11 (I still like to challenge myself!).  Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is rich with assurances and reminders of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ.  We all need to hear that kind of encouragement.  What struck me the most in this passage were the words “grace” and “reconciliation.”

God’s grace is often hard to comprehend.  When we try to explain it to someone who really doesn’t understand grace, we might hear them respond with “grace isn’t fair.”  Well, I suppose from our “worldly” perspective, it isn’t!  But God’s grace is an inclusive one, and it’s open to everyone, including us.

A friend of mind used to argue with me about the fairness of grace.  She would say that a criminal and murderer who confesses on their death bed is just manipulating God’s grace. How could they spend their lives being so sinful and then be welcomed into heaven?  She would be so frustrated when I would say that it’s possible, but ultimately it’s between God and the person.  We can’t make that judgement; only God can, and God knows what is in the person’s heart.

Verse 10 above reminds us that initially, human beings were separated from God – “enemies” because of our sinfulness.  It is through Jesus Christ that we find that grace of God and are reconciled with God.  Jesus has set things right with God through his life, death, and resurrection.  Reconciliation is an “aaahhh” moment when all those negative feelings, worries, and even anguish are relieved.

John 3:16 reminds us that “God so loved the world.”  God didn’t just love the churches, the early followers of Jesus, the disciples, or a few select folks; God loved the WORLD!  The world – all of humanity was reconciled in Jesus, the Christ.  It’s a joyful thing!  Paul says we can boast, but he doesn’t mean  being arrogant.  Rather, he is talking about that excitement that comes from knowing that we are living in God’s grace.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we will be without suffering and pain in our lives.  Instead, we have been given the gift of God’s love and companionship that helps us to get through life’s challenges.  We have a strength in Christ that fortifies us and gives us a foundation on which to build so we can keep on keeping on.  By the grace of God, we are reconciled and given life anew over and over again.  Thanks be to God!

How have you experienced God’s grace?

How have you found reconciliation with God that leads to reconciliation with someone else?

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Thanks, I think

[The healed leper] prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan.  Luke 17:16 (CEB)

Well, of course the healed leper thanked Jesus!  Wouldn’t any of us do the same in similar circumstances?  Probably.  Oh – wait a minute – he was a Samaritan.  Does that mean he really wasn’t worthy of being healed by Jesus?  Did he just catch some of the wind blowing his way as he left with the nine others?  Did Jesus make a mistake by healing someone who was of a different race than he was?

No, no, and no.  Jesus wasn’t looking at him as unworthy because he saw everyone as worthy of God’s grace. Everyone was included in God’s kingdom.  Luke points out that this was a Samaritan because the nine others (whom we presume to be Jews, like Jesus) went on their way and did what Jesus had told them to do – go show themselves to the priests.

But this Samaritan couldn’t even contain himself!  He was so thankful that he turned around and fell on his knees before the one who had healed him of his disease.  Not only was he healed physically, but he was also healed spiritually.

One of my best friends and I used to have a discussion about who deserved God’s grace.  She would ask if someone who repented and turned his or her life over to Jesus on their deathbed, would that person be forgiven and find salvation.  I always said yes, but she would argue that it wasn’t fair.  If they had spent their entire life doing things that were against Jesus’ teachings, breaking the Ten Commandments knowingly and willfully, they shouldn’t be able to just say, “Forgive me” and it’s done.

Well, it isn’t quite that simple, and it certainly isn’t cheap grace.  Grace is offered to those who genuinely have a change of heart and turn their lives around, even if it’s on their deathbed.  I would also tell her that it isn’t ours to judge, and only God knows what is on that person’s heart.  It’s ultimately between that person and God.

Whatever race, gender, ethnicity, or age we are, grace is offered to us every moment of every day.  Jesus offered someone who was considered “less than,” an enemy of Jerusalem, and someone with whom the Jews didn’t want to associate healing and grace.  He received it with joy and praise and let Jesus know how grateful he was.

What about us?  How much grace do we offer others, even those who are different from us?

How do we praise even when it seems like things are lousy?

In what ways do we fall on our knees every day, regardless of our circumstances to give thanks to the one who offers grace, healing, and life?

What Did I Do to Deserve This?

“Do you think that the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans?”  Luke 13:2 (CEB)

How often have we asked, “What did I do to deserve this?”  When we are struck by illness or a loss that leaves us shaking; when we are laid off or feel as if the weight of the world lands on our shoulders, do we ask that question?

It’s so easy to believe in the cause and effect of our actions, and there are many times when our own behaviors bring on consequences.  Yet, catastrophic events or life-changing events are often not of our own doing.  Somehow, though, we interject our own unworthiness or sinfulness into the mix thinking we might have done something to deserve whatever it is that has befallen us.

In Luke 13, Jesus continues his journey toward Jerusalem, and as he travels, he teaches people about God and how God interacts with us as human beings – as children of God.  Pontius Pilate had murdered some Galileans in cold blood, and the people were questioning why this had happened.  That’s when Jesus answered with “Did you think they did something to deserve this?”

He went on to say that there was a tower that fell on eighteen people and asked, “Did you think THEY deserved it?”  The underlying implication is that we can’t explain why such things happen, and apparently they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Yet, he warns them that they must repent, change their hearts and lives so that they honor God in their living.

The parable of the fruitless fig tree follows this teaching, and although we may think they are unrelated, the story builds on what Jesus had just told them.  Most fig trees don’t produce fruit for a few years after they have been planted, so the vineyard owner may have felt that this particular tree had been given enough time.  Thanks to the gardener, the tree was given a reprieve, and the gardener promised to nurture it along to see if it would produce within the year.

If we think of God as the gardener, we have a better sense of the second chances we are offered by the grace of God all the time.  The parable doesn’t say if the tree would continue to have second, third, fourth, and more chances, but the implication could be that God does, indeed, invite us to turn our hearts and minds toward God over and over again.

So, the next time we are tempted to say, “What did I do to deserve this?” we might want to turn that question around to say, “How will I find God in the midst of this to help me get through it.”  Just a thought!

How have you found God in the midst of trials and difficult situations?

In what ways do you “dry up” and need nurturing to repent and turn your life back to God?

How does the parable of the fig tree give you hope in God’s grace?

Being Acceptable to God

We live by faith, not by sight.  We are confident, and we would prefer to leave the body and to be at home with the Lord.  So our goal is to be acceptable to him, whether we are at home or away from home.”  2 Corinthians 5:7-9 (CEB)

Every summer I challenge myself to preach on a scripture passage that I normally wouldn’t choose.  Most of the time, I preach on the gospels, and many summers I have chosen the Old Testament lectionary passages.  Many summers have passed since I started as a pastor, and this particular summer of 2015, I have challenged myself – finally – to preach from the epistles.  Oh, I’ve preached from them other times, but I’ve never spent the majority of the summer focusing on them.  Let me say, it definitely is a challenge for me!  And yet, it is also proving to be a blessing as I read, meditate, read commentaries, pray, and seek the message God wants me to share.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church are pastoral as well as a call to them to be accountable for the ways in which they live out their faith.  This was a struggling church that had been divided by a number of factions, some having loyalty to one pastor and some to others.  Many had questioned Paul’s authority in spite of the fact that he was their “founding father.”

In this passage from 2 Corinthians, I was struck particularly by the phrase in the Common English Bible “. . . our goal is to be acceptable to God . . .”  What makes us acceptable?  Is it “being good?”  Is it following Jesus’ teachings in exemplary ways?  Does it mean we have to be model Christians? Are we supposed to be perfect?  I don’t think Paul is saying that; rather, he reminds them later in verse 13 that what we do, we do for God’s sake.  In other words, we do our best, and we point to God – we glorify God in what we do.

When we choose to follow Christ, we shed the old sinful nature and take on new life in him.  As humans, we continue to sin, but we can have confidence in the grace of God, and the forgiveness we have because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus who carried our sins for us and opened the doors to reconciliation and new life with God.  Our human bodies are only temporary housing for us, so we are called to live life productively, sharing the love of God with others through offering forgiveness, grace, mercy, compassion, and care in our relationships – all of them.

And we can rejoice in the knowledge that when our old nature – our human nature – fades away and dies, we continue to wholeness and a new body, a new home in heaven with God.  We live in the now here on earth with the promise of life beyond this world with God.  We are acceptable to God because God loves us enough to die for us and give us eternal life.  There is always hope.  There is always a new beginning.  There is always forgiveness.  There is always God’s grace.  There is always God’s love.

We don’t earn it – it is a gift!  We are called to share it.  That is our gift to all God’s children, and that is our gift to God.  Being who we are called to be to the best of our ability is acceptable – and then some – to God!  Thanks be to God!

Arrogance

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Luke 18:14b (NRSV)

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector shows a big contrast between arrogance and humility when praying.  While the Pharisee seems to actually be praying to himself as he proudly makes his list of accomplishments and pats himself on the back, the Tax Collector cries for mercy, recognizing that he is a sinner in need for forgiveness.

I suspect most of us might align ourselves with the tax collector in the sense that we probably think we don’t pray like the Pharisee did in this story.  Yet, Jesus’ point here is, I think, more about God than about us.  It’s more about the grace of God than it is about our own arrogance in praying for ourselves or giving thanks for all the good we do or the blessings we receive.  We often count our blessings in material goods:  a home, a car, a job, a good salary, health insurance, food on the table, and, oh yes – our families and friends.

Someone once sent an e-mail to me talking about thankfulness.  I don’t remember the exact wording, but the gist of it was something like this:  When I see someone who is homeless, I’m thankful I have a home.  When I see someone who is hungry, I’m thankful I have food on the table.  When I see someone who is collecting unemployment, I’m thankful I have a job.  When I see someone who is crippled, I’m thankful that I’m healthy.  And so forth.  It struck me then, as it does now, that there is a certain arrogance about this. 

It’s not that being thankful is wrong because I think we SHOULD give thanks every day of our lives – and often throughout the day.  What I find arrogant about it is the feeling that I get that the person is superior to others – is privileged – is better off than others and happy about it, but does nothing about it.  Of course, I know the person who sent it to me very well, and I have that impression of this person, so that probably doesn’t help my attitude about it!

However, even in the last statement I just wrote, there is an arrogance as I judge someone else’s mind-set and interpretation of being thankful.  It’s hard not to pass judgment and compare others to ourselves and our circumstances in life.  Maybe the point here is that human beings pass judgment all the time – maybe it’s necessary to our understanding of ourselves.  So the real question may be:  “Will we recognize that the grace of God is for ALL people, and that is the same grace we are asked to offer to others.” 

German concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel wrote:  “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.  The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.  And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”  (http://en.thinkexist.com/quotes/elie_wiesel/)

I would guess the result of arrogance, judgmental attitudes, and self-aggrandizement is also indifference.  We can put our best foot forward as followers of Jesus when we see others through his eyes and then act on it, when we offer care and compassion to those who are hungry, thirsty, poor, in need, sick, in prison, and hurting.  By actively living out our faith in the world, we put aside indifference and glorify God.  Maybe it be so.

 

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