Sunday, October 16, 2005

Reconciliation: Call to Conversion

Matthew 18:21-35; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20

This series on reconciliation
is starting to remind me of revival meetings.
That’s not what I thought it would be, going into it.
As I envisioned this series of worship services,
I figured we’d be spending lots of time
exploring the complexities of human relationships,
and talking about what actions we can take,
to move us from conflict to reconciliation.
I kind of expected a series of how-to lessons
on good communication,
on healthy emotional expression,
on honest self-disclosure,
and other tools for resolving conflict.

Instead, I’m preaching sermons that give me the urge
to have an altar call at the end.
And I felt the same way after Barbara’s sermon last Sunday,
on reconciliation in families.
It seemed to call for a response of confession,
repentance, prayers for healing.
This is third sermon I’m preaching in this series,
and this time, I decided to just come out and say it, in the title.
This is going to be a “call to conversion.”
And there will be an altar call at the end...so to speak.
Now don’t sit there and sweat for the rest of the service.
You won’t be asked to get out of your seat.
And we won’t sing 7 verses of “Just as I am.”

I’ve come to realize as we are moving through this series,
that we have a recurring theme,
whether we speak of reconciliation with God, within families,
in the church, or among nations.
Where there is not a willingness to be converted,
there is not reconciliation.
Without transformation—
which is fundamentally the work of the Holy Spirit,
and not something we accomplish—
there cannot be a true healing of the alienation we all experience.

I’m not sure what you came expecting this morning,
if you knew I’d be preaching on reconciliation in the church.
Maybe some of you are expecting me to talk about the conflict of ideas
that exists in a church of our size and our diversity.
Lord knows, we have conflicts of ideas among us.
We think in different ways about things,
have different beliefs—sometimes on important matters.
Homosexuality, pacifism and non-resistance, abortion,
end-of-life ethics, economic lifestyle, political convictions.
But conflict of ideas is not the same thing
as brokenness or alienation.
Ideological conflict might lead to the breaking of relationship,
but it need not lead to that.
I will say this...
ideological conflict can never be addressed adequately,
by a church that is not already reconciled in Christ.
Reconciliation comes first.
Then we work at differences of ideas.
Reconciliation does not mean we bring together two opposing ideas,
and split the difference.
And it does not always mean we just agree to disagree.
A reconciled body of believers
engages in spiritual and ethical discernment together,
and seeks to find common ground.
And then stands together on that common ground,
and seeks to find an even higher common ground.

I have this image in my mind of a group of mountain climbers.
They start up the face of a cliff, all connected with one rope.
And what they are all seeking, is a place a little higher up,
where they can all stand together on solid ground,
and maybe camp out there overnight,
before tackling the next slope, and the next higher place to stand.
But before this mountain-climbing expedition ever began,
this group had to decide to use the same rope.
The had to determine to work together
on this grueling climb up the mountain.

I like to think of that spot of solid ground,
as being the result of good discernment,
and comes from hard work, and struggle,
and overcoming our fears, and mutual trust.
The rope, however... the rope is the reconciliation
that has to be in place before we ever begin to tackle
the slope of conflicting ideas.

And in the church,
I think the challenge we face most often
is connecting to the same rope.
Trouble is, the church often tries to tackle the slopes,
before checking the rope,
and can’t figure out why we’re not making headway.

So this morning,
I’m not talking about what a good process of discernment looks like,
and the technique for getting to that higher ground.
We’ll save that for a later time.
What I’m talking about this morning is the rope.
It is that which binds us together in true Christian community,
without which we have no hope for gaining ground.

And we can’t talk about the rope of reconciliation,
without talking about repentance and conversion.
So this is, unashamedly, a revival sermon,
without the sawdust trail.

We live in a world where alienation is the norm.
We are alienated from God, from each other,
from ourselves, from creation.
Reconciliation is a healing process.
It heals our alienation.
It restores us to health and wholeness.

And in the church, which is our focus this morning,
there is alienation for a variety of reasons.
It may be personal conflict.
It may be the result of being wounded by someone in the church,
or by the church itself, as an institution.
It may be the result of conflicting ideas,
that were dealt with in unhealthy ways.
It may be that we are being sucked in
by a culture that values individualism more than community,
and exercise of power more than submission.
So for whatever reason, the church is being driven apart,
we are being alienated from other members of Christ’s body.

For that to change, is always and ever, the work of the Spirit of God.
Healing of alienation is a deeply spiritual process.
It is not something we manufacture or manipulate,
by applying the right techniques.
For healing to happen,
we must be transformed, made new.

Remember our theme text in 2 Corinthians 5?
“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new! All this is from God.”
And for the Spirit’s transforming power to be let loose in us,
there must be repentance.

We heard a parable of Jesus this morning, from Matthew 18.
Usually we associate Matthew 18, with Jesus’ teaching
on how to deal with sin in the church.
When someone has offended us, or sinned against us,
we first go to that person directly,
and if unsuccessful, we take someone else with us,
and if still unsuccessful, we take it to the elders of the church.
We call this the “Matthew 18 principle”
and we use it as a guide for handling offenses.

What we read this morning is a continuation of this same passage.
After Jesus gave that teaching, Peter asked him,
“Lord, how many times do I need to forgive a church member
for committing the same offense? As much as seven times?”
Jesus said, “No, 77 times.” By which he meant, “777 if need be.”
Then he told a story.
A king once went to settle accounts with a servant
who owed him money worth 15 years of labor.
For someone today flipping burgers for $6.50 an hour,
that’s $200,000.
The man begged and pleaded,
so the king said, “Okay, you don’t owe me anything.
Consider yourself paid in full.
You’re free to go.”
The servant walks out,
and meets another servant who owes him money.
An amount equal to one day’s labor.
At the same burger joint, it’s 50 bucks.
The man begs and pleads,
but the servant who was just forgiven 200 Grand,
paid no attention to him,
and had him thrown into debtor’s prison until he could repay.
Of course, the king was enraged when he heard about it,
had the first servant punished, and reinstated the debt.

So what does this have to do with reconciliation in the church?
Well, it’s not really about reconciliation.
It’s about what has to happen
if reconciliation is ever going to happen.
It’s called repentance.

And by “repentance” I don’t mean feeling sorry about something.
I don’t mean remorse.
It may involve remorse. And it probably should.
But repentance has nothing to do with how a person feels.
It has to do with how a person thinks.
That’s exactly what it means in the original Greek—ìåôÜíïéá—
to “think differently.”
It means dispensing with an old way of thinking
that led you down the wrong path,
and think in a new way that takes you down a different path.
Metanoia, or repentance, is a new way of thinking,
that leads to a new way of living.

When the servant was forgiven his debt of $200,000
he walked out without the slightest change in his thought pattern.
He was forgiven, but without repentance.
His self-centered way of thinking probably
got him into debt in the first place.
But the fact that his debt was forgiven,
had no impact whatsoever on his way of thinking.
He walked out in exactly the frame of mind he walked in with.
So, his behavior toward others was also unchanged.

This was a man who, without a doubt,
was living a life of alienation.
And because he refused to repent, to think in a different way,
he remained alienated.
He was not reconciled with the king, his fellow servants, or himself.

True reconciliation, it seems to me,
always involves some level of repentance.
To be reconciled is to repent and be converted.

We have always understood reconciliation with God in those terms.
Repent and be saved.
Change your way of thinking and behaving, and be reconciled.
It works the same when we need to be reconciled
with a sister or brother in Christ.
Gregory Baum, a Catholic theologian writes these words, and I quote,
“Reconciliation demands that
the groups or peoples at enmity with one another
review their own history
and in a leap of faith redefine their path into the future.”

A people being reconciled review the past,
with a full acknowledgment of their need for God’s mercy,
and by the power of the Spirit of God imagine a new future,
make a decision to think differently about the way forward,
and then live according to that new way of thinking,
with the help of the same Spirit.
In the stories Dave Brubaker told,
it was when someone had the courage
to let go of an old way of thinking,
and imagine a new future,
that the Spirit was let loose to work.

Being reconciled is a profoundly spiritual process.
I said that earlier, but it bears repeating.
It doesn’t matter whether people are religious or secular.
Reconciliation that overcomes a history of enmity,
is the work of the Spirit—
if, in fact, what Paul said in Colossians 1:20 is true—
that God, in Christ, is reconciling all things...
all things in earth and heaven.

Reconciliation is a God-thing.
We can’t manufacture or manipulate it.
But we can choose to repent.
We can choose to let go of destructive ways of thinking and living,
in other words, sin.
And we can choose to think differently, and walk a different path.
And the Spirit of God will then be free to do
the transforming and reconciling work that God does.

So this is where the altar call comes in.
The call this morning, is a call to conversion.
And it’s a call we are only able to answer for ourselves.
That’s...kind of unfortunate,
because you know it’s so much easier
to see where other folks need to be converted.

In fact, I’ll bet in the last couple minutes,
while I was talking about the need to think in different ways,
and therefore live differently,
that most of you had at least one specific person cross your mind,
who needs to think differently, and behave differently.
If you’re still thinking along those lines... Stop!
Ask the Spirit of God to open your own eyes,
to where you need a new pattern of thinking,
and a new way of living with others in the church.
It may not come immediately to mind.
You may have to live with it for a while.
In fact, this altar call isn’t for this morning’s service.
Think of it as a take-home altar call.
An altar call to-go.
And here it is:
I’m inviting each of us to pray every day, for at least a week,
for God’s Spirit to show us where we need to be converted.
To show us where our way of thinking and behaving
needs to change.

I can only imagine the impact on this body of Christ,
if every member of this body spent the next couple weeks
praying that prayer.

I think if we did, we would discover that,
even though we have lots of different ideas, and opinions,
and convictions, and lifestyles, and priorities,
that we would be moving toward each other, and not apart.
I think we would discover that, as time went by,
more and more the story of our church life would be a shared story.

And a church that shares a common faith story,
a church whose members are holding onto the same rope,
a church whose members are equally committed
to yielding their own agenda for the agenda of God’s people...
is a church that is ready to scale the treacherous slope
toward an even higher common ground.

I’m convinced there is no conflict of ideas
that can’t be dealt with in a healthy way...in a reconciled church.
If we’re all together, holding the same rope,
and we fully trust each other,
and Christ is at the head of the line, the top climber,
then there is no slope we can’t climb together,
and struggle with together,
and conquer our fears together.

But I’m in no great hurry to resolve our conflicts of ideas at Park View.
We can live with these for a while.
Some of them we could live with forever.
I’m less concerned that we arrive at that common ground
in a certain time frame,
than I am that we are ready to journey on
as a truly reconciled body of Christ.
I think by far, the greatest challenge we face,
is not to resolve all our differences of ideas and convictions.
It’s to grow in our common faith,
it’s to grow in our trust of each other,
it’s to grow in our willingness
to find our primary identity in this body of Christ,
it’s to grow in our readiness to yield our personal agenda,
to the agenda of God and the people of God.
It’s to individually, and as a community,
to fall on the grace of God in repentance,
and to be converted.

God is full of mercy.
We have been forgiven a tremendous debt,
that would have been impossible to repay.
Having been forgiven by God’s mercy,
let us walk away with transformed ways of thinking.
So that when we meet others with debts still to pay,
our first thought will be mercy.

In the words of German hymn-writer Philipp Hiller,
What mercy and divine compassion
has God in Christ revealed to me!
My haughty spirit would not ask it,
yet he bestowed it, full and free.
In God my heart does now rejoice.
I praise his grace with grateful voice.

Let’s sing together #524.

—Phil Kniss, October 16, 2005

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