Sunday, October 2, 2005

Reconciliation: Putting it All on the Table

Ephesians 2:11-22; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20; Jeremiah 31:31-34

Jesus saves.
Two words put together so often,
they have a familiar ring to almost everyone.
Two words you’ll see on
bumper stickers,
yard signs,
church signs,
roadside crosses,
buildings of Christian-owned businesses,
and millions of T-shirts, pens, and key-chains.
Two words that say a lot, and say very little.
Two words that are perceived either as a positive spiritual witness,
or as a sign that someone is a mindless Christian fanatic.
Two words that invite a reaction.
Two words I believe are true, with my whole heart.

Jesus saves.
That’s the business Jesus is in.
Always has been. Always will be.
Jesus saves.
And I thank God for that.
It’s been my own experience.
I have been saved by God’s grace.
“Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul.
Thank you, Lord, for making me whole.”

But as true as those two words are,
they raise a whole host of questions.
It’s only a subject and a verb.
There is no object in the sentence.
No adjectives or adverbs or subordinate clauses.
We’re left to guess what the speaker means.

Jesus saves who? me? you? individually?
Does Jesus save communities? nations? creation?
What does Jesus save us from?
and what does he save us to?
How does Jesus go about saving?
Under what conditions does Jesus save?
What is our responsibility in being saved?
Those two words hold enough questions to fill a dozen sermons.
I can’t answer them all this morning.

In fact, I’m only going to put forward one question to ponder.
What is the role of the cross
in this salvation Jesus gives us?

I think we can assume everyone who claims Christian faith,
believes the cross is central to salvation.
That is, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
somehow makes possible our reconciliation with God.
Christians talk about the cross in different ways.
They give it different kinds of significance.
But I can’t quite imagine a Christian confession of faith,
that wouldn’t give the cross of Christ
a central role in our atonement,
and in the renewal of God’s covenant with God’s people.

I’m using theological jargon here,
atonement, reconciliation, salvation, covenant.
Let me say it without the jargon.
Christians believe that through the cross and the resurrection
God takes what is broken, separated, estranged, or alienated,
and makes it whole, makes it one, saves it,
and establishes a new basis for relating to us as God’s people.

Christians don’t agree exactly how the cross, how the blood of Jesus,
reconcile us with God.
There must be a dozen different theories of atonement
There’s the Socinian theory of atonement,
the moral-influence theory,
and a bunch of others I’m sure.

I could bore you to tears comparing these theories,
how some emphasize God’s action, some our response,
how some are subjective, some objective,
and I probably bored some of you to tears,
just naming them.
I’m not belittling these theories—they’re important.
They impact both our theology and our ethics.
But within the limits of a shorter than usual sermon,
I want us, like I said,
to ponder one basic question,
about the role of the cross of Jesus.

What really matters here,
is that Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrifice
made on behalf of God’s covenant with humanity.
Jesus offered up his life as a sacrifice for the covenant.

No matter how you read the crucifixion story—
you can’t argue with the fact
that Jesus pretty much laid himself out,
offered up his life for the larger purposes of God.
The broken covenant had spiritual, social, and political implications.
And so did the restoration of the covenant.

Jesus had other options available, besides self-sacrifice.
He had a divine mandate and divine powers.
He had multitudes eating out of his hands.
He could have mounted a serious rebellion
against the powers that killed him.
But instead of all that, he laid himself out.
Or to use the words of the apostle in Philippians 2,
“though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
[and] humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

There are some powerful truths about power,
to be found in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.
The power by which God defeated sin and death,
and made reconciliation possible,
was the power of suffering love.
Through the power of putting it all out on the table,
the power of emptying self,
God defeated the forces of sin and evil that cause alienation,
and made possible the restoring of relationship,
the remaking of the covenant.

In his act of self-emptying,
in his act of obedience to God,
Jesus effected our salvation.
Jesus saved.
That’s good news.
It makes possible my reconciliation with God,
because there is a new covenant,
a new basis on which to relate to God,
so my acceptance of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross,
is an acceptance of the terms of the new covenant
God made with humanity.
Therefore, salvation can never be a private transaction
between me and Jesus.
It’s a personal transaction,
because I have to accept it and own it personally,
but it can’t be a private transaction,
because it involves me entering into a covenant relationship,
between God and the people of God.
So the cross also has everything to do with
how we relate to one another.
The theme for this Sunday—reconciliation with God—
really cannot be separated from the next three Sundays—
reconciliation in families, in the church, among nations.

Ephesians 2, that we read this morning, makes this point.
We were once distant from God, the apostle writes,
“strangers to the covenant,
without hope and without God in the world.” —v. 12
But now, the cross has brought us near to God,
and it has brought us into the covenant. —v. 13
So that other people, from whom we had been estranged,
are now brought together with us.
The dividing wall has been broken. —v. 14
And vv. 15-16 sums it up.
In his sacrificial death, Christ was creating a new humanity,
in order that,
“he might reconcile both groups to God in one body
through the cross,
thus putting to death the hostility through it.”

That’s what the cross is all about.
It’s Jesus Christ taking our hostility, our brokenness, our alienation—
whether directed toward God, toward each other,
toward ourselves, or toward creation—
and bringing it together into one reality through the cross.
Reconciling. Healing. Making One. Saving.
It’s all the same thing.
And it’s all wrapped up in the new covenant.
At least that’s how I read Ephesians 2.
In this scripture, I think, is the fullest meaning
of those two little words, “Jesus saves.”
In this scripture, we have the basis for Christian ethics
under this new covenant.
It tells us how to live.
It tells us how to take up the cross, and follow Jesus.
We follow Jesus by not exploiting our position,
by emptying ourselves, humbling ourselves,
and becoming obedient,
even if that obedience means the ultimate death of self.

Let me use a card-playing illustration.
Mennonite preachers used to use card-playing illustrations,
to expound on dangers of sin and evil in the world.
You know we’re in a different age,
when a Mennonite preacher uses a card-playing illustration
to expound on the saving act of Jesus on the cross.

This phrase we use—“putting it all out on the table”—
means being transparent and open to others.
And I assume the phrase comes from playing cards,
where instead of holding the cards in your hands,
holding them close to your chest,
you lay them all out on the table.
You know, putting everything “out on the table”
relinquishes our control.
Once they’re laid out, we can no longer make any plays.
We can no longer manipulate things to our benefit.
It’s all there for everyone to see, to respond to, to challenge.
That’s how Jesus lived his life.
And that’s how he died.
And that’s how he reconciled us,
and brought us into a new covenant.

This puts a new angle on the communion table, the way I see it.

Jesus put it all out on the table,
made himself vulnerable,
opened himself in utter obedience to God,
opened himself to others,
opened himself to the powers of this world,
trusting God to work things out.
And because Jesus put it all out on the table,
God could then make peace with us.
So to remember that self-emptying act of Jesus Christ,
which made peace with God a possibility,
these symbols of the new covenant,
these emblems of Jesus’ suffering and death,
are appropriately, also put out on a table.

So when we come to the table today,
let us come with that kind of attitude—
a willingness to enter into the new covenant
by putting it all out on the table.
Let us eat and drink to the new covenant.
A covenant with God made possible by a self-emptying act.
A peace with God made possible by sacrifice.

I invite us to a time of prayerful meditation,
as we prepare to receive the gifts from this table.

As Ephesians 2 said,
“Christ is our peace;
in his flesh he has made [us] one...
[he is creating] in himself one new humanity...
thus making peace.”
Let us pray for a deeper experience of this peace of God,
this reconciliation with God.

I will be praying several short spoken prayers.
While you are praying in song,
“Dona nobis pacem, Domine.”
“Lord, grant us peace.”
Turn to number 294 in the blue hymnal, if you need it.

Lord, we turn away from our self-important striving,
and we turn to you.
Grant us peace.

We turn away from our need to control our lives,
and we put it all out on the table.
Grant us peace.

We confess our brokenness and alienation from you,
and we accept the terms of our new covenant,
we accept your sacrifice.
Grant us peace.

Lord, we turn away from hostility toward others of your children,
Grant us peace.

We turn away from our desire to manipulate things to our advantage,
we turn away from our desire to manipulate you, O God.
Grant us peace.

Now today, Lord,
we turn away from our selfish appetites,
and we turn toward your table,
nourish us there, renew our appetite for you
and your self-giving love.
Lord, grant us peace.
Lord, grant us peace.

—Phil Kniss, October 2, 2005

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