Thursday, June 28, 2012

Contagious Grace or Quarantines?

Scripture: Matthew 9:9-13

We’re spending a few weeks in Matthew, looking at more of what it means to follow Jesus and to be sent out into the world by Him. To be gathered and going. Last week we looked at Jesus’ baptism and how believing in Him, we are also children of God, who participate in God’s mission in the world. Following the passage from last week, Jesus was tested in the desert and begins His public ministry, calls the first disciples, heals many, and then teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount about what it means to follow Him—how we are called to live, having been called by God. A chapter after the Sermon on the Mount, and right before our passage this morning, Jesus heals a paralyzed man—and even forgives his sins. We find that He even has the authority to forgive. 

And then this passage. This reminds us of who Jesus calls—He calls Matthew, the sick and the sinners, because He is the Great Physician. We saw just before this that Jesus has the authority to forgive sin, and here He shows the authority to call the sick, the sinners to follow Him. He forgives, heals, calls. 

Contagious Grace or Quarantines?

Normally we take care to stay away from sick people. We worry we’ll catch something and spread it along. But here we see that Jesus’ grace reverses this—His grace in calling Matthew is more contagious than any of Matthew’s sin. So Jesus is someone who is uncompromisingly against sin, but for all who see their need of Him. Unfortunately, we don’t always practice that same contagious grace. 

One of my professors asked whether our churches today are clubs or hospitals. Are people afraid to come to church because they feel they are too messed up? Do we inadvertently “quarantine” anyone who we might label as a “sinner”—and end up all too much like the Pharisees? If so, then we may be giving the sense of the church as a club for good people. Even if we don’t believe this, what impression are we giving day-to-day, in our conversations and what we’re willing to mention of our own lives and failings? 

The Passage

With this in mind, let’s look at our passage a little more closely.
This passage is especially interesting because it seems to be Matthew’s autobiography. His testimony. A short passage, but showing where he came from and what changed.

We might imagine a bit of what this scene might have looked like. Jesus seems to be walking with His disciples, at least Peter, Andrew, James and John. Hardworking fishermen. Rough around the edges, but they may have considered themselves good citizens. We can imagine how the Pharisees—religious leaders at this time—may have wondered why Jesus chose these men, but he could have done worse. Then Jesus and His disciples come by that area where that man Matthew sits ripping people off, the customs official in the area. Right there, in bright daylight, sitting as a traitor to Rome. Collecting taxes on trading goods that came through the area. And where did the money go? To Rome. As if this weren’t enough, he was probably padding his own pockets with the extra he had added on! It might be a bit of how we feel about bankers in the US receiving big bonuses while their companies are declaring bankruptcy. They are in the wrong. Not the best companion for hanging out on the weekend.
But now, in our passage, Jesus has turned towards that hated spot on the road where Matthew sits. Maybe he just was confused. He doesn’t have anything to be taxed. Maybe the disciples tried to keep on walking.

And then Jesus does the unthinkable. He calls Matthew to follow Him! The disciples are probably shocked, but they are following Jesus and so perhaps they are learning something of what this means. Jesus calls even the rejects of society to follow Him. 
And then we see Jesus eating at Matthew’s house. In Luke, we read that Matthew threw a huge banquet at his house for Jesus. He who was rejected by all except the rejects, who is a sinner, invites all his friends and co-workers to meet this Jesus who has called him...even him! 

But now the Pharisees are really upset. They are part of a group that spends tons of energy on maintaining their purity before God. They do it right. They follow all the rules—from the speed limit to the Sabbath laws. Their name “Pharisee” actually comes from a word that means “separated ones.” There are sinners and tax collectors, and they don’t want to be seen anywhere near them. These other people needed to be quarantined, kept at arm’s length until they cleaned up their act.

But now Jesus, who claims to be obeying God, is lowering himself and tainting his reputation, not to speak of his purity before God. He’s eating, talking, coming to know tax collectors and sinners! He’s making this man’s house his fellowship hall.

He and His disciples should be ashamed. So the Pharisees level the question that must have been closer to an accusation: Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? Maybe the disciples would consider finding a better teacher. This one had some problems.

Jesus answers: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Makes sense. And then He tells them to study a verse from the Old Testament, from the book of Hosea. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Israel had turned away from God, but seems to still have been bringing some sacrifices to Him—like a child who gives a token hello to a classmate at church, but then bullies them all week at school. Empty, meaningless. The Pharisees were going to worship every Sabbath and staying within the speed limit, but they pridefully looked down on others. They weren’t showing mercy, or love. 

The Pharisees thought they were the clean, the good ones, and these others were the unclean sinners. But if they study the passage Jesus quotes, they will realize that they are also sinners, sick, and needing healing. 

Instead of catching the impurity of these people, Jesus reverses it all. Those who obey His call to follow find that His grace and life is more contagious than their sin. Jesus is wholly against sin, but not against people who see their sickness and need of Him.
The Pharisees are basically saying that healthy people should stay away from sick people. But whenever Jesus touches people, good things happen—healing comes from Him. It’s the opposite of the Pharisees’ concern—that they would be contaminated by these people.

We All Need a Doctor

We see from Matthew’s story that Jesus is in the business of calling the sinners, the sick. All His followers need a doctor.

There’s a song by a group called “Switchfoot.” The song is entitled “The Beautiful Letdown,” and one verse begins “We are a beautiful let down, / Painfully uncool, / The church of the dropouts / The losers, the sinners, the failures and the fools...”[1]
Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector. And Jesus calls us. Anyone who has obeyed Jesus’ call has to recognize that they don’t have it all together. We were there sitting in the tax collector’s booth too. Jesus didn’t pick us because we had straight A’s. He calls for us to give all in following Him, and He makes us new. And in Him we are all saints, we are loved by the Father as we talked about last week, and God gives us everything we need! But we have to recognize our sickness first, or we’d have no use for him as a doctor. 

In reality, Jesus is the only healthy one, and we are all sick apart from Him. A Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writes about this:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[2]
This gets at the problem, but could go even further. Scripture shows us that everything we do is contaminated, sick, sinful apart from God. The only One who can cut out the heart that is sick and give a heart transplant is God. In Ezekiel 36, we read “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.” (NIV 1984)

We might not always feel sick, feel that we need Christ in the same ways. But it’s one thing to feel our need, and another—more important thing—to believe God when He says that we are sick. Dietrich Bonheoffer says something really relevant here: 
First, the Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all...[3]
Thinking we have it all together can easily turn us away from Jesus. Recognizing our sins and failures—if we don’t like them—should just drive us closer to Him.[4]  

The Church must be a place for those who are sick...including those we all to easily quarantine 

 Remember that Jesus is not, by calling Matthew, excusing his sin. This is not tolerance; this is grace. To extend grace to someone, we don’t need to convince ourselves that they are just victims and not to blame. It may be like tax collectors—there was probably plenty of corruption through their own fault, and then on top of this they were wrongly looked down on by the religious leaders who thought they had it all together. Grace involves honestly seeing the sin of ourselves and others (though only God can see their heart), and then fully, honestly looking at the cross, where Christ gave Himself for the worst of sinners. Jesus came to call the sick and make them well. His grace is more contagious than our sin.  

Do we follow Jesus in offering grace like this? We can’t do this on our own strength; only going in the innocence and strength of Christ can we spread this contagious grace. We all too easily marginalize others who are perhaps not too different from Matthew. They may have wronged us or others, or the general social order. I find it all too easy to marginalize, quarantine those I just don’t like or who don’t like me. Who do we, in our own lives, tend to push far away from God’s grace? What about prisoners, families immigrating to the U.S., or just people who live a very different lifestyle? In a way, it is easier and more comfortable for us to quarantine them than to go along with them to the only doctor we know—Jesus Christ. His grace is more contagious than any sin.

Jesus bore our sickness so we would be healed

We mentioned earlier how Jesus’ grace is more contagious than the colorful lives of those He called. But it’s even more than this. He didn’t just come as a doctor who miraculously healed us at no risk to Himself. He took upon Himself our sickness, and the consequences for our sin. 

Some of you may be familiar with a movie entitle “The Green Mile” based on a book by Stephen King. In it, an innocent man is on death row for apparently killing two girls. As the movie progresses, we find that he had been with them at their death only because he had a special ability to heal others by taking the illness and hurt into himself instead. He pays a price for his love. This may help us see a tiny glimpse of what Jesus did—something so much greater. Read Isaiah 53. The only way the sickness of sin would leave us was if God’s Son took the judgment on Himself. Jesus healed us at the price of His own life. When we look at the cross, we see both the enormity of our sin—like Matthew’s as a tax collector—but also the enormity of God’s love for us. 

And He does love us.

Is this good news to us, to others? 

If we see ourselves as healthy apart from Jesus, as pretty much put-together, then this is not good news to us. Or for anyone who recognizes the sin in their life, but doesn’t care about it—this is also bad news. It is only good news if we take to heart what Jesus shows the Pharisees: That they also are sick and need a doctor. Even if we don’t feel our need, believe God’s Word!

But if we sometimes wonder if we are beyond hope, this is good news for us! God has provided us a Doctor. Jesus’ grace is more contagious than our sin.

And is this good news to others around us, in our own communities and region?

If we see others as beyond hope, this is a challenge to us! And we must not just wait for these people to come into our doors, or wait until they become like us. We are called to go out and seek the lost, seek to show others something of Christ’s contagious grace! 

In our conversations with one another, with our children, with our siblings, with those right here in the church and those outside the church, do we subtly find ourselves trying to present the picture of perfect health in our lives—as if we didn’t need a doctor? This will drive people away from the Jesus who welcomes sinners. Or are we beginning to be more honest with one another about our needs and weaknesses and sins, giving and receiving God’s grace, so that we can seek healing? 

And when we go to those who are lost and sick and need a Savior, we have to remember that we can’t go in our own strength, thinking we will never be influenced by sin. Jesus wasn’t just “hanging out” with these people and going along with them; He gave them hope and a new life. We must always rely on God for the strength and health of Christ to guard us. And as we talked about last week, in Christ we have the power of the Holy Spirit as we go out. Then it will be Christ’s grace that is contagious, not the sin of others. 

Jesus calls sinners from sin, to follow Him

Jesus calls each of us away from our sin and to follow Him, to be His disciples, to be gathered to Him and find this contagious grace.

But he does not save those who refuse to acknowledge their need of Him. Jesus does not save those who don’t have anything to repent from. Jesus is for the needy. 

Jesse Ventura once said, “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.”[5] But in a sense this doesn't go far enough: Christianity is not just for weak people, but for people who recognize that apart from God, they are dead! So we are on a perpetual life-support system, finding no life outside of God. Do we feel our need for the Lord? Do we truly? If not, we must ask for a thirst, a recognition of this need, that we may not just be dulled to Jesus and complacently self-righteous! We must thirst for mercy and then bask in His forgiveness, and extend it to others.

Is our church a place of contagious grace, or quarantines?

So along with every church, we need to ask ourselves: Is our church a place where someone like Matthew the tax collector is quarantines, held at arm’s length as soon as he walks through the door? Or is it a place of contagious grace? Jesus knew and acknowledged the full extent of Matthew’s sin, but still called him. Called him from his sin and to follow Jesus, the Great Physician.

Again, like my professor asked, are our churches social clubs, or hospitals, where we are all in treatment? Where all of us who have come to know and begun to live for the Great Physician also invite in all others who need this healing?

What if we think of any empty seats around us as, by God’s grace, providing room for each of us who so desperately needs grace and healing, and for all those other “tax collectors and sinners” who need Him just as much as we do? Do we desire this enough to seek out the lost? We once were lost, but now are found. This may be hard in New England, but it is by God’s power. We are called to be faithful in extending the contagious grace of the gospel and Jesus’ call. 

So when people from any walk of life come to the doors of Christ’s church here or anywhere, when we come into contact with anyone who sees their need for Jesus, when we have the chance to invite anyone to dinner or to worship with us, does anyone who would come to Christ feel quarantined? Or do they find a contagious grace that overcomes all the diseases of anyone who will come to Jesus for healing and a new life lived in and for Him?

And we again hear Jesus’ words for us and others: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” This is good news—Jesus Christ is the only doctor, the only Savior, the only one who has made and is making us healthy again.  And we have the privilege of bringing others to Him to that they also can find healing.  Now in Christ we are catching this contagious grace, as God’s children whom He loves enough to have died for!

[2] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Part I The Prison Industry, Ch. 4 "The Bluecaps" (p168, The Gulag Archipelago, Collins 1974,
[3] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 22-23
[4] See <>
[5] Wikipedia, “Jesse Ventura”

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

God's Son and Us

Passage: Matthew 3:13-17

As I mentioned last week, we’ll be focusing on passages in Matthew throughout much of the summer. Overall, we’ll wrestle with what it means to be gathered to Jesus—to be called by Him as a disciple—and what it means to be going as He sends us into the world. All Christians are both full-time followers and full-time missionaries.

This theme in Matthew is similar in some ways to an apprenticeship. In learning formal or informal skills we need to watch, and also do the work alongside someone who has mastered it. In seminary, it would be a big disadvantage to just sit in the classroom for three years without ever setting foot in a church for an internship. Any son who hopes to learn how to work their parents’ farm spends years watching and working alongside them. Anyone who wants to learn piano takes both studies and practices—and then the student may also tell their friends about their teacher so that others can also learn from the same teacher. This is mission!

Even consider something as simple as first learning how to use a power drill. Our father may have helped guide us—holding our hands as we held the drill, to brace it and help us push just the right amount while keeping the screw straight. This is discipleship. And we may have told our friends about our father, how he taught and guided us. This is mission.

If we just want to stand back and watch—learning passively—we aren’t following Jesus as we should. But if we just strike out on our own—like trying to set up a new computer without reading any directions—we will also run into problem. 

So today we’ll be looking at who this Jesus is who calls us to follow Him, and what it means to be a part of His mission in the world.

Matthew in Particular

As we begin this series in Matthew, it will help to understand a bit of a broader framework. Among others, there are certain themes in Matthew that will show up in the next few weeks:
  • Matthew is deeply rooted in the Old Testament, so our reading of the gospel will be enriched by a fuller understanding of the Old Testament.
  • Jesus’ Identity & Fulfillment in Christ. Who is Jesus, and what role does He have in fulfilling the Old Testament and all that we couldn’t fulfill? 
  • What it means to be a disciple, and to be part of the community of those following Jesus
  • The mission of Christ and the Church: Where and what are Jesus’ followers commanded to go and do?
As we look through our passage this morning, we’ll focus on how, at Jesus’ baptism, He is affirmed as God’s Son and commissioned for public ministry. And then we’ll look at what this means for us.

At Baptism, Jesus is Affirmed and Commissioned...because Israel Failed

In the Old Testament, we see that God chose the nation of Israel as His own people. But there’s a problem: They failed at being God’s obedient children. God loved them, but they still turned from Him. We read in Isaiah that God “come[s] to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?” (Is. 64:5, NIV 1984)

But as you can see earlier in Matthew, Jesus is identified as God’s Son—in a sense in all the ways that Israel never was. We won’t focus on this now, but here we see Matthew’s theme of fulfillment and Jesus as God’s Son coming out. So Jesus is here commissioned for God’s work because Israel failed in this mission. And it is He who will bring salvation to all.

...and Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit

Right after John baptized Jesus, we read that “At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.”

This also goes back to Isaiah 64, which begins with, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down...” That’s what’s going on right here! God is intervening for His people, even though they had turned away from Him. And so the Holy Spirit visibly descends.

Isaiah 42 is also relevant. It begins: “Here is my servant [whom we recognize as Jesus] whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations...”

So the Holy Spirit empowers Jesus for ministry. His mission is to bring justice to the nations, and He’s able to do this in God’s power.

...and is declared to be God’s own Son

Also right after Jesus is baptized, we hear that “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” So baptism had something to do with affirming Jesus’ identity. This is the One we follow—who is God’s true Son when all of Israel had failed and turned away from their Father. God the Father Himself stating His love for Jesus. And this shows us that Jesus is truly who He claims to be—and His ministry is authentic.

Jesus’ baptism and us...who have been rebellious

So in Jesus’ baptism, we come to know more of why we follow Jesus. He’s God’s Son, and He is empowered and directed in His mission by the Holy Spirit. But how does this touch our own lives more directly?

We recall Isaiah 64 again: All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags...” (verse 6) These words were true of Israel, and they are just as true of us today apart from Christ. On our own, we have all failed to be God’s obedient children. Whenever he holds our hands to help guide us as we learn to use a drill for the first time, we have pushed Him away and rejected His help. This is true whenever we worry instead of trusting, or whenever we view our time as our own instead of as belonging to Him. It’s true whenever we harbor grudges against others, or even when we try to do good things while relying on our own strength instead of His. We want our fathers to say that they are proud of us, but we have rejected God who is our Father.

Our Baptism – Union with Jesus

But something special is symbolized in baptism. When we are baptized, it symbolizes a new identity in Christ that we must accept. We are baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And so we have a new identity—we are not our own; we belong to Christ and are united with Him.

Romans 6 is relevant here: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:1-4, NIV 1984)

Maybe baptism is a bit like when we sign our name on the title to our car—we claim it as our own. Or like when we’re playing soccer, and a captain picks us to be on their team. We now belong to God. We are now part of that team. And in a way so much greater than our claim to our car or being part of a soccer team, baptism shows God’s ultimate claim on us, and our complete union with Christ.

In Christ, we are...God’s forgiven children

In the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 33, we read how Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, but we are also God’s forgiven children. What Jesus is by His own nature, we are by adoption in Him. So we are part of His team—or for an analogy closer to Scripture, we’re members of His body.

In Galatians 3, Paul writes to the Christians, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. ...[later] when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. (Gal. 3:26-4:7, NIV 1984)

So in Christ, we are restored and reconciled as God’s forgiven children whom He loves. We are just called to turn from our sin and turn to Jesus.

In Christ, we are...empowered by the Holy Spirit for mission

And then we are also, like Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit for mission to the world. All Christians have the same Spirit that descends on Jesus here in Matthew 3, the same Spirit as the apostles were given at Pentecost, and the same power. We are able to go share the gospel with others in God’s power. He holds our hands as we learn to use the drill—and so much more.

So this voice from heaven, from our Father, is not just for Jesus, but also for each of us. We see who Jesus is, and who we are in Him.

At Baptism, Jesus is Affirmed and Commissioned...and in Him, we participate in God’s mission

So in Christ, as God’s children, we also share in Christ’s mission to the world. Gathered and going. But we never stop being apprentices. We can’t do this on our own, and we never start it as a church. We simply participate in what God is already doing.

For us in North America, we think of each day beginning in the morning. But in the Hebrew understanding, the day starts in the evening. So basically, when we get up in the morning, the day has already been going on for hours. God has been at work in the world long before we are even conscious. So when anyone begins work, they are simply participating in what God has already been doing.

Before I and my fellow students at seminary left for our summer internships, a professor used this same analogy. He reminded us that we never begin God’s work in a congregation. God has been at work long before we ever arrive—and we have the privilege of participating in what God is doing.

The same is true of the church’s mission. It begins with God, and Christ’s mission. We as followers of Christ only participate in His work.

One of my professors told about how when he was younger, he went on a road-trip with friends. They took their guitars and wanted to evangelize across the country. But things didn’t seem to be going well at all. Then they heard of a Christian coffeeshop ministry where it seemed that God was at work in some powerful ways. When my professor asked the owner about it, he answered something like, “The only person who can live the Christian life is Jesus. The secret is not to get stronger and stronger; the secret is to get weaker and weaker. You need to give up trying to be a Christian (on your own); surrender, and just ask the Holy Spirit to live through you. Ask Him to take over and to live the life of Jesus through you.”

Earlier we talked about the image of an apprentice, learning a trade from the master—or any child learning from a parent. This is what it means to be gathered and going as Christians. And so we are always apprentices; there is only one Master, one Father. Return to the image of our fathers teaching us how to use a power drill—This is what it’s like to be a disciple and a missionary: We are both learning and doing, but only and always participating in God’s work. Except God’s hands never come off ours—we are always His children, dependent on Him as He works through us.

So we follow Jesus, and in His baptism our Lord was shown to be God’s own Son. And like we read in Galatians 3, You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” all who believe in Jesus—and we could put our own name here if we do—we are all God’s children, God’s sons and daughters in Christ, whom He loves. And in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can also participate in God’s work in the world.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Friends Again

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

This is one of my favorite passages in Scripture, and one I think we all can relate to. Relationship and reconciliation--concepts so central in our lives.

We may well remember times in the past, how in some argument with a sibling over chores or trespassing on our side of the room or something that was said, we ended up in a fight. Finally, when separated by our parents, our only communication was stony glares from across the room. The relationship was broken. I still remember how hard it was for me to say I was sorry: I would rather sit in the corner for the longest time, rather than say those painful words—“I’m sorry”—that always seemed to stick in my throat. I’d rather sit and stew than go and admit I was wrong and fix the relationship with my brother or sister.

Hopefully as we grow older we are faster to admit our fault and say we’re sorry. But we may also just grow to be better at hiding and avoiding broken relationships with God and others rather than truly seeking reconciliation.  

This passage in 2 Corinthians speaks about relationships that have been broken and are being fixed. And it’s a powerful affirmation of what God has done to fix these broken relationships.

As a background of sorts, it’s as if we, as God’s children, had spit in His face, packed our belongings, and left home for good. We had broken our relationship with Him. We rejected our Father, and so we rightly deserve only punishment. And God was completely in the right; He hadn’t done anything wrong.

But then the picture changes with our passage here. God Himself has taken the initiative to come to us and make things right! When we had our backs to Him, God provided for us to be His friends again. In fact, more than just excusing what we had done, His own Son bore the punishment for our sin. Wow.

In the Corinthian church, there had been problems within the congregation caused by blatant sins that were not confronted, divisions probably related to social class differences, and also words leveled against Paul and “his” gospel. But by the time of this letter of 2 Corinthians, Paul had received the good news that there had been a turn-around in the church. After his earlier confrontation, now the Corinthians seemed genuinely sorry for what they had done. Now we hear Paul’s words as he speaks of reconciliation and defends his own work as a Christian. It seems that God’s initiative and action in Christ is the foundation for all Paul does.

I think Today’s English Version helps us understand what’s going on here. We read, “All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us -the task of making others his friends also.” (v. 18)

We’ll spend some time looking at what all this means for us and others. As we dive into this some more, we notice that this has both a vertical and horizontal dimension to it, and that it’s both a message for us to receive, and for us to share with others.

Reconciliation that is Vertical

This first has a vertical dimension to it. Verse 16: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ...” Returning to our earlier image, even though we are the ones sitting in time-out, enemies with God, God is the one who came to us to make things right.

So somehow God allowed us to be changed from enemies into friends. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them...” But how did He do this? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So Jesus took all the weight of our own rebellion upon Himself. In Isaiah 53, we read “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Jesus was the only obedient child in right relationship with our Father, but He took the punishment for every lustful thought, every rejection of God’s authority and love, every time we worried instead of trusting, every time we looked down on another Christian, every time we failed to love. So in what Jesus did, God paved the way back home for us, making us His friends again.

So God has done this, but reconciliation takes two people. 

We must be willing to say we’re sorry, and then simply accept what God has done. He has put away His just anger, and Christ bore it in our place. When we belong to Christ, we are now His friends, in right relationship with Him again. And in relationship with Him, we are part of a new reality, a new creation—so that we can live for Him instead of for ourselves. Do we believe this?

Reconciliation that is Horizontal

This new reality affects everything. This restored relationship with our God (the vertical dimension of being reconciled) is the basis for restored relationships with one another (the horizontal dimension). God has taken the initiative to bring us back into right relationship with Himself. He’s fixed the relationship at a great cost to Himself. No more divisions in Christ.

If we are close friends with someone, then in some sense we can’t be bitter enemies with their husband or wife, or their children. When God makes us into His friends, it’s even more expansive. We are now part of something so much bigger than ourselves. God has bound us to Himself in friendship, and so we are also bound to all God’s friends.

Recently I’ve been reading a book by a Jesuit priest, called Tattoos on the Heart. He works in Los Angeles with gang members, and tells stories of the transformation he has seen in their lives. In the mission, we see snapshots of men who were in rival gangs, working in a bakery alongside one another. They have become part of something new, something so much bigger than the rivalries and blood feuds that once defined their lives.

I’m sure many of us can think of other relationships that need reconciliation, even closer to home. Disagreements over money or marriage choices or personality or church or lifestyle. We may think of someone who is seen as the “black sheep” in our biological family or our church family, or someone we harbor a grudge against, or more subtly, from whom we destructively distance ourselves.

But what we read here—that God makes us His friends in Jesus—melts any basis for harbored grudges between fellow believers. God’s friends are to be our friends. This doesn’t mean that we pretend there are no differences between us. This also doesn’t mean that working towards reconciliation will always bring a good relationship—that takes both people. We can’t control how others will respond, but we can take extend ourselves in expressing the reconciliation that God has already accomplished. We don’t all become the same, but we recognize our common ground in Christ. And it also means that we should actively be seeking reconciliation, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit going with us.

This may begin on a small scale, closest to home. Who is one individual we may we need to call today, right now, to seek reconciliation? Whether or not they reciprocate, we are to extend ourselves, because of what God has done for and in us.

It’s difficult to see the divisions that exist within the Church across the world. But I think through our passage today, we can be encouraged in continuing to seek reconciliation and healing (whatever that looks like), on the basis of the reconciliation that God has already provided. Our Father—the Father of all believers in all congregations—has taken the gracious initiative to make us His friends in Christ. That is the common ground between all Christians. So even if there are breaks within the Church, there still remains a deeper unity that never goes away, rooted in Christ. So in whatever ways are needed, I think we can be encouraged in continuing to extend ourselves in seeking whatever reconciliation we can, as far as it is up to us. We can’t control the result. And this won’t mean we will all look the same at the end of the day. But acknowledging differences, we stand on a greater common ground if we stand in Jesus Christ.

Reconciliation that We Must Receive

Over the next few weeks, I will be doing a series of sermons on texts in Matthew. We will focus first on the theme of what it means to be called to follow Jesus as His disciples. Then we will turn to the theme in Matthew of the church’s mission—going out into the world. Overall, we will focus on how we are gathered and going. Gathered by Christ as His disciples, and going—sent by Him.

One of the reasons I love this passage in 2 Corinthians is because it has both senses to it—both gathered and going. We ourselves are first invited and urged to receive this reconciliation God has provided in Jesus. We are called to accept God’s offer of friendship. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ...” These words of the gospel can give us daily strength and focus. This is one of the wonderful things about daily devotions after dinner: We need to be reminded daily of this good news that is our daily food and drink. So we are gathered to God in Christ.

Reconciliation that We Extend to Others

But then we are also going. We are sent by God. “And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Every Christian is a full-time missionary. And we are sent to share this with others, to call people to accept this offer of friendship with God through Jesus. I think this makes the idea of witnessing less scary. Our culture knows about broken relationships and sees the destructive effects of them. There are numerous examples in celebrity magazines or even in our own lives. And though this is still invasive, it’s witnessing out of love: We know our God and Father, and we want others to know the joy of a healed relationship with Him too.

This may begin close to home. Who in our life needs to hear God’s offer of friendship in Christ? Our neighbor? The friend at work at our lunch table? The check-out clerk at the grocery store?

It can be hard to share this. We fear we’ll be rejected. But even if others reject us when we share the gospel with them, it’s ok. Ultimately, witnessing is not about making friends for ourselves. It’s about seeking to lead people into friendship with their Father and their God through Jesus.

If we look back to the picture from the beginning, God provided for us to be His friends again, even when we were still sulking in the corner. And then God, our Father, asks us to go to our siblings and tell them about His love. This is the mission of the Church.

And we aren’t alone in this mission either. Apparently, among many Pentecostal Christians, there is the belief that we never witness alone—we always have God going with us. The Holy Spirit equips us to share this message with others who deeply need reconciliation with God.

Reconciliation at Angola
This past October, I spent some time visiting Angola State Penitentiary, in Louisiana, with a group from Calvin Seminary. Calvin has been sending groups there for the past couple years, to learn something of what God has been doing in this prison. We were told how this used to be the bloodiest maximum security prison in the United States—and it was actually where the movies “The Green Mile” and “Dead Man Walking” were set or filmed. Many of these men were here for life, and the barbed wire and locked gates were evidence of the effects of past broken relationships with God and others. How could they be God’s friends?

But what we saw was something I will never forget. At Angola, we joined the men for nightly worship services, and we sat in a seminary extension program classroom in the prison. We came to know men who had been overwhelmed by the gospel—and who had accepted God’s gracious call to be His friends again. These men knew their sin, but also knew their Savior.

On the last day we were there, a couple of the men stood up front and rapped a song for us, based on Philippians 2 that speaks of Jesus as Lord. The chorus saw them bowing one by one as they sang “Bow! Bow! Bow! Bow!” These men had been reconciled by the blood of Christ on the cross, and are God’s friends. 

And on top of this, some of these men even went out as missionaries to other prisons. There, in other places harder than Angola, they shared this message of the gospel with others.

Is our story really any different from theirs—from our brothers in Angola? “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation...” 

God making us His friends again.

Friday, June 8, 2012

We Belong...

Here are some excerpts from a sermon I wrote for the Sunday of June 3:

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:9-15, NIV 1984)

Just a couple weeks ago, it was David’s* birthday. I knew David for a number of years, and he was adopted by a family we knew in the area. I had the opportunity to spend time with him regularly as he adjusted to this new life, playing in our woods and treehouse, working on some of his schoolwork, and playing games on our friends’ trampoline. Because he now belonged to a new family, he had changed his first name, and also taken on our friends’ last name.

But just changing his name wasn’t the ultimate goal of adoption. Our friends wanted David to have a new life. He had been adopted into a family that loved him, but unless he more and more accepted what it meant for his life that he belonged to a new family, the name change wouldn’t have meant much. And David did change, some. But he had profoundly deep hurts and other issues. He ultimately in effect decided to go his own direction away from his family, and not to live this new life that he had been given. It’s still so sad to think of all that he never became even though he was offered such a gift by being adopted as our friends’ own son.

This image of adoption may help us as we look through our passage this morning.

A Teaching Grace

As we look back at Titus 2 verse 11, the first thing we run across is that God’s grace has appeared. Everything else flows from grace. And this grace brings salvation, ready to welcome all people who believe.

But one critique of grace is that it makes people lazy. If we just have to receive it, why should it matter what kind of lives we live? We’re set, so why worry about living a new kind of life?

But then we read that this grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age...”

God’s grace teaches us. It isn’t something we can receive and yet remain the same. It puts claims on our life, just as being adopted into a new family involves living in a new way ... We are saved, and now as God’s children we are called to live as we were always meant to live in relation to ourselves, others, and God. “self-controlled, upright, and godly lives...” So this isn’t cheap grace; it has to change us. And in our relationship with Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to change.

His Very Own

And then comes my favorite part of the passage. We read, “...Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (emphasis added)

Jesus redeemed us from all that we had been defined by before. And now all Christians—the Church—are a people who are His very own. We belong to Jesus. The word used for the phrase “his very own” is only found here in the New Testament. And it actually refers back to a couple places in the Old Testament. The nation of Israel is described as God’s “treasured possession” whom He has chosen, and this is explained as a motivation for why Israel is called to live as they are. Like a parent chooses to adopt a particular child as their own, God chose Israel even though they were small and insignificant. And God chooses us, the Church. We had turned our backs on Him, but He chose us as His very own.

When a child is adopted, it’s not just so they can have the family’s last name. It’s so they can live a whole new life, growing up with a new future. And the parents hope that their son or daughter will mature and find a job that fits their gifts, and live a life that helps others and is productive, “eager to do what is good.” Because we belong to God, we have a new life to live.

Other Claims on Our Lives

Even as Christians, it is so easy to forget that we belong to God. So much of our culture assumes that we belong to ourselves—it’s my life to do what I want. American Express has the slogan, “Your life. Your card. Your Choice.” Or the idea that I belong to my desires...think of Sprite’s slogan “Obey your thirst.” Or that we ultimately belong to our family, or to our country. But our confidence will always be betrayed by these things. The only One to whom we ultimately belong, and who can ultimately keep us safe, is God.

We all struggle at times with remembering and living this. And for any who still haven’t accepted God’s gracious offer, He extends it to all. God has a big family of adopted children, and there’s more than enough room for anyone who believes.


Living As His Own

In this next week, I would encourage us to regularly ask ourselves, “What does it mean for this moment, knowing that I belong to Jesus Christ?”

Maybe we or someone we care about is struggling with sickness, depression, or loss, even to the point of feeling like we can’t pray. But when we ask ourselves this question, we are reminded that God ultimately takes care of those who belong to Him, whether in life or death. And the Holy Spirit prays for us even when we can’t. Isaiah 43 can also help remind us: “But now, this is what the LORD says—he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”

Or maybe we are considering a lifestyle or a choice that is destructive or apathetic towards God. Remembering that we belong to Him, and in His strength, we are challenged to live the new life for which God has saved us.

Maybe we are worried about taking risks or surrendering to God in our personal lives or in our church...Remembering that we belong to God, we know that our lives are invested in a place far more secure than even the safest stocks. Knowing this, we can be free to give up our all to our God as His witnesses.

And always, we remember that since we belong to God, our lives have been completely redefined. We are redeemed and cleansed by Jesus Christ to be His people, loving God and others, enthusiastic to do what is good.

Final Words

As Christians, God adopts us as His very own, not because of who we are or anything we’ve done, but because of His grace. Our life and work flows out of this new identity. Reading again from the end of our passage, Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

As we close, we have the opportunity to affirm our faith—how we belong to God, and how we are empowered to live in this new identity. Let’s read from the Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer one.

As believers in Jesus Christ, we are asked: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

“That I am not my own,
but belong—
     body and soul,
     in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
     He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
     and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
     He also watches over me in such a way
     that not a hair can fall from my head
     without the will of my Father in heaven:
     in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.” **

* (Not his real name)
** Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions (CRC Pubs, 1988)