Reconciled to Reconcile

Sermon delivered on Trinity 1A, Sunday, June 14, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7; Psalm 116.1-2, 12-19; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.23.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

The appointed readings from the lectionary this year (we are in the first year of a repeating three year cycle of readings) focus on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, a massively important document in the NT. Accordingly, I have asked our staff to preach on the assigned readings from Romans and I kick off our summer preaching series today with this sermon. I do so at an extraordinarily dark time for our nation. We are beset by a pandemic that has left us isolated and fearful, decimating our economy and further aggravating our fears and feelings of uncertainty. George Floyd’s recent death at the hands of a police officer has triggered massive protests and riots. Racism is the new cardinal sin and the BLM movement appears to be the new required dogma. Failure to get on board with its political agenda will cause you to be named and shamed publicly as being a racist. I do not want to be flippant about this or make this sermon about politics. The issues are so much bigger than that. Racial injustice is a serious problem that has plagued our nation from its inception and as Christians, we should be speaking out against it and doing what we can to end it. But lawlessness is an equally serious problem and calls to defund law enforcement agencies across the country and woke zones like the one that has been created in Seattle threaten to accelerate the lawlessness we have seen in the riots and undo not only our country but the democracy on which it is based. I cannot speak for you, but for me, the prospect of seeing our nation succumb to mob rule is as terrifying as the prospect of contracting COVID. In this kind of climate, what does St. Paul’s letter to the Romans have to offer us as Christians? Much, and the Church must be bold in our proclamation and willingness to speak to these issues because we have the only solution to the problems that confront us—Jesus Christ. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

The lectionary curiously and frustratingly cuts off our lesson from Romans at verse 8 instead of the more natural ending at verse 11. But if we are going to understand what St. Paul is getting at we need to hear what he said immediately before and after today’s pericope from Romans. So bear with me a moment while we prepare to look at today’s passage. In the first three chapters of Romans, St. Paul has laid out a devastating and grim picture of the human condition. There he spoke of our ongoing rebellion against God where we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge and obey God so that we are no longer his image-bearers who rule God’s world wisely on God’s behalf, resulting in God giving us up in judgment to our own disordered desires. This doesn’t afflict one race of people; it afflicts the entire human race. All have sinned, says St. Paul, and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). Therefore we all can expect nothing but God’s terrible judgment and condemnation, not because God is an angry, intolerant God but because God in his moral perfection can countenance no evil or sin because both lead to our dehumanization and ultimately to death, and God loves us too much to let that happen. We are too thoroughly broken and infected by sin to fix ourselves and without outside help, we are slaves to the power of Sin and destined for eternal separation from God, the Source of all life and things good. BTW, only the converted, you and me, will entertain St. Paul’s teaching on this matter and realize we are sinners. The unconverted won’t have anything to do with the idea, itself a symptom of the human race’s sin-sickness.

But thankfully we have outside help from a Source more powerful than the power of Sin: God himself. St. Paul makes the astonishing claim that despite our rebellion against God, despite our outright hostility toward him and/or our resolute unbelief in God, God the Father has acted decisively on our behalf to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin and bring about our reconciliation with him and each other. God did this by sending his Son to die for us to reconcile us to him and free us from our death-dealing slavery to Sin. Listen to St. Paul as he leads up to our epistle lesson from this morning.

Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God (Romans 4.20-25).

Here St. Paul lays out the basis for the peace we enjoy in Jesus Christ. As we’ve seen, we are incapable of fixing ourselves and our relationship with God. No amount of trying harder is going to work and God knows that. So God sent his Son to die for us so that we could have a right relationship with God. In Christ’s death and resurrection, God offers us forgiveness and healing and this is a free gift to us if we take God at his word. Despite our ongoing hostility toward God, despite our slavery to the power of Sin and the chaos and alienation from God that results, God has offered us healing and reconciliation if only we will believe he has forgiven us through the death and resurrection of Christ. Where once we stood as condemned enemies of God, we are now reconciled to God and can expect healing and forgiveness because of what God has done for us in Christ. We can enjoy our changed status in the present as soon as we dare believe this Good News, and this is known as justification (or being made right with God) by faith. God promises this is true and by faith we believe the promise.

The result? “[S]ince we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory” (Romans 5.1-2). St. Paul drives home this point starting at verse 6:

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God (Romans 5.6-11).

Did you catch the breathtaking promise of the love and mercy of God in this passage? Notice carefully there are no preconditions for this saving gift from God. In fact, just the opposite. God did all this for us when we were utterly helpless to save ourselves or change our relationship with God. God’s act is not contingent on our repentance and remorse. That comes naturally after we realize what God has done for us and what fools we have been to reject and deny God. Here we see God practicing what he preached: To love our enemies and do good to them. When we believe the promise of God to heal and forgive us so that we can share in God’s promised new world as his image-bearers, it must change us and the way we live. We realize how great is the Father’s love for us and what a terrible price God paid to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin and restore us to himself, and it must change us so that we act for God, not ourselves. Trust in Jesus Christ is the only way we escape God’s just condemnation of our sins. Jesus Christ is the only way we are reconciled to God so that God can begin to heal our sin-sickness in this world. When we truly believe we are reconciled to God, undeserving as we are, we find real peace, the kind of peace our first ancestors enjoyed with God in the garden. And we learn over the course of our lives to live for God, not ourselves or the corrupt and evil powers of this world and its human-made systems. Our future glory awaits us but we have the promise right now and when we truly believe God is big enough to fulfill his promises, we find real peace, God’s peace, the only true peace there is. This is why St. Paul tells us to boast in our hope. It is boasting based on the love, mercy, and goodness of God, not ourselves, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having this kind of pride in God. In fact, God encourages it!

So what does this have to say to us as Christians and the current Zeitgeist of our age? First, since we are reconciled to God, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation. First and foremost this means that we are to introduce folks to Christ in our speaking and doing and encourage them to find their identity in him and not some other death-dealing identity. Doing so will allow us to see humans, ourselves included, for what we are, and to proclaim God’s great love for us as well as his willingness to initiate forgiveness and reconciliation so that we are willing and able to forgive and repent of our evildoing that causes discord and rancor with the help of the Spirit. Hear what St. Paul writes about the effects of having peace with God in his second letter to the Corinthians:

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! 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 [the ministry of reconciliation]. 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 (2 Corinthians 5.17-19).

In other words, because we enjoy real peace through a new and reconciled relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ, we are commanded to live, proclaim, and offer that same healing love of God through Christ to others so that they too might be reconciled to God and find his great and precious peace. When that happens, the walls of racial divide come tumbling down.

To engage in a ministry of reconciliation, we must first be clear about the human condition and our slavery to the power of Sin without God’s help. It’s what makes reconciliation necessary in the first place and a realistic knowledge of our slavery to Sin’s power keeps us humble and helps remind us we are all in the same boat. For example, we see the chaos that sin produces (because at its essence all sin is chaos in its opposition to God) in the actions of the police officer who callously murdered George Floyd. We also see the power of Sin at work in the rioters and the chaos it engenders. When we realize the truth of the human race’s enslavement to the power of Sin we no longer develop an “us versus them” mentality because we realize everyone of us is capable of good and evil, and left unchecked we are more likely to do evil than good. Why is this important to our ministry of reconciliation? Because we know that only by the grace of God are we spared from God’s wrath and how desperately the human race needs the healing and restorative power of God’s love for each of us. We acknowledge that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, ourselves included, and we are thankful that God loves us and has rescued us from his wrath and condemnation so that we enjoy peace with God. If we truly love others, wanting the best for them, even our enemies, how can we not engage in a ministry of reconciliation? This is the chief difference I see between the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s and BLM movement. The former was grounded in the Christian faith. Martin Luther King had a vision where one day no one would be judged by the color of their skin because all humans are created in the image of God. Dr. King resisted violence and rioting as means of getting justice because he knew that sin is chaos and ultimately will destroy us. Contrast this with some of the violent and oppressive ideology of the BLM movement that makes it all about fostering racial discord and insisting that history be seen only through the lens of racial oppression and injustice. By definition this kind of thinking can never lead to reconciliation. It leads only to division and rancor and as Christians we must oppose it even as we advocate for justice for all.  

In the context of the current debate about race and law enforcement, as ministers of reconciliation, this means we are ready to listen to all sides, not just one, and to acknowledge all sides have a role in contributing to the current tensions because we realize the real problem is human sin, not race. This means we listen to the pain expressed by many in the black community and acknowledge it is real, even if we do not fully understand the basis for that pain or makes us uncomfortable. It means we speak out against racial injustice when we see or experience it because the love of God demands that we do justice and love mercy as we walk humbly with him, submitting to his just and sovereign rule. This means we resist the strident voices who attempt to demonize all law enforcement officers and discredit their legitimate role and function in helping preserve the rule of law in our country. It means we try to put ourselves in their shoes, just as we try to put ourselves in the shoes of black communities so that we can better advocate for all people, not just some. It means we are willing to have an honest conversation about all causes for racial disparity, poverty, crime, and violence, not just racism, important as the latter is. It means we are not interested in winning debates about which side is right and which side is wrong. Reconciliation rarely, if ever, results from winning debates, but rather from having empathy and compassion and understanding for others, realizing we all desperately need to be healed and reconciled, first to God and then to each other. And as we engage in this ministry of reconciliation, we must take to heart Christ’s admonition to us to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents. This means, in part, that we must not be naive in our listening but also not cynical. It means we must be both thin-skinned enough to be empathetic and thick-skinned enough to withstand criticism, and it means we must be angry at injustice but gentle in overcoming it, just as our Lord Jesus did for us by dying for us to reconcile us to God.

Being ministers of reconciliation means that we talk to people about the love of Christ and how he has healed and changed us in the living of our days. It means we offer forgiveness and mercy to our enemies, not anger or vitriol or the desire for revenge, even when they act hatefully toward us and accuse us falsely, which they most certainly will. Instead, we are to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and proclaim the love of Christ offered to one and all. These are signs of the in-breaking Kingdom of God in our midst. We may not raise anyone physically from the dead (although nothing is impossible for God working in and through us), but by the power of God’s love and Word made known in Christ and available to all in the power of the Spirit, we can bring new life to those who are dead from despair, apathy, grief, hedonism, or absence of meaning. And certainly we must confront and cast out the demons of violence, hatred, injustice, and division that currently terrify and corrupt us. We are to do all this because our Lord himself tells us to do so in our gospel lesson. And let us be clear-headed about this. Being ministers of reconciliation will bring about the world’s wrath and vitriol as our Lord himself warns us in our gospel lesson. Proclaiming the love of God made known in Jesus Christ will sadly be rejected by many, but even here St. Paul has good news for us. He tells us to rejoice in our sufferings because our sufferings produce solid Christian character through perseverance. We persevere because we have peace with God and a future hope, the sure and certain expectation of things to come. When we suffer the world’s wrath for Christ’s sake, we are equipped by the Holy Spirit to endure it and reminded that our future is life and total healing, not death and condemnation.  This, in turn, helps us offer that same healing love to others, even in the face of opposition and threats. There is much more to say about these things but I am out of time. I pray I have stimulated your own prayerful thinking about being ministers of reconciliation and that we will walk this journey together as God’s people, supporting one another in love. Remember, our little parish is a microcosm of the society that results from the ministry of reconciliation. We are equal brothers and sisters in Christ from many tribes, languages, and nations, all healed and restored to God and each other by the mercy and grace of God, God be praised!

But none of this will happen if we do not believe in the power of God to work in our lives and the lives of others. It is only in and through God’s power that we can ever hope to be ministers of reconciliation. Now is the time for the Church, for you and me, to find our voice and to be bold in our proclamation about the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. Now is the time to engage in the ministry of reconciliation with others in the context of our daily lives. We have the peace and power of God to make a difference in our world and if the Evil One tempts us to not believe in the efficacy of the gospel or our ability to live and proclaim it, I would point you to our OT lesson. Sarah and Abraham laughed because they struggled believing in the power of God to bring about his promises. But a child was born to them out of time and by the grace and power of God. It took a long time but God fulfilled his promise to Abraham to bless him with descendants as numerous as the stars. 

God loves us and has given himself for us in a great and costly act. In doing so, God calls us once again to be his image-bearers whom God will use to reflect his goodness, mercy, and justice to a sin-sick world, image-bearers who live in the power of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, to reconcile us to God the Father so that we can be his image-bearers once again, patterning our lives after Jesus our Lord. We worship a God who creates things out of nothing and who raises the dead. Nothing is too hard for him, not even our own fears and foibles in these desperate times. Let us thank God that he loves us enough and honors our role as his image-bearers to call us to this ministry of reconciliation in Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.