Ministries and messages

January 24th, 2019

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

“Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and who seek to live in peace with one another.” Every time I hear that invitation to Holy Communion I shudder a bit, for there are many Sunday-go-to-meetin’ Christians who seek no such thing, and my own father one of them, God rest his soul.

Dad went around the world a couple of times, but he never took the longest and most important trip any of us need to take; the fifteen-inch journey from head to heart. That is to say, although he was a preacher of the gospel for many years, he never quite got this verse worked out in any way that was the least bit obvious to the rest of us: “We no longer regard anyone from a human point of view.”

In some ways, of course, I understand. He was born in the Deep South and formed in the days of Jim Crow and stark segregation. He could never see past that particular picture of divided humanity.

He fought in World War II, and spent his tour directing artillery fire against the Nazis and Fascists. He never got used to the alliances that emerged soon after the war. My father hated the Communists too, even more than he had hated Germans, Italians, and Japanese.

He raised children through the sixties, when most every value he had lived by, gone to war for, and very nearly died on account of was questioned, denied, usurped, or burned. And although my sister and I were pretty well-behaved, I can still remember him sitting in his chair, railing at the TV, yelling at the news, shaking his head with disgust.

Until the end of his life he regarded many things not only from a human point of view but also from a very particular human’s point of view. My father never got outside himself or his experience to see things from a different perspective—the perspective of Paul, say, or the perspective of grace. Oh, he knew these words of Scripture. He had them memorized, and other good words too, such as Galatians 3:28. And in fact he preached a lot on grace, but it never made him particularly gracious.

When my father preached from Paul, very often the limit of his interest seemed similar to Luther’s: how can sinful persons stand righteous before a holy God? How can we hope for God to love us? How can we get to heaven? Never, so far as I know, did he ask the parallel question, “How can I or we become more loving?” His reading of the text dealt with fear of God’s judgment, not love of God’s children.

Paul answers the question of salvation, of course—even in our text for the day—but he does not stop or get stuck there. Instead, he moves on to the need and call for community-building.

Paul affirms that we who are Christians are “in Christ.” This is the amazing gift of an amazing grace, a grace that creates a new creation. All the old things have passed away, Paul says, and among them enmity, prejudice, and hatred. We have been reconciled, brought near to God through Christ. That reconciliation to God draws us nearer, in turn, to our brothers and sisters. God loves us with heart, strength, and Son, so we can love our neighbors as God does.

That is what the “ministry of reconciliation” is, then: the bridging of old gaps, the healing of old wounds, the forgiving of old enemies, and the forming of new friends. It is not only hospitality and welcome; it is more like the practice of loving one another as Jesus has loved us. Seeing one another as God sees us, loving one another as Jesus loved, we find a unity that is both profound and profoundly countercultural. We no longer see one another according to human values, but learn to look through the lens of the precious price paid by Christ.

On the cross all the dividing walls of hostility have been broken down—between us and God, and between us and one another. We are now one people, a new creation.

Reconciled to God, we become reconcilers among God’s people, and it seems Paul is referring to members of the church. But this “in-house” ministry of reconciliation becomes a message to those outside; indeed, the message of reconciliation. In sum, what we practice on each other we proclaim to everyone else, and as we learn how to love and forgive, how to confess and pardon, how to live in mutual service and fellowship, we take that message of life together into the world: “Christ for the World We Sing” (The United Methodist Hymnal [Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989], 568).

Until the day when Christ is all in all, we do this ministry and we proclaim this message, Christ making his appeal through us, his ambassadors.

The man of the house stopped by to tell me his family was going to join another church. They had visited us a few times, and really liked some things about us, he said, but we fought too much and not about the important things. I don’t mind a good argument, he said, but you folk sometimes just fuss.

I was reminded of that time in Mark 9, right after the Transfiguration, when a man had seen so much of the disciples’ incompetence that he questioned the person and work of Jesus. I wonder how often our ministry of reconciliation, or the lack thereof, renders our message moot.

If we can’t learn to be reconciled to one another, how can we preach reconciliation in the world? If we continue to see each other and talk to each other, or not talk to each other on account of our human points of view, then we will never be the kind of ambassadors for Christ who will evoke God’s new creation.

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