- Written by Mark Diller Harder Mark Diller Harder
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Healing a Broken World:
‘Reconciling with God’
Scripture - 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Several of us attended the recent MCEC Spring Gathering a few weekends ago in Oakville. It was a good conference. One of the focus areas was to hear stories about ‘Re-Learning Community,’ a resource offered to MCEC congregations. It is basically a 2 year spiritual journey for a congregation where they learn and practice how to be church in changing times through an emphasis on the making and sending of disciples and being in relationship with their neighbours. It encourages congregations to question their assumptions about discipleship, challenging them to reconsider how to engage each other, friends, family, community, and the world with the gospel story. This is done through a series of retreats with other congregations, and something called ‘huddles’, where a small group of people gather or huddle together weekly to intentionally ask each other the question of how and where God has been present in their lives and what are you going to do about it. It is an accountable circle to each other. The focus is outward, seeing the work and presence of God beyond the congregation, in their neighbourhoods. The hope is that people are engaged in transformative, life giving interactions both inside, but more importantly, outside the church.
As I listened to stories and testimonies from individuals involved in Re-Learning Community, I kept hearing them talk about the model of a triangle – a simple UP, IN and OUT. I liked what I heard. To be healthy, to make disciples, you to need to build right relationships (hand signals) UP – with God, IN – with each other, and OUT – with the world. All three are needed, and they are relational, personal, and dynamic. You need all three to be vibrant and alive and growing, to be faithful and to be relevant to the world in which we live. As I listened, they matched well with our current worship series on ‘Healing a Broken World.’ We are touching on all three points of this triangle, although perhaps our order is all mixed up, or just maybe the order doesn’t matter as we keep moving around this triangle. This series on reconciliation is certainly moving us OUT, into our world. We have been hearing stories and asking tough questions about what reconciliation means with our Aboriginal Neighbours and our Multi-Faith and Muslim Neighbours. Next Sunday we will be looking at our relationship with Creation itself. If we had more time, we could have asked more directly about the immediate neighbours who live beside us. We have also been looking IN, in ways we sometimes avoid – looking at reconciliation within our families and reconciliation with ourselves. We’ve named wounds and scars, but also healing and hope. In both these directions of the triangle, we have seen God at work, often in unexpected ways.
Today our focus goes UP – to reconciliation with God. This is foundational for the other two directions yet I suspect a more challenging and difficult and nebulous direction to get a handle on. How do we speak about our relationship with God? What does it mean to reconcile with God? We should be good at this – we are a church afterall – isn’t that what church is all about – worshipping and relating to God? Yet when it comes right down to it, it is hard for many of us to actually talk about or describe or name or pay attention to our relationship with God. When I heard about this idea of a Huddle, where you are asked each week about your relationship with God and where you see God at work ... and what you are going to do about it, it both intrigued and intimidated me.
Many of us have a troubled or complex relationship with God. We have mixed feelings about God. We blame God for the bad things that happen in our lives or the world. When life is unfair or overwhelming, we wonder where God is or if God even exists. How could God allow everything that is going on in our world right now?
We might see God as a kind of ever-present judge, just waiting for us to screw up, to make a mistake, to let us know that we are not measuring up to God’s ideal for us. We wonder about punishment and consequences. We question whether God truly loves us, in the midst of all our failures and foibles – our sins. Many of us carry strong images of sin and salvation and a fear of God. Reconciliation with God for some is coming to terms with our histories of how we have seen and experienced God. It might mean fully claiming the unconditional love of God for you.
For some it has to do with the images we have of God, and opening ourselves anew to the wide range of images for God we see in the Bible. Some people struggle with the pre-dominantly male images used to describe God and have discovered a new relationship with God when we have opened up other more feminine images for God. Others wonder how to reconcile the images of God from the Old Testament to the New Testament or wonder how to bring together the distant majestic all knowing grandeur of God together with the personal, intimate, closer than your breath, presence of God. What if we can’t feel that – if God feels more distant to us? There can be lots that block us from God.
For all of us, a challenge is simply learning how to be in relationship with God. How can we talk to God? Does God listen? How do we pray, have devotions, pay attention to or notice God in our everyday lives? What does it mean for that relationship with God to grow, to mature over time, to keep alive and fresh through all that we might be going through? In the language of our passage in The Message – How do we become friends with God, who’s already friends with us?
For myself, I have most often felt loved by God and have appreciated a wide range of images for God, but I haven’t always known how to describe my actual relationship with God on a personal basis. Growing up and for many years as an adult and as a pastor, I would not have described myself as a particularly spiritual person. On your Ministerial Information Form, a kind of pastor profile resume that search committees look at, you have to rank a list of 20 pastoral tasks – with 5 high, 5 low and 10 in the middle in terms of interest and competence. I always put Spirituality low, as opposed to preaching and teaching and pastoral care. I have had images and stereotypes of what it means to be ‘spiritual,’ or how one should pray – a kind of regular, quiet, inner, disciplined devotional life – that I could never seem to do or was not a fit for me. It has been in the last several years that I have started to find my own voice and name what spirituality means for me – how I relate personally to God. The ‘Tending the Soul’ series of retreats that several of us here were a part of helped in that. It gave me new vocabulary. I realized that I could become much more comfortable with silence and various forms of prayers and spiritual disciplines. But it also helped me name and claim a much more active spirituality that was always a part of me – a kind of spirituality for extroverts, as legitimate and how I experience God – in nature and camping, in walking and running, in engagement with others, in movement, in active forms of prayer – and in paying attention to God through all of these. It was a kind of reconciliation with God through a new understanding and naming of how I personally relate to God. Each of us has our own journey with our relationship with God.
One of the characters in the Bible that most fascinates me in terms of their relationship with God is the Apostle Paul. He had a passionate relationship with God, but also one that continually needed to be re-evaluated and in a sense reconciled over and over again. He started as a persecutor of the church, that’s what he truly understood to come out of his relationship with and understanding of God, how he was being faithful. On the road to Damascus, he had to totally re-frame that understanding and relationship, or you could say that God totally re-oriented Paul. We often see his writings as full of dense theology and deep ponderings. But yet, we see his personality and his struggles with God popping out all over the place. These are letters afterall – personal words to the churches he founded and loved. In Romans he writes, ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’ (Romans 7:15) or later in 2nd Corinthians when he boasts of his weakness, and God’s grace sufficient in weakness. We feel his existential angst, his trying to figure out God.
The churches he writes to are often filled with turmoil and conflict, and it affects the very relationship with God. This is the context for our text this morning – a letter to the church in Corinth, a church perennially in conflict with itself, struggling to know how to relate to the world around them and to God, and often questioning the very leadership of Paul himself. There is this triangle – UP, IN and OUT, that Paul is speaking into and trying to reconcile. At the heart of this letter, in chapter 5, he writes the words we heard about the new creation in Christ and reconciliation with God. They are very theological words, but come directly out of this personal and communal search for God. It is a wonderful passage. We don’t notice it in the English on our page, but the Greek has a common Biblical structure called a ‘chiastic pattern’ - where there are parallel matching phrases on either side that bring us closer and closer to the one central verse – the main point. (hand signals) ‘There is a new creation/we become the righteousness of God’; ‘God has reconciled us to himself through Christ/Be reconciled to God’; ‘God has given us/ God has entrusted us, with the ministry of reconciliation – all pointing to the central key phrases - ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.’ (5:19) That is where reconciliation starts – with what God has done. As one commentator writes, ‘God has acted in Christ to re-create the world and restore humanity to a right relationship with the divine.’ (2 Corinthians, Believer’s Church Bible Commentary, George Shillington, Herald Press, 1998, p.126). Reconciliation starts with God, not us. It comes as a gift. It comes from above, from that UP relationship where our relationship with God is restored. Then we become a new creation – everything new - a living sign of the coming Kingdom, reconciled to ourselves and made new – IN. This gift of Reconciliation is then given and entrusted to us - to become ambassadors of reconciliation to and for our world – OUT. But it all starts with God, with what God has done.
Paul surrounds this passage with the image of an open heart. He writes immediately after this passage, knowing that these words will be heard in the very real light of conflict and struggle, ‘We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you... open wide your hearts also.’ (6:11-13) Earlier he talked about not losing heart (4:16) and about what is written on our hearts (3:2-3), and that the treasure of the gospel is held in fragile clay jars (4:7). This reconciliation with God is not easy and by extension with each other and the world, but it is possible when we open our hearts to what God is doing, when we bind our hearts to God.
I am reminded of a small group of our seniors that met in the library once a month a few years ago. It was an under the radar group for folks who were filled with lots and lots of questions and doubts and trying to re-imagine what faith looks like in our contemporary world. Much of the faith language and God images they had grown up with didn’t make sense anymore. The easy answers of faith, the harsh emphasis on sin and right behaviour, the understandings of God from their childhoods no longer sustained. They were in a sense looking for reconciliation with God. We read through a book by Marcus Borg, together, called ‘The Heart of Christianity’ (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) which also asked many questions of traditional Christianity and what a new paradigm might look like in our time, and how to recapture and rediscover the intimacy of a relationship with God. Two of the images Borg used were ‘open hearts’ and ‘thin places.’ The heart is the image for the self at a deep level, deeper than our perception, intellect, emotion, and volition - it is the spiritual centre of our being. (p.151) Like with Paul, he asks how we can open our hearts to God, to ourselves and to our neighbour. The image or metaphor of ‘thin places’ comes from Celtic Christianity. It is that thin place between God and humanity. It acknowledges that God is right here around us, a non-material layer of reality all around us where we live and move and have our being – but that we are often blind or closed off to this. But occasionally we do see it; we experience God shining through everything. ‘Thin places’ are places where these two levels of reality meet or intersect, where the boundary between the two levels become more soft or porous or permeable – where we see and behold and experience God. A thin place may happen in worship, in nature, in an experience of pure awe, in a conversation with a caring friend, in times of life crisis where something gets opened up – where there is a kind of new open vulnerability, and even in a time of doubt and questions where there is a sudden glimpse of God in a totally new way. It could happen in a huddle or a place where you purposely pay attention to God.
Marcus Borg writes that ‘a thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened.’ (pages 155-156) Reconciliation with God is finding and seeing and opening ourselves to those thin places.
I want to leave you with one last image. Last Saturday, a few of us met with Zach Cressman as a part of his continuing faith exploration leading to his baptism in the river at RiverStone in a few weeks. We are excited about this step of faith for Zach and also for Ryan Clemmer at RiverStone, and the following week here in the sanctuary for Nathan Diller Harder. We were hosted for a breakfast with Zach, and around the table all shared about the times and places where God has felt real, and what some of our spiritual practices have been – where our hearts have been open to thin places. Rather than keep talking, we went outside after breakfast for our own time of spiritual reflection. We took a walk around a natural pond with the simple instruction to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open to listening for God. Part of the pathway was pavement, and I kept noticing these strange bumps or round cracks in the pavement, and then places where bits of green plants and even the start of flowers had somehow pushed their way through the hard pavement. There were plants literally growing and bursting their way through. It seemed impossible given how hard the pavement was, but there it was in front of me. Can reconciliation with God be like that, where new life bursts through what feels like a hard barrier, through all of our baggage and distorted images, through our pain or struggles or questioning, through long times of absence, through anything that might keep us from the love and grace and freedom and forgiveness and joy of a deep relationship with our God. Can our hearts be open to these thin places where reconciliation with God begins?
The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and God, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with Godself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what God is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; God’s already a friend with you. (2nd Corinthians 5:17-20 – The Message)
UP, IN, OUT. Amen.