Welcome, Sinners!

Welcome, Sinners!

March 31, 2019

 Psalm 32    2 Cor. 5:16-21   Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Intro: Home. HOME. I hope that, when I say this word, it conjures up for you images of peace and security and happiness. For some, home is a certain place, like a little village in Nova Scotia. For others, it’s a specific building. And for others, it is a person or group of people with whom one really feels “at home.” Like the young adolescent who had just discovered her love for the theater, and embraced the cast of a small production with, “My People!” I hope the word “home” is like this for you.

When I was in college, I heard a young man say, “Home is a place where, when you HAVE to go there, they HAVE to take you in.” It made me sad to hear it, because home has always been a cherished place for me. Turns out he was only quoting a line from a long poem by Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man. But still, it makes me sad that some people feel that way.

Church. CHURCH. I hope that, when I say this word, it conjures up for you images of peace and security and happiness—a place where you belong, a place where you are needed. But I know there are people who feel a sense of rejection at the word “church.” There was a couple involved with a church that had the word “grace” in its name. When the couple (amicably) divorced, they both wanted to continue at this church with their many children—but they were told to stay away. A twelve-year-old boy who was taking science seriously was told that he had to agree that the world was made in 7 days, or he was not welcome in church. At presbytery last week, we welcomed a young minister who had been raised in a different denomination. His careful study of the Bible (in its original languages) had raised questions about some of the doctrines of that church, and he was told that, if he wanted to continue at “Abundant Grace,” he would have to accept all the doctrines. He left. Now he is Presbyterian. (I asked him, “Did they then change the name of the church?!”)

I’m afraid that much of the history of the church (and of Judaism before) has shown that we have been fixated on the question of “who’s IN and who’s NOT”! Surprisingly, there are many places in the Bible that seem to be struggling with the same issue. Here’s an example: When the exiles returned from Babylon, Israel was struggling with its identity. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the boundaries of the community began to narrow. Ezra was concerned with issues of purity, and urged those who had married foreigners to divorce them!

But there were other voices, including the writer of the Book of Ruth. You will remember that Ruth was a native of Moab, and therefore a foreigner. But she was determined to accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” And Ruth married an Israelite and together they were ancestors of King David! One could not ask for a finer pedigree, and proof of God’s inclusive Spirit!

The last couple of months, I have been working my way up to today’s subject. February 3, I talked about how important it is to be connected to Christ, and to allow his love to flow through us so that God’s fruit will grow. On February 10, we looked at the fact that God’s holiness illuminates our sinfulness, but we are still urged to say, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” On February 17, the text urged us to TRUST IN THE LORD, no matter what our circumstances looked like. And on February 24, the words of Christ made it clear that FORGIVENESS is central to life in Christ.

On March 3, we explored being transformed into the image of Christ. Then, on Ash Wednesday, we talked about what it means to live A Winsome Life. On March 10, we looked at how to discern our path and “resist the devil.” Then on March 17, we heard God’s call to “be strong and courageous.”

For two months, I have been thinking about SSPC and appreciating its ethos, its character as manifested in its beliefs and behaviors. I have known about this church since before it was chartered, and it has been an inspiration to see the clarity of its vision for itself: a worshiping family of Christ that is DETERMINED to welcome all kinds of people with wide-open arms…including those who have been rejected by other faith communities. I see very little energy being expended in deciding who’s “in” and who’s not!

So, when I sat with the scriptures for today, and just “soaked” in them, I could sense where the growing edge of our church is: we are becoming a true Community of Reconciliation. Let’s take a look.

A Father with Two Sons (parable in Luke)

Jesus was criticized for “welcoming sinners,” so he told a story about a man with two sons. The older son was obedient to his father, but it is revealed that he is fairly resentful at having “slaved” for him for years. The younger son wanted OUT, wanted to go his own way, but he came HOME. When he returned and the father threw a welcome-home party, we see that the older son wanted more exclusive parameters around the family, and described the younger son as “this son of yours.” But the father made it clear that he wanted a much wider inclusion, and referred to the younger son as “This brother of yours.” In the light of God’s love, the question of “who’s in and who’s out” becomes moot.

A New Creation (Paul to Corinthians)

Paul says that anyone in Christ is a new creation. ANYONE! And he declares this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ. And God has given US “The Ministry of Reconciliation!” Then he clarifies: In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (what a concept)! And now God is entrusting to us the message of RECONCILIATION. So that means that you and I are ambassadors for Christ. In international relations, an ambassador is an accredited diplomat sent by a country as its official representative to a foreign country. But it also means “a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specific activity.” In the Bible, we see kings or other powerful persons sending representatives (“ambassadors”) to go and do a certain task or carry a certain message. These people spoke and acted with the authority of the one who sent them, almost as if the person were actually there.

How does it make you feel to hear that YOU are an ambassador for Christ?! That God has entrusted to YOU the message of reconciliation?!

The Ministry of Reconciliation

We find in our Gospel reading a strong message about the importance of reconciliation. The father was reconciled to his errant son (just as God is reconciled to sinners, not counting their trespasses against them). The father was reconciled to his stay-at-home son (who was acting like the Pharisees). And the father’s desire was for the two sons to be reconciled with each other: “We had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost, and has been found.”

Paul makes it clear that the church is called to be God’s Reconciling Community. This includes welcoming all kinds of people, and helping those who feel separated from God to grow closer, and facilitating reconciliation among others. Our Statement of Faith today says it so clearly: To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as God’s reconciling community. This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares God’s labor of healing the enmities which separate people from God and from each other. (From The Confession of 1967)

Yes, it’s a BIG job description! But don’t forget that Christ has called us to this mission and has given us the Holy Spirit. We’re not expected to do this all on our own power! It’s the power of God’s love flowing through us that bears the fruit of reconciliation. Hear these words from First John: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

Friends, we don’t have to make ourselves come up with a feeling of love for others, we simply have to start behaving in love—starting with forgiveness, intentional forgiveness. THAT is something that each of us can DECIDE to do, and ask God’s help with the process.

Conclusion: I’ll finish today with a look at Simon Peter, a disciple that many of us have been studying during Lent (using Adam Hamilton’s book). Jesus gave him a nickname, “Rock”, and said, “On this rock I will build my church.” We have two letters in our New Testament attributed to Peter, and in describing the church, he speaks of stones. He writes, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Fellow Stones, are we ready to let God build us into a Community of Reconciliation? To teach us what that means? To use us as an instrument of healing the enmities that separate people from each other and from God? I pray we are!


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