Face to Face Forgiveness

(Matthew 18:15-22; Galatians 2:1-14)

Sun, June 26, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Jesus’ words about “where two or three are gathered” are oft quoted.  Where two or three are gathered, there am I, in the midst of them.  But look at the context. It’s “how to have a church fight” as Reggie McNeil put it!  Jesus’ words are in the midst of teaching about dealing with sins and offences among our brothers and sisters in Christ.

A Sunday school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her five and six year olds.  After explaining the commandment to ‘honour thy father and thy mother,’ she asked, ‘Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?’

Without missing a beat, one boy answered, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

Forgiveness comes out of conflict, of course: disagreement, some offense committed.  Or some offense taken.  To take offense is what John Bevere called The Bait of Satan. His book of that title is subtitled: Living Free from the Deadly Trap of Offense.  And it is the trap of staying offended by someone that closes the door to forgiveness, reconciliation, and many other good blessings.  Yet in Christ there can be freedom from being offended forever.

I think we learn from the example of others.  Our insides are moved by stories.  So when Paul writes to the little churches in the region called Galatia, he tells a story, he gives an example.  His own conflict with Peter, also called Simon, and here called Cephas.  What we heard today from Galatians chapter 2 was likely hard to follow.

Conflicts are often complicated.  More people get involved.  People talk and talk.  The story is confusing to tell when it’s all said and done.

Reading minutes of old deacon’s meetings and other Church meetings can be like reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians: run-on sentences and convoluted events that are hard to follow!

Here in Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of how some of those early Church leaders – apostles – dealt with the challenges of having Jews and non-Jews all become Christians.  Did Gentiles – the non-Jews – have to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus and be saved?  No.  But some of those apostles second-guessed that wisdom, and sometimes acted as if believers had to follow Jewish ways.  Peter, for one, is picked out here by Paul, for saying one thing but doing another.  Peter, this disciple who had walked with Jesus for three years, was now a great leading light in the Way of Jesus.  Now, so was Paul, a former Jewish Pharisee, converted quite dramatically.  Here, in this letter, Paul describes the conflict between them.  Paul writes: “he was clearly in the wrong.” He gives this anecdote to teach and inspire the Christians he was writing to.

So, like Paul, let me give an example.  Something I read about in old minute books, and heard about from people who were there.  Not from a church in Galatia or Antioch, but Nova Scotia.

There was this Baptist Church.  They’d had a season that seemed prosperous and joyful – their pastor was well esteemed by just about everyone.  But the most wonderful of pastors don’t stay forever. So, the page turned for the next chapter of their history, and there arose a conflict.  They had a new, young, energetic, ambitious pastor.  But, some were for him, and some were against him.  Should he stay and lead the way?  Should he move on?  One group of church leaders and people were behind him to cheer and to follow.  Another faction were behind him: to push him out!  The Pastor did leave.

What a nasty time it was – especially for the deacons and others closely involved in ministry.  The next Pastor for the church arrived.  But the conflict among the people went on, and was taken out on the new man.  As I read through the minutes of the Deacons meetings from that time, there were extra, special meetings called, there was clearly conflict and concern, the pastor clearly was getting stressed out, not to mention all the volunteers serving the Church.

I turned the pages of the Deacon’s minute book, and just as the conflict was coming to a head again, there was a blank space on the pages.  The date of a meeting was there on the page, but no minutes, no notes were taken.  Just a blank was left on the page.  

That new pastor left, after being there less than two years.

Maybe you can guess where, if not when, this was. It was the Windsor Baptist Church, in the mid1980s.  When I was their pastor, twenty years later, I discovered some pain that remained among people who had been those deacons and leaders twenty years before.  No wonder one man – an excellent candidate – never ever agreed to be a deacon while I was there.  He’d been through the ringer as a young deacon in the 1980s.  No wonder two of my deacons got into a shouting match at a meeting when the title for our new youth pastor was being discussed – they had been involved in the conflict in 1984: a conflict over: should the Youth Pastor become the Senior Pastor?

The healing of people’s hearts in the Windsor Church was a long, slow process, and much of the healing journey was not planned or intentional.  The hurtful effects lasted a long time, as they often do.

My heart went out to those wonderful folks who had been through many a hard time in the Windsor Church.  I could tell you other tough stories from their past fifty years.  

And my heart goes out to you, Digby Baptist.  Some of you know just as well what church conflicts and ‘splits’ feel like.  You experienced it here twenty years ago, or some other time.  Or elsewhere – trouble at Trinity, or grumbling at Grace, problems at St. Pat’s, or woes at Wesleyan… wherever.  Maybe you found Digby Baptist because you left some troubled congregation.

How does the trouble end?  How does healing and reconciliation come about?  What does the Holy Spirit do to transform hurt and sin into healing and strength?  Sometimes the end of the story seems incomplete.  Unfinished.

What Paul gives to the Galatians seems to me like an unfinished story. What happened between Paul and Peter, those two great leaders?  Paul does not tell it here in this letter. He simply speaks of facing the issues head on.  “I opposed him to his face,” says Paul of his meeting with Peter.  And the last detail of the story Paul writes is what he said to Peter.  Things like: “How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”  These were the same issues faced by the little Churches in Galatia, to whom Paul was retelling this story.

It is so often face to face that conflicts reach their highest heat.  And it can be face to face that the deepest forgiveness and reconciliation will come.  It is hard work.  Hard emotional work: a challenging spiritual journey.  We need some courage in our hearts, and wisdom in our minds.

Those words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 18 make for a useful model, thought the same procedure does not apply exactly to every situation.  All the steps – meet with the person in conflict with you, meet along with one or two others, then bring the church together – all are about face to face sharing.  The best way is when those who have been at odds all want to share, and hear from the other side.

In my own reflections, I also keep going back to James 5:16 …confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  And to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, Life Together.

Our brother stands before us as the sign of the truth and the grace of God. He has been given to us to help us.   He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name.  He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it.  When I go to my brother [or sister] to confess, I am going to God.

So in the Christian community when the call to brotherly confession and forgiveness goes forth it is a call to the great grace of God in the Church.  (pp. 111-112)

This face-to-face method is so personally powerful.  And I’m sure that when I face someone with my own displeasure, I can see my own complaint more clearly.  And feel my feelings.  And put things in perspective.  And hear from God about it!

Paul, you see, was very clear here about being in the right – and with good reason. But we, we have our moments of being so sure we are on the side of right, when we are overreacting, and sometimes in the wrong ourselves.

And this need for forgiveness and reconciliation arises not just in churches.  We know this from families.  And in clubs.  And in workplaces.  And so forth.  It is challenging… but with Christ, so much is possible.  Things possible with God that are impossible with us alone.  There is great good news in the Bible where we read of the ministry of reconciliation, for example.

2 Corinthians 5:17-19 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

It takes us a while, walking with our Saviour, to join in this reconciling work.  Forgiveness can take time, as we know.  It takes more than time, more than mere waiting.  It takes action of the heart and soul, over the course of time.  And so it takes training too.   We work at it, we learn from the Master, we become better at it in small ways, and then can forgive in bigger situations.

In his classic book, John Bevere starts one chapter with Acts 24:16 from the New King James version:  And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men. And Bevere tells this story about being less prone to injury when we regularly exercise…

While in Hawaii I climbed a wall to take a picture.  When I did, I pulled a group of muscles in my knee and could not walk for four days.

“If you had been exercising regularly,” the physical therapist told me, “this would not have happened. Because your muscles are out of shape, you are prone to injury.”

And so it is with forgiving people, writes Bevere.  When we have exercised our hearts they are conditioned to handle offenses.  Small ones at least.  Then, we can go on to handle greater injuries, by the grace of God, who is our trainer.

Can you see the training you have received in your lifetime, walking with others?  Training under the Spirit’s guidance, to forgive and face the failings we have and that we find in others?  How wonderful that Christ gives us the ministry of reconciliation!

Some folks are going to sit down today and/or Tuesday to talk about John Bunyan’s epic story of a Pilgrim named Christian, making his way to the Celestial City.    At one point in the journey, Christian has a good traveling companion in a man named Hopeful.  But at one point, they try a short-cut, through By-path Meadow, and are lost in a terrible storm that arises.

Hopeful groaned in himself, saying, Oh that I had kept on my way!

CHR. Who could have thought that this Path should have led us out of the way?

HOPE. I was afraid on’t at the very first, and therefore gave you that gentle caution.  I would have spoken plainer, but that you are older than I.

CHR. Good Brother be not offended; I am sorry I have brought thee out of the way, and that I have put thee into such imminent danger; pray my Brother forgive me, I did not do it of an evil intent.

HOPE. Be comforted my Brother, for I forgive thee; and believe too that this shall be for our good.

Hopeful and Christian end up captured by a giant named Despair.  They get thrown in his dungeon, offered no food, and are periodically beaten.  Things have takes such a terrible turn that Christian becomes very depressed, and thinks it would be better to die than to keep living in the dungeon of Giant Despair.

Then Hopeful comforts him – persistently – and surely the forgiveness is proved in how he keeps up Christian’s spirits.  My Brother, let’s be patient, and endure a while; the time may come that may give us happy release…

Forgiveness itself is ‘happy release.’  Face to face we can find forgiveness, by the grace of our God.  Face to face with one another.  Face to face with our Lord.

The Proclaimers

Sunday,  June 12, 2016, 11 AM, UBC Digby

J G White (Mark 16:9-20; Galatians 1:11-24)

Scottish Pop duo “The Proclaimers” had a big hit in 1993, ‘I’m Gonna Be.’ But I would walk five hundred miles

And I would walk five hundred more

Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles

To fall down at your door

In Christianity, the Spirit calls His people to be ‘proclaimers,’ proclaimers of the Good News.  Jesus commissioned His disciples, saying, Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. (Mark 16:15) Paul testified to the young churches of Galatia, God… was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him… (1:15-16)

So, where is our preaching?  How is our proclaiming going?  So, you would walk five hundred miles?

And you would walk five hundred more

Just to be the one who walked a thousand miles

To preach Christ at some door?

Knocking on the doors of acquaintances or strangers is not going to be our best evangelistic method; and we often think we need to start with The Gospel as Facts and Plans.  

Baptists and other evangelical Christians through the past century or more have seemed to be giving out facts and truth, and a plan of action a person must take if they accept the facts about God. The Gospel in five important steps.

Scripture like ‘the Romans Road’ is used:

 Romans 3:10 There is no one who is righteous, not even one;

Romans 3:23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;

Romans 5:8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 10:9-10  because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

Romans 10:13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

This has undoubtedly helped many a person into saving Faith in Christ.  But one could just as easily build a strange series of proof-texts and claim it to be the gospel of Jesus.   It would be Biblical, after all. How about this?

Genesis 3:4-5 The serpent led Eve and Adam astray, and they fall from grace.

Genesis 3:15 God curses the serpent, and says, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel. Ah, there is the promise of a Saviour who will conquer the evil one.  Jesus will strike Satan’s head!  

Now, words of Jesus Himself:

John 3:14-16  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

(And, saved believers will also conquer snakes:)

Mark 16:17-18  And these signs will accompany those who believe: …they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them…”

A snakey Gospel?!  Maybe this scripture method would help reach a few people who work in the reptile show or a zoo, but I’m not recommending it.  I just want to make the point that anyone can concoct a series of scriptures for whatever purpose one has – good or bad.  You know as well as I that strange things get proclaimed in the name of the Gospel all the time.  And what this Good News really is gets confused pretty quickly.

I must give credit to Canadian Ralph Milton for this next bit…  (Sermon Seasonings, 1997, p. 154)

Jeff: Step right up folks, salvation in a bottle.  Save your eternal soul.  $9.99, plus tax, of course.

Peter: What do you mean?  You can’t save my soul for $9.99. You can’t sell God’s grace in a bottle.

Jeff: Of course I can.  What is God’s grace except feeling good?  When you’re feeling good, you know God likes you. When you’re not feeling good, you know God hates you.  For $9.99 my bottled salvation will keep you feeling good.

Peter: You mean I don’t have to do anything?  No loving my neighbour?  No giving to help the poor?  No caring for justice?

Jeff: Justice, shmustice.  You look after yourself, let the others look after themselves.  Salvation is just between you and God.  God helps those who help themselves.  Take home a bottle of salvation, you’ll feel good about everything, you’ll be set for this life.

Peter: What about the next life?

Jeff: No problem.  Jeffrey’s bottled salvation will grease the skids right into heaven for you.  If you feel good here, you’re bound to feel good in the hereafter.

Peter: Do you take credit cards?

Jeff: Absolutely.  Feel good now, pray later.

Well, we have not had evangelistic campaigns lately, and may feel we are failing.  We have not got organized to go door to door in our neighbourhoods with Gospel tracts in hand to give out.  We have not stood on street corners singing with signs in hand and preaching Good News.  

But this is OK.  Our usual methods are likely far better – friendship, inviting people alongside, going slow-and-steady.

We must remember too that The Gospel is a Story.  

Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear;

Things I would ask Him to tell me if He were here:

(William H. Parker)

The stories about Jesus – and the stories He told – are simply transformative.  People are changed, the Holy Spirit reaches the heart and soul, when stories are told.  

[Then] Jesus said, “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps—harvest time!

“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”

With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots. (Mark 4: 26-34 – The Message)

I remember a lecture last August at Kingswood University, in which Paul Borden suggested to preachers that we plan our sermons not with an outline, but with a plot.  The sermon as a story. I must order the book he recommended, The Homiletical Plot.  (Eugene L. Lowry, 2000)

The power of storytelling is great, and I wish I had cultivated more of this myself by now.  Yet, I’m only halfway through my preaching career, so there is time.  

Not all believers are cut out to be preachers: called to be preachers.  But even most non-preachers get to proclaim good news.  Do not forget The Gospel as Testimony / as Witness.  This is telling your own story.  Relating your experience.  Saying what you have seen.  Paul said of the gospel, I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:12)

Paul famously had his ‘Damascus road’ experience.  You and I have our own stories to tell. Our experiences with God.

What did I see?  As a child, I saw the warm welcome of adults at a Church in Middleton.  From my parents I leaned a pattern of prayer each evening when I went to bed.  I learned the stories of Jesus, of Paul, of Daniel and Jonah and Adam and Eve, or Joseph and his brothers.  I like the lessons, I liked the music, I liked the people of the Church.

I saw that faith was for all ages, and was all about Jesus.  The one who lived, and died, and lived again.  The one who taught.  The Son of the Creator God who gave us this beautiful world to live in, with all its fascinating details.  

Sometime – maybe when I was ten years old or so? – I thought to myself, ‘I’m following Jesus, but I am supposed to pray a prayer to confess and to receive Him.”  So, after reading something or other in the Bible – one of the stories about Moses, as I recall – I prayed alone in my room, ‘just in case’ I still needed to do that.

Several years later I almost felt embarrassed finally to be baptized – at long last, I thought – at the ripe old age of 14 ½.  I remember that moment of making that commitment, publically confessing my faith through a watery action.  I was baptized inside the church building, along with my mother and a number of others, by our Pastor, Don Robertson.  And the presence of God seems close and clear.

I have many other stories.  And so do you.  May the Good News be proclaimed through our lessons, through the stories of scripture, and through our life stories.  We also are the Proclaimers.  Jesus saves!  AMEN.

Glacial Gospel

Sunday,  June 5, 2016, 11 AM, UBC Digby

J G White (Isaiah 55:1-2, 6-8; Galatians 1:1-12)

I stood on a glacier once… the Athabasca glacier in Alberta.  Likely some of you have done the same.  Seen and touched a giant river of ice, creeping down from the high mountains. And we’ve read stories of the perilous journeys explorers made upon the incredible icefields around the globe.

Galatians’ is a name for a little letter in the Bible, and refers to the people of a region bordering the Mediterranean Ocean.  Some early Churches were formed in the towns there. I play on this word, and preach a Glacial Gospel this morning, using a text from the book of Galatians. Not that this message is slow and barely moving, nor deadly cold and chilling, nor very old and shrinking. The Christian Gospel is huge and relentless and unstoppable.  

When a church service was over, a visitor in the pews asked: “Do you preach the whole Gospel?”

The preacher replied: “Not every Sunday.”

In a book about the Gospel, written by a friend of mine, the preface says: You see, while the gospel is so simple that a child can understand it, it is also so complex that a theologian can study it all his life and never fully plumb its depths. (Sean Crowe in the gospel & giving answer, Grant Fawcett, 2014, p. 7)

I plan for us to explore this New Testament text – the Book of Galatians – for several weeks.  At issue here is how Christians go astray with the gospel.  We may see what happened to them, and what the Apostle Paul does to set them on the right track again.  In our day, we can discover the ways we are on the right track with Jesus’ Good News, or not.

There are plenty of ways we go astray – as believers.  I don’t even mean how we humans go astray when we are not saved.  After we have joined Christ we still get disjointed!

This past week I ran into some of you, and was told more than once, “We missed you.”  I was away for four days, last weekend, including Sunday morning and evening.  Thank-you for your fond words of welcome and appreciation.  But now I wonder, do the rest of you experience this?  Or am I favoured? If you were away from here last Sunday, from your pew, would anyone fawn all over you, telling you how much your absence was noticed, and how good it is to have you back?  

There is such danger in a local church being too focused upon the Pastor, being too ‘pastor centric,’ I call it.  Sunday mornings and weekday activities depend upon the Pastor, and what he or she leads.  People invite friends to services saying good things about the Pastor, or about the music, or the Pastor’s good music, instead of saying good things about the Saviour.  

I for one easily fall into this habit of clinging to a gospel of good times, rather than of Christ, and Him crucified.  I want hymns and music I like. I evaluate the preaching, and prayers, and scripture reading.  I start to believe that my congregation is just right when it is stable, happy, and peaceful, with no conflict.  Some brave preacher said this about churches being stable: Stable?  Corpses are stable!

Turning to a ‘different gospel’ can be a matter of turning to comfort, looking for prosperity, seeking to get what we want from God, and God’s Church.  And if we don’t get it, there is another congregation just down the road where we might get what we want.  

I think I saw this Facebook post the other day: “Share and God will take care of all your bills.”  The Good News of Christ is gigantic and blessed, but I don’t think it is financial magic for middle-class Canadians.  A ‘gospel’ that is all blessings and prosperity for us is not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul starts off not with the customary prayer for the recipients, but with this!

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.  

The Gospel of Jesus Christ also gets watered down by grasping at one or two elements of it, and making that the whole thing. But the Good News is glacial, as I say, it is gigantic and through history is always on the move.  

The message of salvation we have to share is not simply believe in Jesus if you want to go to heaven when you die.  

My friend, Grant, is a missionary of sorts, working from a Christian Camp on Grand Lake, NB.  A couple years ago he had this experience:  …I had a teenager tell me she had “become a Christian” every summer for nine summers at bible [sic] camp, but she couldn’t tell me the first thing about the gospel other than she “prayed the prayer” every year. (Grant Fawcett, the gospel & giving answer, 2014, p. 45)  To know what is right and true about the Good News of Jesus – and how to be saved – we start to notice the ways we go astray: the false teachings and false conversions.  

Then again, as some have claimed, bank tellers do not study counterfeit in order to pick it out.  They study real currency, in detail – the paper and fibers and inks and holograms and such – and then a counterfeit is easily noticed when it comes along. So too in our faith.  As we know our Saviour better and better through the years, and study the Word of truth, what is false shows up more easily before our eyes.

As Paul begins his scathing letter to the churches in Galatia, his words of greeting point out some essentials of the gospel.  The gospel which, we will see, was such an issue for these new Christians.  They’d gotten mixed up about it.

To the churches in Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins…  

That tiny word, so burdened with meaning and feeling: SIN – it reminds us what we know so well.  All is not well in this life.  There is wrong.  There is evil.  There is hurt and harm.  There is pain.  There is failure.  There is unfairness.

All this – the whole constellation of what’s wrong in the world – is handled by God in Christ, dying by execution.  …to deliver us from the present evil age…  Paul says.  To be set free where we are, even in the middle of things, is possible, by God’s amazing actions.  

In my bare feet the other day I stood on a hornet; so, naturally, it stung me.  If I had stood on a whole bees nest, you would have seen my flying fast!  But a beekeeper, with know- how and proper equipment, can go among the bees and work in their hive with freedom.  

The Good News of Jesus is how we can be set free in this evil, unfair world.  While we are still here. We enter the heavenly, eternal Kingdom Life now.  We can take steps farther into it, week by week.

And Paul says this is …According to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever.  The whole Gospel starts with God, actually.  To talk about the Good News is to talk, first of all, about who this God is.  

So, we will continue to explore this, with Paul’s challenging letter to the Galatians, Christians of long ago.  We shall hear our Master speak again, from these pages.

The Christian Gospel is huge and relentless and unstoppable.