June 11, 2018
The Proper 6B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 4:26-34 from the Lectionary Gospel; 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 20 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 88 (Lord’s Day 33)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Like the message they convey, the two parables in this part of Mark 4 are mighty small. This is no Parable of the Prodigal Son that takes up the better part of a whole chapter. Jesus manages to convey something about the smallness of the kingdom via two stories that are themselves pretty tiny. And yet, like the seeds also depicted, these small little parables pack a punch. They capture the very kingdom mystery and (apparent) weakness Jesus is highlighting.
The kingdom is finally a mystery. It’s like a farmer who tosses seed out onto a field and then walks away. He sleeps, he gets up. Days come and days go but somehow, even as the farmer is doing apparently nothing, the seeds grow. In verse 28 you read the phrase “all by itself,” and in Greek that is the word automate, from which we get our word “automatic.” Automatically, mysteriously, without any apparent outside assistance, the seeds just grow and suddenly the day arrives when you’ve got a whole field of wheat ready to be harvested.
Although this parable of the growing seed is among the shortest of all parables, it has proven to be surprisingly difficult to interpret. Scholars cannot agree what the key element is here: is it the power of the seeds, the inactivity of the farmer, the mystery of how seeds do what they do? What is the point here? Surely this is not meant to foster inactivity on our part. It would even be a bit startling if the bottom line here was that we really shouldn’t think much about the growth of God’s kingdom one way or the other.
In short, don’t walk away from Mark 4 singing “Que sera, sera–whatever will be, will be.” But more on that below.
Let’s first toggle over to the other parable. If the growing seed parable seems to be about the mystery of kingdom growth, the mustard seed image is about the apparent weakness of the kingdom. The day will come when the results of the kingdom’s silent, steady growth will be impressive. Meanwhile don’t be surprised if the seeds you plant look ineffective. Don’t be surprised if the witness you have to offer gets laughed at on account of looking so puny. It’s the old “Jack and the Beanstalk” fable: Jack’s mother scorns the tiny beans he brings home from the market. They can never live off those! So in anger she hurls them out the window. Those beans were a non-starter, a mistake, a dead-end nutritionally and in every other sense. Except that, of course, they ended up sprouting into a beanstalk that went, in a way, clear up to heaven.
But Jesus says the gospel message will get a similar reception. We live in a universe and in a world with huge threats to existence and with sickeningly large social and geopolitical problems. There are meteors hurtling through space, many of which would wipe out life on earth if they struck us. There are dictators harboring or seeking weapons of mass destruction, many of which threaten our survival as a species. In the Middle East but in so many other places, too, there are seemingly intractable hatreds and prejudices between and among various ethnic groups (and long about the time Al Qaeda seemed bad enough, along came a nastier cousin group called ISIS). There are diseases like Ebola that frighten us. Hunger and poverty loom up like a whole mountain range of daunting problems whose heights we don’t know how to scale.
Yet in the midst of all these threats from within and from without, in the face of great sin and evil, faced with maladies that are global in scope, we Christian people swing in with no more than that simplest of all messages: Jesus saves. A Jewish carpenter’s son from halfway around the world and from over 2,000 years ago is the one we hold up as some kind of solution. And not a few folks today want to say, “Give me a break!”
But we keep on repeating the old, old story because we believe that somehow, some way, it’s going to work. If we yoke these two parables now, we can see both the theme of how puny our efforts look and our ardent faith that even though we don’t understand how these kingdom seeds grow, they do whether we are watching or not, whether we are tending them every moment or not. They grow silently and mysteriously in people’s hearts. The seeds didn’t look like much to begin with and they grow without making much noise. If you go sit next to a wheat field a week or two after the seeds have been sown into the earth, you could sit on the edge of that field all day and throughout an entire night and you’d never hear a blessed thing.
On Wall Street, the moment that opening bell sounds each day, there is an immediate frenzy of activity. That loud baying for money creates a cacophony that pierces your gizzard with its shrill intensity. If you were on the Senate floor during a debate, you’d feel the sizzle in the air. They say that when Lyndon B. Johnson was the most powerful Senator, he would give people what became known as “the Johnson treatment.” He’d loop one of his powerful and long arms around another Senator’s shoulders and then lean his massive face directly into the other man’s face, all the while poking and jabbing and thumping his index finger into the man’s sternum until he cowed him into agreement. Now that’s power at work!
But a growing wheat field makes none of the noise of a stock exchange and has none of the sizzle of high-powered politicking. The Jesus whose kingdom we present jabs no fingers into anyone’s chest. He invites with gentle words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” But people don’t want quiet invitations to rest. They want powerful and inspirational promises of success. But our Lord himself said that this is not how you get into his kingdom.
Every day the “Congressional Record” is published and it is each and every day a very thick book detailing every word spoken on the floor of the House and Senate. Every week the Trump Administration issues a flurry of new policy initiatives, also totaling into the thousands of pages. The United Nations works hard to cobble together solutions and coalitions aimed at addressing what ails this world. Were you to bring together all the newspaper sections that record the daily activity on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nikkei Index, the Chicago Board of Trade, and all other financial markets in the world, you would have a stack of newsprint many inches thick.
Such a huge output of words, such a thick volume of records detailing the policy efforts of governments: that is the kind of thing you expect when people seriously tackle this world’s challenges. Yet we Christians stand on the sidelines and what do we offer? The thin, sixteen-chapter little volume called the Gospel of Mark. It’s small. It’s old. And although we don’t say we could do without the efforts of government or of those involved in commerce, we do make the audacious claim that none of those things is ultimately very meaningful compared to the gospel.
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Author: Doug Bratt
There’s almost always more going on than meets the eye. Whether it’s at a cosmic or molecular level, we just can’t always see what’s really going on. So, for example, the 1973 Watergate break-in initially looked like little more than a clumsy effort at burglary. It turned, however, out to be part of President Nixon and his aides’ scheme to discredit the president’s opponents.
There’s more going on than meets the eye in the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. That deceptive appearance begins with our text’s inclusio: “Samuel left for Ramah (15:34) … Samuel then went to Ramah” (16:13). Both this passage and at least two of its actors, in other words, end virtually right where they started.
That, says biblical scholar Roger Nam (Preaching This Week, June 14, 2015), makes 1 Samuel 16 seem like a kind of literary tangent. He says “This digression functions as a sort of parenthetical remark, like an excursus.” It seems to break the narrative flow of King Saul’s rise and fall.
Yet 1 Samuel 16 is much more than a disruption in that movement. In fact, much more than meets the eye goes on in its Samuel’s life. A grieving God sends God’s grieving prophet to anoint a young man to replace Saul as Israel’s king. Since, however, Samuel knows that Saul still sits on Israel’s throne, he worries that if the king hears about his mission, he’ll kill him.
So God concocts a kind of elaborate ruse to cover Samuel’s tracks. “Take a heifer with you,” the Lord tells the prophet in verses 2b-3, “and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord’.” And when Bethlehem’s nervous elders do, in fact, ask why the prophet has come to Bethlehem, he tells them, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.”
So what meets the eye is nothing more than a prophet’s trip to Bethlehem to offer God a sacrifice. Samuel even invites Jesse’s family and the city fathers to join him in offering that sacrifice. On top of all that, Samuel carries the ruse to its virtual end by begging everyone not to sit down for the sacrifice (11) until David arrives to join them.
Yet there’s another way in which more than meets the eye goes on in our text. It takes place in a Bethlehem that’s what Scott Hoezee calls “a modest place to find a king.” It’s hardly the kind of prominent city with a huge population in which you’d normally hunt for royalty. On top of that, it seems as if members of the town council and Jesse’s family are Bethlehem’s only citizens that Samuel invites to join him. So there are relatively “few eyes” on 1 Samuel 16’s events.
More than meets the eye also occurs as Jesse’s sons arrive for what they assume is to be just a sacrifice with the visiting prophet. After all, as they arrive, Samuel evaluates them, not for their fitness to join him in sacrificing to the Lord, but for their fitness to serve as Israel’s next king. So those who know more is going on than meets the eye might even imagine a kind of figurative red carpet in Samuel’s mind’s eye on which Jesse’s sons walk into the place of the sacrifice.
The walk is likely familiar to both those who proclaim and hear 1 Samuel 16. Each son of Jesse, but apparently particularly the oldest, seems impressive. Eliab appears to be the kind of take-charge person who has “future” written all over him. Jesse’s oldest son is, in fact, so impressive that Samuel quickly deduces that he must be the person whom God has chosen to replace King Saul. What, in a sense, then, almost immediately meets Samuel’s eye is Israel’s next king.
But, of course, more is going on than meets the eye. God, after all, isn’t particularly interested in the “eyeball test.” God is far more interested in a kind of “cardiac test.” Saul, after all, had passed the eyeball test; he looked like a successful king. Yet his heart wasn’t in the right place. Now, says our narrator, God wants someone whose heart is in good shape (7). God, in other words, wants someone in whom there’s more going on than meets the eye.
So seven more of Jesse’s sons parade down Samuel’s mental red carpet to join their city fathers, dad and the prophet at the sacrifice. We might imagine at least some if not all of them also pass the “eye test.” Yet Samuel judges that each of them in unfit for service. So a story that begins with Saul’s rejection now threatens to grind to a halt with God’s rejection of all of Jesse’s sons.
Yet by now Samuel too seems to finally realize that more is going on than meets the eye. He, after all, turns to ask Jesse if he has any more sons. “Well, yeah,” we can hear Jesse sigh, “but he’s too young and unimportant to join us. He’s out on the back 40, herding our sheep.” Jesse doesn’t even bother naming this runt of his family; he’s no more than “the youngest” (11b). “Send for him,” the prophet perhaps almost abruptly cuts him off. “In fact, we won’t even start until he gets here.”
It’s, of course, somewhat ironic that God insists that God is far more interested in a person’s character than his or her outward appearance. When, after all, David finally does show up for the party, our narrator reports, “He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features” (12). So while God may not be particularly interested in people’s looks, our narrator seems to be.
Our text’s end is quite abrupt in comparison to the fairly lengthy run-up to it. God, after all, quickly tells Samuel David “is the one! Get up and anoint him to be Israel’s next king” (12b). In front of David’s brothers and father, as well as Bethlehem’s councilmen, Samuel then anoints David to be Israel’s next king. From that day on, reports our narrator “the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power” (13).
That’s it. There are no speeches. No big party. No inaugural or coronation ball. No grand coronation parade. No, “God Save the King” or “Hail to the Chief.” Just, “Samuel then went to Ramah,” (16:13), right back, in other words to where he’d started from (15:34). Newly anointed David too seems to go right back where he came from, back to herding sheep.
What’s more, nothing seems to have changed in and for Israel either. Sure, the Spirit who has abandoned Saul (16:14) has moved in with David. But our text’s end, Saul is still Israel’s sitting king. While David is Israel’s anointed king in whom the Spirit rests, Saul is still on Israel’s throne at text’s end. So Israel still has the same increasingly self-destructive monarch who continues his steep plunge toward apparent mental and spiritual illness.
Yet at 1 Samuel 16’s end, more is going on than meets the eye. After all, God has opened up a new future for Israel, her monarchy and the world. Even though virtually no one sees or hears about it, God is quietly on the move, getting firmly behind and with Israel’s next king, David, for God’s glory as well as the blessing of not just Israel, but also the whole creation.
Those who proclaim 1 Samuel 16 might use it as a kind of springboard to an exploration of how God is, in fact, always far harder at work in our world than often meets our own eyes. We can see some of God’s most public acts of toppling tyrants, ending wars and healing broken relationships. Yet our text reminds us that God is always at work, 24/7/365, even when we can’t see or it. God’s adopted sons and daughters can take heart because God is always working, often in more ways than meets the eye.
The February 13, 2018 Morning Call reported on FBI agents’ investigation of Allentown (PA) mayor Ed Pawlowski. Agents told him he could potentially lessen his corruption charge’s severity if he cooperated with their investigation into what The Morning Call referred to as “pay-to-play politics.”
In the course of their conversation, FBI agent Carmen DiMario told Mayor Pawlowski, ”There’s more going on here than meets the eye, and I think you know there’s more going on here than meets the eye. I think you have knowledge of this.”
Agent Scott Curtis added: “I think you know about campaign contributions coming to you and coming to other people in Allentown City Hall in return for steering contracts to certain people.”
“That’s not the case,” Pawlowski stubbornly replied. After all, only those who have eyes to see are able to see more than what meets the eye
Author: Stan Mast
In these politically charged times, it is interesting (or ironic, or fortuitous, or providential) that the Lectionary would give us two Royal Psalms in a row. Last week in Psalm 138 we had a Psalm that spoke truth to power. This week in Psalm 20 we have a Psalm that prays for the one in power, but does so in such a way that it, too, speaks truth to power.
We know this is a royal Psalm because of the reference to the Lord’s “anointed (verse 6),” which is the word from which we get the word Messiah. The superscription of this Psalm (“A Psalm of David”) and the other reading from the Old Testament for today (the anointing of David by Samuel in I Samuel 15 and 16) suggest that the “anointed” here is the King, specifically King David. The last verse confirms that royal interpretation with its specific reference to “the king.” “O Yahweh, save the king!”
There are nearly a dozen royal Psalms in the Psalter, a fact many modern day Christians might find peculiar because of the rigid separation of church and state in countries like the United States. In the midst of all these lovely and painful songs about spiritual life, we find these clearly political Psalms, because there was no such separation in ancient Israel. Indeed, even after the creation of the monarchy chronicled in I Samuel, Israel was still a theocracy where Yahweh was the source of authority and law and, as here in Psalm 20, victory in battle.
Psalm 20 is a unique kind of royal Psalm; it is a prayer for a king about to go into battle. (Or as some scholars say, it was an enthronement Psalm in which the people/priests pray about all the battles into which the king might enter in the future of his reign.) For ancient Israel, entering the battlefield was always a deeply spiritual thing. (Think of David’s words to Goliath in I Samuel 17:43-47.)
This unique background of Psalm 20, so remote from the realities of most 21st century Christian churches, makes this Psalm a challenge for today’s preachers. Unless we apply it directly to, say, President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau (plug in the name of your own leader if you aren’t American/Canadian). This is certainly a time filled with not only saber rattling, but also with actual bombs and missiles. For Americans and all their allies, there are plenty of enemies just over the horizon and right there on the Internet. Our “king” faces battles every day.
Psalm 20 suggests an alternative way to pray for our leaders, wherever we stand on the political spectrum. Here’s what I mean. Verses 1-5 challenge those on the left to pray for the success of our King, whether we like him or not. Verses 6-8 invite those on the right to pray that the King will put his ultimate trust not in his own strength or weaponry, but in the Lord God. Both of those prayer emphases will likely stick in the throats of our congregants, so we’ll need to carefully show how Psalm 20 prays for the King.
First of all, we need to figure out the antecedents of all the pronouns in the Psalm. Who is speaking and about whom do they speak? Verses 2 and 3 suggest that the setting here is the Temple area; note “sanctuary” and “Zion” and “sacrifices” and “burnt offering.” There is a liturgical feel to the whole Psalm. So, we can envision the people or the army gathered in the Temple area to pray just before battle.
The King is praying and the people or, perhaps, a priest joins him. In verses 1-4, these other prayers pray for the king (“you”). Then in verse 5 the whole congregation responds in faith to their own prayers, promising to “shout for joy when you [the King] are victorious….” Verses 6 is the voice of one person, possibly the High Priest (?), expressing absolute certainty that “Yahweh saves his anointed, he answers him from his holy heaven with the saving power of his right hand.” In verse 7 that representative of the people continues to speak the truth about and to power, identifying two very different ways to approach battle and two very different results (verse 8). Then the whole assembly, army and clergy, join in a final prayer for the King, the classic “O Lord, save the king! Answer us when we call!”
Can you imagine the liberal left wingers in your congregation praying for our leaders as this congregation prays for their king in verses 1-5? “May [the Lord] give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed?” But what if our “King” has plans that defy the Bible’s call for justice and peace? What if he desires things that we find reprehensible? “May the Lord grant all your requests?” What if the King’s requests are self-serving or purely partisan?
The only way we can pray this way for our leaders is to see them as this congregation sees its king, namely, as a person facing a crisis that he cannot meet in his own strength and wisdom. Some scholars see an example of such a crisis in II Chronicles 20. King Jehoshaphat is faced with an invasion from the East, so he proclaims a fast, gathers the people in the Temple area, and offers prayers which stress the nation’s powerlessness. Verse 12 captures the mood of that prayer: “we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” That spirit of mutual dependence on the Lord is the key to the kind of prayer we find in verses 1-5.
But it is hard to summon up that kind of mutuality if the King does not express dependence, but instead seems arrogant and self-sufficient. This is where the conservative right wing members of the congregation need to pray that their leader will adopt the kind of faith expressed in verses 6-8. These verses speak the subversive message that runs like an underground stream throughout the Psalm; here it comes bubbling to the surface—“the Lord saves….” I use the word “subversive” because we don’t really notice this main message when we focus on the king in our prayers. But in all of those prayers in Psalm 20, the subject of all the verbs is none other than Yahweh. “May Yahweh answer, protect, send you help, grant you support, remember, accept, give, make, and grant.” In other words, the King is important, so we pray for him. But the Lord God is the main actor here, and everywhere, and always, even in matters political and military.
We need to pray that our “king” comes to the realization that is voiced in verse 6. “Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed….” And though the battles may be on earth, “he answers…
from his holy heaven….” And though it is important for the king to be strong, it is Yahweh gives victory “with the saving power of his right hand.” And yes, while we must have our armed divisions and our air power (“chariots and horses”), we will put our “trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
Of course, the prayers for such a king raise difficult questions. Does such prayer make weapons unnecessary? David did have weapons, even when it was only a sling. Should prayer turn all of us into pacifists? David slayed “his ten thousands.” Will prayer always result in victory for our side? Israel went down to defeat many a time. Does prayer place restraints on what we can do to achieve victory? Finally, one translation of verse 7b says, “we take pride in the name of the Lord our God.” Robert Davidson points out that there is a danger in such language. “To take pride in the name of the Lord can be the seedbed of a dangerous religious nationalism, unless we remember the words of Amos. ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities (3:2).’”
While such issues must be considered as we preach on Psalm 20, let’s be sure to get the main message across to our praying congregations. Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, let us pray for our leaders. But, to keep our prayers honest and ourselves genuinely Christian, let us pray contrary to our political allegiances as I’ve suggested above, so that in all things God is first. The closing prayer sums it up. “O Lord, save the king!” As Luke Powery puts it, quoting James Mays: “Only God can give victory because victory is dependent on the heavenly King, not the earthly one. ‘The King is not the savior, but the saved. The saving victory will be God’s work.’”
That talk of salvation connects us to God’s ultimate victory in Christ. When we preach about praying for a human king, we must finally point to the Divine King who became human in order to defeat the enemies of human life. Indeed, the Orthodox priest, Father Patrick Henry Reardon, informs us that some parts of the church treat Psalm 20 as the church’s prayer to Christ the King. Read all of the “you’s” as addressed to Christ and the Psalm takes on a powerful Christological focus. Christ went out to battle on Calvary, where he offered the sacrifice that won the victory. Psalm 20, says Reardon, is “the ‘Amen’ to the redemptive work of Christ….”
In my last church, where I served for 22 years, I preached the same sermon in both Democratic and Republican administrations. When controversy about the sitting President was running at a fever pitch, I preached a sermon entitled “What to Do about the President?” When it was a Bush in office, the Republicans were initially defensive and the Democrats showed up with high expectations that I would speak truth to power. When it was Clinton or Obama in office, the Democrats were sure I was going to be critical of their man, while the Republicans were licking their chops in anticipation of a good old fashioned whupping. Both were disappointed (though some read their own biases into the sermon), when I preached on I Timothy 2:1ff, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and those in authority….” I didn’t think of Psalm 20 back then, but it would have made for a good teaching tool. This is how all of you, Republican and Democrat, should pray for whatever king (red or blue, black or white, yours or theirs) is in office at the moment.
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17
Author: Scott Hoezee
When we were younger (so much younger than today . . .), we perhaps naively thought that so long as we were sincere and well-intentioned then, even if we made mistakes (as we all do), we could avoid creating any enemies, avoid having anyone who so disliked us as to avoid us in public even as they derided us in private. But then one day you wake up and suddenly realize that, as it turns out, you now have a small list of folks with whom you once had contact but to whom you no longer speak. With some of these people a chance encounter at the supermarket creates awkwardness: some hand wringing and a nervous looking down at your feet. With others, though, chance meetings are ugly reminders of how deep the rupture is. In those situations there is no conversation, awkward or otherwise, but just sheer avoidance and icy stares.
And it hurts. When I was in seminary, I never imagined such things, certainly not within the context of the church. Yet it happens. Rifts and gaps open up between people for all kinds of reasons. Those who once complimented now critique, those who once thought well of you could scarcely be less charitable now.
As we have noted in a couple previous sermon starters from 2 Corinthians, Paul knew what that felt like and that can make reading 2 Corinthians a painful exercise at times. Paul had had a good experience in the city of Corinth. The church he planted was filled with people dear to his heart, and though the Corinthians were a feisty group loaded with potential problems, Paul loved them and, even after leaving Corinth, prayed for them every day. So how it must have hurt to learn that in Corinth his reputation has been shattered. After Paul’s departure some nay-sayers came to town and called Paul into question. They impugned Paul’s credentials, claiming he had no right to call himself an apostle. They alleged that Paul was a money-grubber and a charlatan whose motives were impure and whose so-called “gospel” was just so much hogwash and heresy.
So in this second letter to the Corinthians Paul, with grit teeth sometimes and through tears at other times, has to defend himself. At the conclusion of this fifth chapter, Paul’s desire to clear his name combines with his effort to repeat the true gospel, resulting in a sublime passage of great power. The centerpiece is reconciliation. By grace alone and because of Jesus, God has reconciled us to himself.
The result of this cosmic reconciliation is that we now look at everything differently. We look at everything and everyone through the lens of reconciliation. We are ambassadors of reconciliation as we call others to believe in Jesus and so find themselves in a good relationship with God. But it’s not just about the vertical dimension between God and us. Being caught up in God’s salvation changes everything on this human, horizontal plane, too.
“Once upon a time,” Paul writes, “we regarded Jesus only from a human point of view and when we did, we didn’t think much of him. But now we see Jesus and everyone in a divine perspective and it changes everything.” In the Greek Paul talks about regarding Jesus and each other kata sarx, which literally means “according to the flesh.” If we look at Jesus as no more than just another flesh-and-blood human being among the billions of other flesh-and-blood people who populate this globe, then there’s nothing remarkable about Jesus. If Jesus is only human, then to worship him is idolatry. But Jesus is also the Son of God, so we are right to worship him. You cannot look at Jesus only according to his human side.
But Paul makes a parallel between looking at Jesus in a complete way and looking at each other in a complete way. But none of us is divine, so what is the parallel here? Well, the parallel, according to Paul, is that because we are all “in Christ,” we are more than just human, too – there is more to us than meets the eye!
We are the bearers of God’s saving grace with the Holy Spirit living inside us. Of course we don’t treat each other like pieces of meat! Of course we do not ever think that broken relationships are no big deal. No! We are caught up in the grip of God’s cosmic reconciliation in Christ. Jesus died so that fractured relationships, dysfunctional families, lost friendships, and ruptured social circles could be restored.
From a purely human point of view it’s easy to see alienation among people and chalk it up to just the way life goes. Things like that happen, we might conclude. One friend says the wrong thing to another and that’s it. Romances break up, friends drift apart. In congregations, as in corporations, people come, people go. Some people like each other, some people can’t stand each other. The person to whom you were once close is now the one you cross the street just to avoid. Happens all the time. It’s the same all over.
But the gospel screams God’s thunderous “No!” to that kind of casual dismissal of alienation. Paul knew that in his own lifetime he had gone from being God’s number one enemy to God’s beloved apostle. There was a time in his life when if someone mentioned the name “Jesus” in Paul’s presence, Paul (who was then called Saul) turned purple and began to sputter profane vindictives about that name Jesus–a name he was intent on wiping from the face of the earth. Even years later Paul no doubt sometimes awoke in the dead of night, cold sweat running down his forehead, because of the nightmares in which he remembered the Christians he had run through with a sword, the dear women he had dragged away by their hair, that look on Stephen’s face just before the last stone hit his forehead and took his life. Paul knew from his own experience that reconciling former enemies is the main reason Jesus died. He was a living example of that!
Miroslav Volf has written extensively on the theme of reconciliation, noting that in God’s reconciliation of all things it cannot be just impersonal forces of evil that are done away with. It cannot be just the entire creation, broadly conceived, which gets reconciled with its God. No, Volf says, it has to get more specific than that. Before we can all dwell happily together in the shalom of God’s kingdom there needs to be real reconciliation between earthly enemies. Perpetrators and victims must embrace. Those who have lived in conflict need to have that conflict put away if there is to be shalom. It’s not just the lion and the lamb that need to learn to curl up next to one another but all of us who have lived as the human equivalents of lambs and lions in how we have treated each other. There can be no peace in God’s kingdom so long as there is anyone there who would just as soon cross over to the other side of a golden street in order to avoid you.
To be reunited with former friends is our hope. Of course, we also hope for other things, like a day when sickness and cancer will be no more. But even as for now we are not done with tumors, so for now we may also never be fully reconciled with everyone. There are many reasons for that. Sometimes it’s sinful stubbornness which blocks the fixing of things. Other times there is nothing we can do as there is too much hurt such that our efforts to be kind are rebuffed or just make matters worse. Still other times the kind of hurt and psychological damage we have sustained is too intense to overcome. In short, there are times when there is not a blessed thing we can do to repair what’s broken in life.
We wish that this were not so for the same reason that we wish we could guarantee every Christian parent that his or her child will ever and only thrive, attend church, and be healthy. There are a welter of things which we believe God desires but which for now may not be realized. But the fact that you will not always enjoy perfect health is no excuse to go out and purposely make yourself sick. So also the fact that there will always be loose ends in our relationships is no excuse purposely to wreck them or to fail to repair what we can.
Even so there are hurts, wounds, and rifts which we cannot heal for the time being. Perhaps that is why we may take the bread and wine of communion with trembling hands. In this sacrament we see again our Christ-granted reconciliation with God. But in the same glance we may see also the deep rifts in our own lives–rifts which cry out for a reconciliation which eludes us.
Yet the same bread and wine which connect us to our divine reconciliation with God offer hope. We may tremble to take these elements due to our own brokenness. How can the hand which I am unable to extend toward this brother or that sister nevertheless reach out for the body and blood of my Lord? How can the same hand which I use to cover my face when I weep over broken ties be worthy to receive a meal which means all such alienation is wrong? How? Because we need those elements. We need the hope they give.
As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, in the Lord’s Supper the minister holds up a whole loaf of bread as a reminder of the whole, perfect presence of God among his people. But then that loaf is shattered, broken, torn, and the crumbs fall onto the table. It is a reminder that our perfect wholeness, that peace for which we yearn and pine, is not behind us but up ahead yet. Wholeness is coming, but the broken loaf reminds us that it is coming not through what we’ll do but through what Jesus already did. His brokenness is what will one day put our lives back together whole and complete, relationships and all.
Such was Paul’s message of hope to the Corinthians from the midst of that messy, hurtful situation. Such is God’s message to us from the midst of the messes of our own lives. There is a reconciliation, a wholeness, and a peace which endures. It’s a peace we need to remember and hold onto, even (or maybe especially) from the squalor of our lives.
Tom Long once told a story that illustrates the “already and not yet” nature of reconciliation in our lives. One time Long was asked to preach at what was billed as a special “family worship service.”
It was a great idea . . . on paper.
The notion was to hold the worship service not in the sanctuary but in the fellowship hall. There in the hall families would gather around tables and in the center of each table there would be the ingredients for making a mini-loaf of bread. The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, the minister would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
It was a great idea . . . on paper.
But it didn’t work out very well. Within minutes the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as children hurled bits of the dough at each other. Husbands and wives began to snipe, nerves were frayed. Then the ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. Children whimpered, babies screamed, families were on the verge of falling apart.
But finally, and mercifully, the end of the service came. The script called for Long to pronounce the normal blessing saying, “The peace of God be with you.” Too tired and irritable to ad-lib anything, Long just said it straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and saying, “The peace of God be with you.” And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up, “It already is.”
A little child did lead them that night. Indeed, “It already is.” Because once upon a time God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.