Friday, 9 September 2011

Living to the Lord!

Peter Lockhart

“If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or we die we are the Lord’s.”

As some of you may have noted I do have a tendency to reflect fairly deeply on things, especially in matters of what we claim to know.

It will come as little surprise to those of you who know this that I started reading a book this week called Longing to Know by Esther Meeks. The book explores the question “Can we know God?”

In her first Chapter Meek says, ‘So much is at stake in this question because, if people can know God, the next obvious question is what in fact we know about him. If God is, what he [God] is has far-reaching consequences for our lives – who we are, how we live, and what happens after death. Perhaps the simplest what to say it is this: If God is, and he [God] is master of all, then he [God] is master of you and your world. If he [God] isn’t, then you are. You might see one or the other alternative as preferable one. But it’s impossible to be indifferent about the choice; it hits just too close to home for comfort.” [end quote]

At the heart of what Meek is saying is this – with your decision about God you simply can’t sit on the fence. Now, given that you are church today, I would want to make the assumption that you have at least nominally decided that there is a God.

And more specifically that you believe in the God revealed in and through the man Jesus of Nazareth.

Whilst we may not all exactly agree on who Jesus was and what he is currently calling us to do as people, and whilst we may have different gifts and different levels of faith, what is implied in what Meek says is that if you decide for God it should then shape your whole existence.

This brings me back to the quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans at the beginning.

“If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or we die we are the Lord’s.”

If God is, then all that we do, everything we are should be impacted by this, even when we disagree on things.

You see Paul wrote these words in the midst of clarifying some issues of conflict for the Christians in Rome. There were differences in opinion about the eating of meat, which probably meant the meat offered to idols. There were also differences in opinion about observing Holy Days. It must be remember that the first Christians were Jews who observed the Sabbath, which is Saturday, whereas later Christians came to celebrate together on Sunday, which is the day of resurrection and the first day of the new creation.

Paul acknowledges that the reasons for the disputes arose out of people being weak in the faith or maybe being overconfident in their faith. But weak or strong what was vital to remember in the midst of the difference was that people lived to the Lord and died to the Lord.

Paul’s statement comes to us as a source of comfort that in the midst of the human struggle to know God and respond we remain God’s, even whether we live or die.

Our ability as a congregation to live together in the midst of our own differences is conditioned not so much by the nature of our own weakness or strength, nor about the validity of any particular issues, but of our life held together in Christ: we are the Lord’s!

Our ability to know, remember and live in response to what Paul says, means not only that we should not engage each other in debate for the purpose of spiritual point scoring, but that we should also remember that at the heart of our faith is the reconciliation of all things in and through Jesus Christ: a reconciliation which is born out of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

So in the midst of the community of faith in Rome having differences, as any church does, I believe the ability to show forgiveness and accept that forgiveness is paramount.

Today’s gospel reading brooches this very topic as Peter asks Jesus how many times should I forgive another member of the church who sins against me – as many as seven times? Jesus answer seventy-seven times is more or less a euphemism for infinitely. You are to forgive as many times as you need to forgive.

Jesus explains the premise of our forgiveness to one another through a parable. As you know parables reveal something of God and who we are and we are to live. In the parable God is represented by the King who forgives the debt of 10 000 talents. The magnitude of the debt cannot be overstated – maybe we speak of it as 10 million dollars. What Jesus is trying to help Peter understand is how much God loves us in the midst of how wrong we get it.

It doesn’t matter how good a person we think we are we still need God’s forgiveness – it doesn’t matter how many prayers we say a day, or how righteous we think our worship is; it doesn’t matter what issues of justice we fight for - poverty, abortion, inequality, peace. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God but here is the good news God forgives our debt. Paul writes to the Romans in Romans 5:8 “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

It is this forgiveness of God for us that determines how we live with one another. Yet as the story indicates the slave whose debt was forgiven found it difficult to forgive others and so in seeking what seems a trivial amount from another slave is unable to forgive. As the story indicates there are consequences.

Now I am not entirely content to take the fire and brim stone approach at this point and say turn or burn but I think there is a serious warning for us here about the consequences of our inability to forgive.

As an interesting aside in the movie “What dreams may come?” people are trapped in hell because of their inability to accept the forgiveness offered to them. They cannot forgive themselves and this is what tortures them.

Forgiveness is no easy matter for us who often find it hard to truly forgive the smallest of indiscretions even once. Often rather than seeking reconciliation we harbour those things which like some cancerous sore eat away at us festering often unknowingly to re-emerge at the most inappropriate of moments.

More often than not these things occur in arguments and sometimes these arguments reveal how elephantine our memories can be.

“I remember in 1953 when my brother did this to me?” or “When I was growing up my mum forgot to pick me up from school one day?” or “You didn’t send me a birthday card in 1972?” or “Don’t you remember last week when I said hello and you ignored me.”

As funny as these little imaginary comments are, it is amazing how many little, barbed memories most of us carry. I have heard them come out in pastoral visits, in confrontations, in family arguments and out of my own my mouth. I remember a true story told of two elderly sisters who attended the same church one sat at the front and one at the back and they never spoke to one another. They had done so done decades. There had been a dispute between them in the past and they had never reconciled to one another. This was not only sad for their lives but a contradiction of their very presence in church. Yet before we get too critical we need to recall our own behaviours on a personal level and at a denominational level- is not our separation as denominations a contradiction of the reconciliation we are called to live.

In the context of our human relationships our ability to be a community, to be God’s people, is constantly compromised by the grudges we carry. Our witness to God’s love and forgiveness of us as individuals and as a community is tarnished by our inability to live as forgiving and reconciled people.

The scriptures teach us clearly that is our responsibility to act and seek this reconciliation. As I have already said forgiveness precedes repentance but reconciliation does not occur until that repentance takes place.

So important was this in Jesus’ mind that in Matthew 5 he instructs people “When you are offering a gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar; first go and be reconciled to your brother or sister.”

There is urgency in this – seek the reconciliation, forgive and be forgiven. This is captured in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray; forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. In saying this we condition God’s forgiveness of us on our ability to forgive others.

The reality of our imperfect human lives is that in this matter we are imperfect and an integral part of our weekly worship and no doubt our daily prayers is not simply the request that God forgives us but that we might be empowered to accept that forgiveness and live out the mercy and grace we have experienced by forgiving others.

This can be represented for us most poignantly when we share in communion. The institution of the sacrament by Paul includes the words “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you”. Many ministers enact this as they receive the bread and wine before the congregation and then share it with others. But this is what should shape our whole life as Christians we receive God’s forgiveness and so should pass it on to others.

Ultimately if we believe in God, if we believe that God is the God revealed by Jesus Christ then living in the midst of our difference and difficulties as a forgiving community is important. It reflects our witness to the truth that we believe “If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or we die we are the Lord’s.”

As you consider God’s grace and mercy to you in the silence this day may God reveal to you those in your hearts that you are still to be reconciled with and ask for the strength to seek that reconciliation whether that means accepting your own faults or forgiving another for theirs.

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