So this morning we come to the end of our series on War & Peace and instead of starting with a recap I’d like to start with a confession: I really, really did not want to do this series, because I was quite aware of how delicate and difficult matters of war and peace and violence and conflict and hostility and justice and forgiveness can be. I was well aware that nothing stirs up a good fight like talking about peace.
And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s people who follow Jesus picking stupid fights with each other. Amen? In fact, that’s one of the things I love most about Vista: we don’t pick stupid fights. We don’t fight over the music—we just have awesome music and it’s loud and if you want to pick a fight about it, we just turn it up so we can’t hear you. We don’t fight over the color of the carpet—we don’t even have carpet. We’re too busy engaging lost and unchurched people with the gospel and turning them into disciples to have carpet.
So because of all that, I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t want to tell you that the violence we find so fascinating and necessary is boring and naïve and will be put to death by God. I didn’t want to tell you that we have to be more serious about forgiveness than the world is about vengeance. I didn’t want to tell you that we have to learn to love our enemies and not just forgive and forget them.
All of that stuff is hard and I wanted to wimp out, but became convinced that this was something we could not afford to not talk about. Because if we miss this, I begin to wonder what we’re doing here.
And can I just say, I’ve been so amazed by all of you. Over the past 4 weeks, I’ve heard so many stories of forgiveness and reconciliation—big stories, little stories and everything in between. And what I love most about them is they’re real stories, not fairy-tale stories. They’re ugly and messy and unfinished, but by God, they’re the truth. Stories of you, of us, stepping beyond all the phony boundaries of what is and isn’t possible, what can and can’t be done, what can and can’t be healed…and stepping into God’s wild and unpredictable world of peace where forgiveness is making all things new.
So on behalf of leadership—wow…yall are amazing. And as we end our series this morning, I want us to continue a conversation we started last week; namely, in a world at war, how do we become a community of God’s peace?
About 3 hours east of here, there’s a small town called Lufkin. Nestled deep in the piney woods, Lufkin is an unlikely site for the biggest, wildest party the world has ever seen, but on July 9th, 2011, that’s exactly what went down. Allison and I got married in front of all our friends and family and the reception that followed was, plain and simple, the greatest party the world has ever seen. Because there are parties and then there are parties, and this was a party.
The whole town of Lufkin—young and middle age and old, and black and white and Hispanic, and Episcopal and Catholic and Baptist and Methodist and atheist and who-cares-a-ist—celebrating and eating and drinking and dancing together. I saw dance moves that I still cannot explain nor erase from my memory. I swear I saw my 80-year old grandpa crowd-surfing in a mosh pit (he denies it, but I know what I saw).
It was the most joyous moment I’ve ever been a part of. And if only for a few hours, all of the walls that divide us were transcended and swallowed up by a huge swell of love and generosity.
God is a Party
Now in the Bible, we get many different image of God. We’re told God is like a king and a warrior and a loving father and a judge, and so on and so forth. But believe it or not, we’re also constantly told that God is like the host of a massive, generous, extravagant party. God is like a party-giver.
It starts in Genesis 1 where creation itself is portrayed as God throwing a cosmic party. God doesn’t create because he’s lonely or bored. God creates because his own existence is so filled with love, delight, joy, and energy that he just can’t keep himself to himself. He wants others to join in on the party. That’s why he creates. That’s why we’re here.
And then once we’ve ruined the party because we’re terrible guests in God’s universe, God doesn’t just call if off. No way—God isn’t going to let us ruin his party. And so we get images like this from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 25:6-9- “The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine. And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces…And it will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.’”
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. We live in a culture obsessed with violent and depressing visions of the future and yet while we find these visions strangely attractive, God finds them boring and says, “No, no, no. That’s not what the future is like. The future is like this—tears are wiped away, and death is put to death, and enemies embrace, and all of creation is redeemed as I throw the biggest party the universe has ever seen and it goes on forever and ever and ever. That’s the future.”
And once we understand this, it changes everything. Because this is where we’re going, this is where God is taking us: towards a reconciliation bigger and deeper and wider than anything we could have ever imagined. And you and I, the church, we have an important role to play in that. We’re supposed to live out God’s future here and now. The world should look at us and get a glimpse of the future. Here are a few habits for us to practice toward that end.
James 5:13-16…Confess Your Sins
Anyone who’s ever been sick knows that besides the physical pain, the worst part of being sick is the alienation it causes. When you’re sick, you usually get “left behind” and avoided by the community, almost as a sort of survival reflex. The community has to exclude you so your sickness doesn’t spread.
So notice what’s going on in the text here. James says, “If somebody is sick, the elders of the church should go out to them and pray for them.” In other words, instead of letting sickness cause alienation, the church practices going out to the sick person and putting hands on them so alienation doesn’t happen. And while that’s a sermon in itself, we have to move on to verse 16 where James then tells us to confess our sins to one another so that we may be healed.
So check out what James has done here: he has paralleled going out to the sick and laying hands on them with confessing our sins to one another as if to say, “Just as going out to the sick and laying hands on them prevents alienation and division when it comes to sickness, so confessing our sins to one another prevents alienation and division when it comes to our sins.” If we want to be healed of our sins, then we have to confess them to one another.
Now many of us find this whole notion of confessing our sins to one another profoundly awkward, invasive, and, perhaps, inappropriate. I mean, why in the world do I need to confess my sins to people? That’s not their business. That’s between me and God. Right?
I hear you, I feel the same way, but we’ve got to hear James when he says, “It is never just between you and God.” In fact, there are few things less biblical than this whole notion that “my sin is just between me and God.” No it’s not. You looking at pornography is just between you and God?…it doesn’t affect anybody else?…really? You habitually buying things you don’t need is just between you and God?…it doesn’t affect anybody else?…really?
I know this is hard for us to hear, but it’s never just between you and God. That’s not Jesus talking—that’s modern, narcissistic, consumeristic individualism talking. We like to divide life into vertical and horizontal, but God doesn’t. For God there isn’t vertical (God) stuff and then horizontal (people) stuff…there’s just stuff, just life lived in all 3 dimensions, obliterating all of our false distinctions between vertical and horizontal.
And that is why we, the church, make a habit of confessing our sins to one another. Because to be healed of our sins is not just to have them forgiven by God, but is also to have the alienation and division they cause overcome as well. We regularly confess our sins to one another because we know God’s future is a cosmic reconciliation and not just me making sure I’m found not guilty at the pearly gates so I can set up shop in my private mansion.
Matthew 18:15-20…Go and Show
So Jesus envisions a scenario where somebody has really wronged you, somebody has seriously sinned against you. And according to Jesus, this is the sort of thing you should do in response.
First, go and talk about them behind their back. O wait, no—actually, go and show them what they did wrong in private. If they still don’t see it and refuse to repent or apologize, then go tell everybody how kind you were and how much they suck. O wait no—actually, then bring in a couple of other people for some perspective. And if they still don’t see it, then all of yall tell everybody how kind yall were and how much they suck. O wait no—actually, take it before the church for even more perspective. And if they still don’t see it, kick them out and never speak to them again. O wait no—actually, treat them like a tax collector.
Hmmm. How does Jesus treat those wretched tax collectors? Well he eats with them, he drinks with them, and he hangs out with them so much that it makes all the religious people mad. In other words, if they persistently refuse to apologize and repent then they’ve basically placed themselves outside the community, but you never treat them like a lost cause, and always go to whatever lengths you must to remind them the door is always open.
And again, most of us find this whole notion of church discipline profoundly awkward, invasive, and inappropriate. Most of us would literally die if some serious sin we committed came before the church for discipline. Most of us cringe at the idea of seeking somebody out to show them what they did wrong (unless you’re one of those people who really likes showing others what they did wrong, in which case nobody probably likes you and can’t hear what you have to say anyways).
And so again, this practice of church discipline will be awkward, invasive, inappropriate nonsense to us unless we’re grounded in God’s vision for the future, which is the reconciliation of enemies in a cosmic celebration. We practice “church discipline”, not because we enjoy punishing people, but because God’s future is reconciliation—because we’re preparing people for the party God is throwing.
Matthew 5:23-24…Leave Your Offering
Here Jesus envisions a scenario where a Jew is doing the most sacred thing imaginable: presenting his sacrifice at the altar in the Temple. So he’s got his goat and is about to sacrifice it when he remembers that he’s wronged somebody, and so he leaves his goat at the altar, and travels (likely for miles, on foot) to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the person he’s wronged.
Jesus dares us to consider the possibility that reconciliation is more important than even your most sacred act of worship. Or perhaps better yet, that reconciliation is your most sacred act of worship.
And so here we are, gathered together as the church in our most sacred act of worship, and the uncomfortable question that Jesus forces us to consider is…how many of us should even be here right now?
How many of us should drop everything, stand up right now, crawl over the people between us and the aisle, and move heaven and earth so we can go say, “I am sorry. Please forgive me. What can I do to repair our relationship? What can I do to make it right?”
And again, this will sound like nonsense to us unless we’re grounded in God’s vision of the future.
The Doors Are Locked
A Palestinian priest named Elias Chacour tells a story that might just help us put all of this together and understand how, in a world at war, we become a community of God’s peace. It was 1966 and he was the priest in a small Israeli village where the people in his congregation were deeply divided and hostile toward one another. Years and years of lies and conflict had produced a people filled with bitterness and suspicion. And this burdened Chacour’s heart, so he decided to do something about it.
So at the end of service one Sunday, Chacour walked to the back before anyone could move, locked the only two doors of the church, put the key in his pocket, and then walked back to the front. And as the people sat in stunned silence, he said: “This morning, I found someone who is able to help us. In fact, he is the only one who can work the miracle of reconciliation in this village. His name is Jesus and he is here with us…So on his behalf, I say this to you: The doors of the church are locked. Either you kill each other right here in your hatred, or you use this opportunity to be reconciled together before I open the doors of the church. And if that reconciliation happens, then Christ will truly become our Lord.”
The people sat in silence for about ten minutes, when an Israeli policeman in uniform stood up, confessed his sins, asked for forgiveness, and then with tears streaming down his cheeks, offered forgiveness to everyone present. This broke the dam of hostility and hatred, and everybody stood up and sought peace—people who had not spoken a word in years speaking words of apology, forgiveness, and redemption. And while this was happening, Chacour went to the back, unlocked the doors, and threw away the key. Because this was now a church where Jesus was Lord.
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
In Matthew 5:9 Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” You wanna know why? Because God is a peaceMAKER. God is not a pacifist, idly sitting by, trying to make the best of things, living on the surface of things, filled with low-grade hostility and bitterness. Nope. God is aggressive, but unlike us, God isn’t aggressive about making war or passing blame—God is aggressive about making peace. God is aggressive about forgiveness and reconciliation.
And so while I’m not going lock us in here this morning, I would ask you to hear me loud and clear. We tend to be aggressive about making war with each other or we’re aggressive about being passive aggressive about some sort of wimpy pacifism that just constantly lives on the surface of things…and neither of those are going to cut it. Because if we want to be a church where Jesus is really Lord, then we will make habits of confessing our sins, and telling each other the truth, and moving heaven and earth to say we’re sorry. We’ll be a people of aggressive peacemaking, living out God’s future for the world here and now.
And strange as that sounds, that’s where we’re from—we’re from the future; God’s future of apocalyptic reconciliation—kicking down the doors of revenge and bitterness and apathy and hate—creating a community where tears are wiped away, and enemies embrace, and the God of peace puts war to death in the blazing fire of forgiveness.
All of you should have a stone nearby or in your hand. And there’s a story told about Jesus and a crowd of people with stones in their hands. A woman is caught in the act of adultery so the religious leaders drag her before Jesus and point out that the law of Moses demands that she be stoned. So they ask Jesus what he thinks. Perhaps they toss him a stone.
And we’re told that Jesus straightens up to his full height and says, “How about the person without sin throws the first stone?” And one by one, they drop their stones and walk away.
This morning, you’ve got a stone in your hand. There’s probably somebody you’d like to use it on. If you’re like me, you could use a few more stones because there’s somebodies you’d like to use it on. And yet, we’re going to invite you to come bring that stone to the front and lay it down—not just because you’re going to surrender your desire to take blood for blood, but because you want to practice forgiveness as a way of life; because we want to be a place that embodies God’s peace.
And so remember that as we pile our stones up here, we’re not avoiding confrontation. No—we’re creating a space where a confrontation of grace and forgiveness can happen. We’re building an altar where the community of forgiven sinners can celebrate a reconciliation that’s bigger and deeper and wider than anything we could have ever imagined.
And if you can’t lay down your stone yet, if you can’t make that commitment to peacemaking yet (to confessing sins and telling the truth and saying you’re sorry and forgiving and loving enemies) that’s ok. It might take some time—it usually does. The God of peace will be with you, and we will too.
[The altar of peace we built]