The Return

Read Luke 15:11-32

There is a saying which gets spoken often that goes like this, “There is no going back home.” In many situations, this saying is applicable. A desire to return to some point in our lives has crept into almost everyone’s thoughts. We can become nostalgic for a different time in our lives which our memories fool us into thinking was easier and problem-free. However, if we are to honestly to recall exactly what our views were at the specific time, we would have to admit that even then we longed for something else, something better and problem-free. So to some degree, the saying is true that we cannot go back, even if we could, it would not be the same. We really would not want it to be the same.

There is an exception of sorts to what I just presented to you. The exception has to do with reconciliation and restored relations. Jesus presents this exception in the form of a story about a father and his two sons. The story’s focus character is the man’s youngest son who longs for something better. The son takes his future inheritance and hits the road in search of adventure, only to find himself destitute and longing to go back home. When he finally gets the courage to return, the son fully reconciles with his father and the relationship is completely restored.

Jesus tells this story to give us understanding into the promise of reconciliation and restoration offered by God. With the Father, we are more than able to go back home. Not only is the ability made possible by the Lord, it is greatly desired by God. The chance to reconcile our relation with God is one of the greatest signs of love given to us. This opportunity is available as many times as we need it.

The other son in Jesus’s story also provides an important lesson for us. Even though the father was ready to, and did, reconcile with his youngest son, the older brother responded the opposite way. How many times do we reject the offer of reconciliation from others? Jesus communicated here the need for us to always work for reconciliation with one another.

Conflict Resolution

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Matthew 18:15-17 (NIV)

Humans have conflicts when they are in a relationship with one another. This occurs in every type of relationship because each of us is unique and has different perspectives. We form opinions based on our personal experiences, our interpretation of information, and the various influences in our lives. Because each of these are different for each person, the opinions formed will be different. These differences can be small and easily resolved or they can be large which often lead to conflict arising. The manner in which we handle conflict can lead to a reconciliation among people or a severance in the relationship.

The body of Christ on earth is not immune to differences of opinion or conflict. Jesus was aware of this reality even before there was an official organization of his followers. So he provides a road map for conflict resolution. He instructs his followers to go to the other person and make them aware when they have created conflicts which cause you some sort of pain. This first step may be the only one necessary if the conflict is resolved. Failure in the first step should be followed by bringing one or two others to witness the attempt toward reconciliation. Unachieved reconciliation leads to bringing the matter before the body so mediation and resolution may result. Jesus says if this still does not restore absence of conflict and injury, the accused should be set aside.

When we read this step-by-step plan, it appears simple and logical, at least until the final step. The last step can appear to be harsh treatment and most church bodies refuse to take it. Yet, the plan Jesus lays out here has the full intention of healing and reconciling a relationship. The plan does not call for hasty and emotion-filled actions. There is opportunity for awareness, mediation and support. There is also accountability woven throughout the approach. Punishment does not surface until the very end and there is no permanency even at that point. The opportunity to reconcile always is available. Important also is an emphasis on the health of the body, the church, and the health of the individual members of the body, both the accused and the accuser.

Conflict and hurt will occur, how we choose to respond to it will impact the outcome. Jesus gives as a healthy roadmap to follow.

The Old Becomes New

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

6:1As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says,

“In the time of my favor I heard you,
    and in the day of salvation I helped you.”

I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2 (NIV)

As we sit on the eve of the new year, many of us hope for a better year. We once again are ready to celebrate a new beginning. The imagery used to symbolize a change in years is the image of an elderly man and a baby. Historians believe using a baby’s image to symbolize a new year can be traced back to the Greeks around 600 B.C.E. The elderly man is thought to be Father Time. Legend says that Father Time (the Old Year) hands over duties of time to the Baby New Year at midnight. In some ways, this can be seen as the passing of the old creation to a new creation.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth regarding the change of an old creation into a new creation. Due to God’s grace, the old, sinful nature of humanity is replaced by the righteous image before God. Christ is the one who assumes our sin so that we can become a new creation and reconciled to God. The old is gone and only the new remains.

Just as the old year fades away, our sinful selves can fade. God no longer takes notice of the sin which existed prior to our reconciliation through Christ. Paul tells us at the start of this passage that we should view each other in the same way. Having been reconciled, we now see only the new, righteous self who God has brought into being. The old no longer exists, only the new remains.

Spiritual Library

Every day when I take my daily walk, I walk past a playground area near my home. On one side of this playground is a little lender library which seem to be appearing throughout neighborhoods all across the country. These are a great addition to our neighborhoods. If you are not familiar with this concept, they are small wooden boxes with a door which has a glass inset and shelves. People place books they have already read into these and if a child or adult is looking for a book to read, they can go pick out one and take it home to read. People are encouraged to add a book if they take one and/or return the book after they are finished reading it. Some of these can be very creative in the size and shape which they take.

As I was walking today, I glanced over at the little lender library. A question came into my mind. If I were to create a lender library for someone wanting to grow in faith, what would I include?

When I designed curriculum for young individuals wishing to confirm their faith and be commissioned as members of the congregation, I had a list of items which I felt were important for them to know. I have never been a huge proponent on memorizing Bible verses or other faith documents but I thought there were a few vital pieces which required memorization. My goal was that if the person was ever in a situation where they needed guidance, one of these items might surface in their mind and be a tool which could be beneficial.

So here are the items which I found to be important and which I would include in my spiritual lender library:

  • A copy of the Lord’s Prayer – This prayer provides a template for those new to, or struggling with, prayer. It provides the basic focus of prayer and can be a launching pad to our own prayers.
  • A copy of the Apostles’ Creed – Like the Lord’s Prayer, this creed is a template for articulating a person’s faith. This can also serve as a summation of the beliefs which underlines the faith which has existed for centuries. Someone exploring what Christians believe can look at this creed for a basic understanding and a basis to start creating questions which can be explored with other believers and on their own.
  • A copy of Matthew 6 – So the person can understand where the basis for the Lord’s Prayer originates and place it in context.
  • A copy of Exodus 20 – Here a person can gain insight into what has come to be known as the Ten Commandments. These words provide a basis for how we are to respond to God and our relationship with God. Contained here also is the understanding we are to have regarding our relationships with other people in our lives.
  • A copy of Luke 15 – This chapter from Luke’s gospel contains the story of the prodigal son. This is a story of selfishness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. I find this story important enough to be one that if a person cannot remember anything else, this story is the one that remains. My reasoning is that we all experience times of wanting to break out on our own and explore possibilities. We make mistakes and choices that are not beneficial for us. We eventually realize that we need to return “home” and hopefully in a more humbled state than when we left. This story reminds us that our Lord stands waiting for that return. When we do return there is not judgment but instead an outpouring of love and reconciliation which is like attending a magnificent banquet in our honor.
  • A copy of Matthew 28 with verses 16 through 20 highlighted – For anyone wishing to know what a believer in Christ is supposed to do with their life, this passage answers the question. Frequently known as the Great Commission, this passage tells every person that in whatever way fits their skills and abilities, they are called to go and share their story along with what they have learned in their faith so far.
  • A copy of 1 Corinthians 11 with verses 23 through 26 highlighted – Here we find one copy of the words used in the institution of holy communion. Holy communion is one of the key sacraments in the Christian Church. Realizing that words used for this portion of a worship service were randomly chosen but have their basis in Scripture helps to strengthen their meaning.
  • A copy of Matthew 22 with verses 24 through 40 highlighted – Jesus’ response to the question of “what is the greatest commandment?” is found in these verses. Christianity is often given the same criticism which is applied to Judaism – it is just about rules. In Jesus’ response, it is made clear that our faith is not about following rules as much as it is about loving God and loving one another.

This would be the start of my spiritual lender library. What would you place in yours?

Not Here, Well Maybe

The church is filled with perfect people.

Some churches are full of sin but not mine.

At my church we make sure that we protect against those type of people.

Our pastor is an example of a very righteous person.

We are a group of people who have done away with our sinful behaviors and follow the Lord.

Everybody is friendly in my church, takes care of one another and accepts everyone.

Which of these statements do you believe? Amazingly, these are actual statements which I have heard people make regarding their congregation. Add to these statements the perceptions that some people have from the outside. An observer would come to the conclusion that the church is a place where sin does not exist. This conclusion could not be any farther from the truth. The church is as full of sin as any other group in the world.

Since the church consists of humans, the church is going to have sin. We are reminded in the letter to the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, NIV). When a person becomes a member of a congregation, either formally or informally, this reality stated in Scripture does not change. This being the case, there is going to be sin in the church. In fact, one of the many sins is lying about this truth.

Honestly, I do not think that anyone truly believes that the church is without sin. Yet a lot of people in congregations everywhere want to downplay or deny this truth in an attempt to present a better image to those outside the walls. I am not sure if they feel that this will cause others to desire to join the congregation or if it is a case of them wanting to show they are better than what is in the world. Either way, this image of a sin-free church does more damage for the ministries of the Lord than it could ever benefit.

Instead of trying to state that the church is a place where sin does not exist, we should actually be sharing a more important message. The message of the church should be that it is a place where forgiveness is given unconditionally. After all, this is the message that Jesus Christ gave over and over again in his actions and teachings. This is the message which the apostle Paul declared as he and others fulfilled Christ’s commandment to go into the world.

Within the church there are lies, hatred, bigotry, hypocrisy, theft, divisions, sexual misconduct, and all other sinful behaviors witnessed in everyday life in a multitude of places. Sinners exist within the church. More importantly though, within the church there is forgiveness, love, grace, restoration, healing, support, encouragement and acceptance. These are the traits which the church should show as it strives to demonstrate to the world an alternative to sin.

Sin exists in the church at the same level it does anywhere else but here it is always forgiven and reconciliation is possible.