Sunday, September 18, 2016

Overcoming Obstacles

This is the third week that we are looking at the church as community. The key idea of the series is summarized by this short phrase, ‘I need you, and you need me’. Embracing this idea as a church is critical if we are going to become whole people. This is how the Gospel works. That was the first week’s sermon.

Last week I talked to you about how we might develop that short phrase, how we might live it. I spoke to you about talking and listening. The intended result of our talking and listening is that we would connect, that we would become friends in that more profound sense I mentioned. It is as we make progress in this that we will succeed in being people who are on the way to becoming whole.

This week I want to add a further note of realism. It’s just a fact that we will have problems. There will be obstacles in our way as we work at living as people who need each other. Today, I’ll just talk about one obstacle. I’m going to talk about fear.

Developing connections, friendships that are becoming more and more open and honest, is just plain scary. We’ve all been in relationships where we’ve been hurt. That other person said or did something - or failed to say or do something - and it was painful. And having been hurt in the past, we become wary. We decide that it’s safer if we keep a polite distance from others, if our relationships aren’t quite so open and honest. We’re satisfied having acquaintances instead of friends. A polite distance. And that is a major obstacle to life in community.

So, what do I say about that? Well, the first thing is to admit that yes, pursuing real friendships is scary. I’m not going to say that it might hurt. Instead, I’ll say that it will hurt. Other people will say things that will hurt us just as we have said things that have hurt them. What should we expect? We are people who sin. So, I understand the fear. Who wants to hurt? It’s bad enough when it’s some stranger who hurts you. How much worse when it’s someone you’ve shared something of your heart with?

And yet, I’m still going to say that we need to develop these friendships. Polite distance from mere acquaintances won’t work. Developing real friendships is something that we must work at, even though it’s scary and it will hurt.

Must work at’? That’s saying a lot. So, how can I be so sure? It’s because I am sure that our short phrase is true: ‘I need you, and you need me.’ If the Gospel is going to have its full effect in our lives, we all need to embrace what that short phrase is all about.

As long as there has been a church there have been those who refuse to live out that short phrase. They go to church, sing familiar hymns, listen to what can be an interesting lecture, and chit chat afterwards - and they do all of this still maintaining that polite distance. They’re afraid. But they tell themselves that it’s okay since they are sure that they can do this Christian thing pretty much on their own. They’re not into this ‘I need you, and you need me’ idea. But they’re wrong. Being a Christian is a group project. Why else did Jesus establish the Church?

So, if we are going to live out that short phrase, then we’re going to have to deal with the fear.

How do we do that? Well, here’s the question that we need to answer. ‘Why should I expose myself to the hurt that will surely come from working at real friendships, the hurt that will surely come from embracing that short phrase?’ That seems like the right question. And what’s the answer? The answer is clear. We take that risk because of love.

Listen to Jesus.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ​ Matthew 22.37, 38

Jesus mentions three loves here. There is the love that you have for yourself. Jesus does not command this. He assumes it. And the fact of the matter is that we do love ourselves. And clearly, based on what Jesus says here, there is nothing wrong with that. The problem, though, is that, all too often, we are not very wise in how we love ourselves. The heroin addict loves himself. That’s why he’s an addict. Life never feels better than when he feels the pleasure that the heroin gives him. He’s loving himself when he shoots up - at least that’s his motivation. But I think that we can agree that he is not being very wise in how he is loving himself. Life for an addict, apart from that moment of bliss, is simply horrendous. He is not loving himself wisely. And it shows.

One part of Christians loving themselves wisely is bound up in our short phrase. If we are going to love ourselves wisely we need to come to the place of freely admitting, ‘I need you, and you need me’. Anything less will not result in us making great progress toward becoming whole people. Anything less is simply foolishness. So, let’s work on loving ourselves wisely. Embrace that short phrase. It will show.

Then, there is loving our neighbor. The members of Faith Reformed are our neighbors. Jesus calls us to love them. And though there will be the risk of hurt, we will love them if we are convinced that they really do need us to do exactly that. If we refuse to love them, to work at real friendships, they will not become the whole people that Jesus intends. Please note that I didn’t say they might not become… No, they will not become the whole people that Jesus intends. Am I overstating my case? Well, was Paul overstating his case when he described the church as a body where each part of the body is important? Is a body whole when it is missing an eye or a foot? Each part of a body needs every other part of that body if it is going to be whole. Likewise, we need each other. Thus my statement, if we refuse to love the others here, to work at real friendships, they will not become the whole people that Jesus intends. They need us.

The fact that they might say or do things that will hurt does not change anything. We need to love them enough to take the hurt. And Jesus is our example.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. John 13.34

Jesus took more than a little hurt in order to love us. And He calls us to imitate Him.

Here’s the last reason why we take the risk of friendships: our love of God. Listen to how Paul condemns the unfaithful Jews of his day.

For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Romans 2.24

Their sinful lives reflected badly on God’s reputation among unbelievers. How we live out there also affects God’s reputation.

Consider how so many Christians not only fail to make God look good by how they live, they actually make Him look bad. Isn’t that one reason why many have such a low opinion of the Christian faith these days? We don’t want to have Paul’s charge applied to any of us. We want each of us to be known as people who make God look good. As a result, out of a love for our God, we work at helping each other grow into the likeness of Jesus, into whole people, so that we all will make God look good.

And so, you see, we take the risk of working at real friendships, the risk of being hurt, because of love. It is love that overcomes fear.

Now, another question. How are we to respond when someone says something that hurts? It’s going to happen. What do we do? We have two options. The first is based on something Peter wrote.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8

There it is. It’s happened, and it feels like someone pierced your heart with a knife. You were a bit surprised that words could hurt so much. Now what do you do? There are times when you simply cover that sin in love just as Peter described. That is, you forgive the sin without saying anything to the person. You choose this option not because you just don’t want to deal with the problem. That’s not loving the person. You choose this option for the sake of the other person. You know that right now his life just too filled with issues and problems and the mess of life. Adding one more thing, dealing with that sin, just might be too much for him. So, there will be times when, out of love for that person, you will cover the sin in love, forgive it, and not bring it to his attention. That’s included in ‘loving one another earnestly’.

Now, it’s important to bear in mind what forgiveness is. It’s a promise that you will not let that sin affect, interfere or be any sort of obstacle to your relationship with that person. That doesn’t mean that you have to suddenly contract amnesia about that sin and forget all about it. But it does mean that when you do remember that sin it still does not affect your relationship with the person who sinned against you. That’s what forgiveness is. It’s what the Father promises when He forgives us.

Now, if, having decided to cover that sin in love, you find that the memory of that hurtful incident bothers you and you can’t keep it from interfering with your relationship with that other person, then this option of forgiving it without comment isn’t working. You are not able to keep that promise to forgive.

That’s when you apply the other option. That’s when you need to talk it out. Listen again to Jesus.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. Matthew 18:15

You can see what Jesus wants you to do. He wants you to go to that other person who has hurt you so that you can discuss what happened and resolve the matter. You go to have an honest conversation. The goal in your going is first and foremost for the benefit of the other person.  So, you go and explain what you see as the problem. You explain how this other person said or did something that wounded you. And from there you have a conversation to settle the matter. That usually includes the granting of forgiveness for a sin that is acknowledged. You talk and listen so that the relationship can be healed.

If it’s inevitable that we will be hurt by the others in this room, we need to understand how to forgive.

Let me bring this to a close. This is what I’ve been dealing with in these sermons. We are a community, created by the Spirit when He baptized us all into the body of Christ. We need to live as the community that we are. I’ve stressed one aspect of being that community, the short phrase, ‘I need you, and you need me’. In all of this I’m not saying that we are doing a terrible job of it. Not at all. What I’m saying is that there is more progress to be made. We need to work and pray to that end. And as we do that, we will make progress in becoming whole people which is the goal of the Gospel.

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