“From Now On”
2 Corinthians 5: 16-21
Sermon by Pastor Mark Siler, 3/31/2019
If you think the early church had it all together, look no further than the congregation in Corinth. It was a mess. Paul went to this bustling cosmopolitan port city, pulled together a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women, servants and masters, and told them to show the world that all the ways we humans divide ourselves do not matter to God. Then Paul continued on to start other churches. Well, that grand vision that Paul left them with did not last too long. So, he went back to try and help. That too was a disaster. A fraction of the church turned against Paul. Paul ended up leaving early and, as he states, in tears. This 2ndletter to the church in Corinth is Paul’s attempt to heal these painful divisions. In this section, he offers them and us the idea that we cannot follow Christ and participate in the ways that our culture and society separate us. He tells us that at the heart of Christian identity is the ministry of reconciliation. So, my question for us is this. What is this ministry of reconciliation that Paul announces and why is it so essential to Christian faith?
Some congregational responses:
- It takes us to the foundation of forgiveness.
- It is about truly being a new creation.
- It is seeing everyone as a Child of God.
- We must practice this. We need this now more than ever.
- The ability to do reconciliation comes from God, not us.
Will Campbell was a Southern White Baptist Preacher from Mississippi who was a key figure in the Civil Rights movement. He was known for his disruptive language and behavior, always exposing the restraints we humans put on God’s redemptive efforts. When asked by a reporter to summarize Christianity in 10 words or less, Campbell famously said, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”
Campbell was the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization started by Martin Luther King Jr. and other major figures in the movement. He was one of the first clergy on the scene to comfort the families of the four girls killed in the Birmingham bombing and was famously present at King’s assassination. But he said his true conversion came when Thomas Coleman, a deputy sheriff and Klansman, shot his good friend Jonathan Daniel as he walked out of an Alabama country story with a soda and a moon pie in hand. Daniel, who was studying to be an episcopal priest, had gone south to help African-Americans register to vote. Somewhat mocking Will Campbell’s wild understanding of God’s love, the same reporter who earlier inquired about a definition of Christianity asked him, “So, Rev. Campbell, is it still true? Does God equally love Coleman and Daniel, the murdered and the murderer?” Campbell, maybe for the first time in his life, could find no words and began to weep. He called it a turning point. He realized how he had been withholding the grace and the mercy of God, the very grace and mercy that he desperately needed.
From then on, even more than before, he committed his life to a ministry of reconciliation. His witness never fully satisfied anyone and to some degree irritated everyone. He continued his work for racial justice, but also got to know leaders of the Klu Klux Klan. He marched with King, but also visited King’s killer, James Earl Ray, in prison. He almost started a riot at a civil rights student forum when he announced “I am not pro-Klan but I am pro-Klansman because I am pro-Jesus and therefore pro- human-being.”
St. Paul and Will Campbell remind us that we cannot claim Christ and keep regarding each other and ourselves from a human point of view. For in Christ, we become reconciled to God. We become a new creation. We become truly free of the burden of our trespasses and the wounds from those who have trespassed against us. We so fully experience God’s unrelenting desire to forgive us, to free us, that there is nothing left to do but offer the same to anyone and everyone. There is nothing left to do but attempt reconciliation and become ambassadors for Christ. Like Paul and Will Campbell, we recognize that those places within us where we withhold reconciliation are preventing us from full reconciliation with this God of liberation.
It is important to say that we attempt this hard and unsettling work of Christ-like forgiveness and reconciliation not because it works, not because it’s an effective strategy. Though it certainly can and does unleash goodness, the truth is, there is a good chance nothing will change, at least externally. There is good chance that those with whom we attempt reconciliation will stay the same, or at least from what we can tell. We attempt reconciliation because it’s true, because it locates us within the heart of God, because we know in our very being that this is what God is always doing with us. In some way, we are all caught in the tragedy of being human from a human point of view and our freedom, our freedom from hate, from fear, from loneliness, from betrayal, from hurt comes from being reconciled with God, who was without sin but took on the sin of the world so that we don’t have to, liberating all of us from fear and shame. Liberating all of us to recklessly and foolishly share in and share this divine mercy.