1 John 1:5-10, 2:7-11
Today, I conclude our current series of sermons on various spiritual disciplines. Over the last ten weeks or so, we’ve talked about worship, about prayer, about fasting, about accountability, about study, about witness, about service, about giving, and about hospitality. We’ve talked about how these are the practices which help form us into the image of Christ, which help us maintain our connection to God and help us grow spiritually. And we’ve talked about how these practices must become habits, and how the more deeply ingrained they are in us the stronger our spiritual life will be.
Today, for the last in the series, we’re going to talk about the spiritual discipline of reconciliation. In other words, we’re going to talk about how to quit patching and get to fixing what’s wrong with us and our connection to God and to the world. And right away, we hit a snag.
For it is profoundly unpopular these days to talk about the wrongness of our lives: to talk about sin – our sin. In fact, there are lots of churches where you can go and listen to sermons for years on end and never hear that there’s anything wrong or broken or rebellious in yourself. It is simply assumed that you need to make better choices for your life, and that you want to make the best choices for your life – because it’s your life, and nothing else could be more important, you know?
But the Christian gospel – the good news – is primarily “good” because it provides the remedy for a very necessary dose of bad news: That we are all lost, all broken, all rebels against our proper Lord, every one of us; and without help from the outside, we can none of us make good choices for our lives. Not only that, as mired in sin and folly as we are, without the grace of God, none of us can even desire any better choices for our lives.
And that whole idea that nothing else could be more important than your own life? Well, the gospel is nothing if not very direct about our own bloated and distorted sense of self-importance – and about our need to die to our self in order to live before God. Paul pleads with his readers, “We beseech you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might be made the righteousness of God.”
Until we recognize ourselves as being out-of-synch with God, we can make no further progress toward God, nor will any of the blessings of God toward us provide any lasting satisfaction. We are called upon to repent, that is, to turn away from our self-defeating efforts. We are called to surrender ourselves unconditionally to God and quit haggling for better terms. We are called to accept that it is what Jesus has done for us, not what we have done for Jesus, that makes us acceptable to God.
And when we do, then – and only then – are we reconciled to God, and our crooked relationship with him straightened out, and our proper place in his kingdom restored to us. And we are called to keep reminding ourselves of our need for his forgiveness, and to keep up the habit of confession and repentance – no excuses allowed – and as often as we do that, we will know again the peace that comes from our reconciliation with God.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.Now, our reconciliation with God is supposed to lead to a more general reconciliation – to the straightening out of all that is crooked within us and the restoration of a proper relationship with all of creation. We see the world differently, we use creation differently, our relationship with money is different – because we have been reconciled to God.
And our relationships with other people start to change, too. We see other people differently, we learn to “judge not,” that we might not be judged, either. We become more charitable, less quick to condemn. The misanthropic Wiley, in the comic strip BC, wrote a dictionary which defined “friendship” as that which occurs in each of two people who sense prominence through the other’s stupidity; But we are to see others as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.There is a connection between our being reconciled to God and being reconciled to each other. Jesus said if you don’t forgive your brother, then God can’t forgive you, and John says here,
He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.So it works both ways. What this means is that the holy habit of reconciliation is not just about learning to keep our relationship with God sweet, which will change our relationships with other people, but that we also need to learn to keep our relationships with other people sweet, because the state of our relationships with them impacts our relationship with God!
Now, the fact of the matter is, all of us get cross-wise with each other from time to time. We get impatient, or we get on each other’s nerves, or we misunderstand something. And what most people do when that happens is they either turn to bluster and prolong an argument that never needed to become a full-blown quarrel, or they just pretend it never happened, and wait for it to blow over – except that it often doesn’t; instead of blowing over, it just festers, and it hinders us in our relationship
Now, I’m going to tell you two of the most useful skills you will ever acquire in your life are these: First, everybody needs to learn how to thank other people; and the more you thank them – or praise them, which comes to the same thing – the stronger your relationship will be, and the less likely you are to be seriously de-railed in your relationship by a misunderstanding. And second, everybody needs to learn how to apologize; in fact, I would say that you need to learn how to write a letter of apology, just like you need to learn how to write a thank-you note.
I have found the skill very important in my life; I just wish I hadn’t had to exercise it quite so often. Not that I'm a particularly obnoxious sort, though I have my days, but I am also a shy and introverted person. Don’t let the fact that I talk for a living fool you; all the small talk I know has had to be painfully learned, I am not naturally at ease in social situations. I have often missed important clues in a relationship or inadvertently messed up because I just didn’t know what to say or missed the opportunity to say it.
Not only that, but it was only in my forties that I finally was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome, a disorder that often makes its sufferers prone to speaking withoutthinking; indeed, many times I have been as surprised by what has just popped out of my mouth as the person I’ve said it to. I don’t know how many times I have reached for a joke, only to find what I said desperately unfunny – nay, hurtful to somebody else – or how often I have said with too much passion (or not enough) what I was trying to say. So, yes, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice apologizing, and I’ve written quite a number of letters of apology.
And concerning saying you’re sorry, I can only repeat that age-old folk wisdom that if you’ve got to eat a frog, it pays not to stare at it too long; meaning, it’s better to apologize sooner rather than later.
And when you apologize, let’s get some ground rules straight. First, you do not attempt to justify what you said or did; that’s just continuing the quarrel and making it worse. You may explain what you intended, but you must not evade responsibility for what happened by pleading your intentions; otherwise, you’re not apologizing, you’re engaging in self-justification. So, no trying to make yourself look right when you’re confessing that you were wrong.
Next, state the wrong. Accept responsibility for it. Offer to make it right. Then shut up and let it go. Continuing to talk or write beyond that point will only make it worse.
And what if that other person is not mollified? What if he or she doesn’t accept your apology? Well, then, let them be mad. If you have properly accepted your responsibility for what was said or done, then it’s not about you justifying yourself any more; now it’s their spiritual problem. Now, they are challenged to forgive, which is also an occasion for spiritual growth. As my Great-Grandma Collins used to say, “If they can get mad, they can get glad.” And if they choose not to? Well, that hurts them more than it does you. Resist the temptation to pick at the sore. Let it go. For God has called us to peace.
And notice how apologizing to someone else is just like confessing to God: we give up trying to make ourselves look better – we quit defending ourselves – and we accept responsibility, offer restitution, quit picking at it. And when we are forgiven, we accept the gift and go on. That’s how you keep relationships sweet. And the sooner you learn to do it, the happier you’re going to be.
And what if both of you are at fault? Or what if the other person is more at fault? Should you wait for that person to come across, withhold yourself until you have received a better answer? Well, no. In the end, it comes down to which of you wants the peace of reconciliation more. And many times, the party less at fault will confess his part in the quarrel or extend forgiveness, even if the other stays mad, because he or she wants it more. And wanting to live in peace is a sign that you’re right with God.
I once did a funeral for a woman who was a member of my church. I didn’t know her children, for they were not members of my church, but I went to meet them at the funeral home for the visitation. And there I was told by the undertaker, “So-and-so and Such-and-such don’t speak.” Now, I realized he didn’t mean that they were deaf-mutes; but I asked what he meant, just to make sure.
It turns out that the sister had Mom in her care in her declining years, and the brother accused her of misusing some of their mother’s resources, and all kinds of I don’t know what,: the brother (who was the executor, and therefore running the show) was standing up by the casket with his wife; meanwhile, the sister and her husband had established themselves at the other end of this cavernous room. Oh, they sat side by side at the funeral itself, but neither side turned their heads even to see the others, not even once. And what was really weird was that the only way any of these angry people knew to talk about their loss was in the honeyed words of the love of Jesus and the peace of God; meanwhile, their own family remained unacknowledged in their midst. My head was spinning by the time that funeral was over, and I was glad that only the dead woman had been my parishioner.
Afterwards, I went home and I thought about my oldest sister. My oldest sister is the wreck of a very great woman – a brilliant student, a member of MENSA (the high IQ society), in her day able to nail any job on offer -- but with the least talent for success or happiness of any person I have ever known. She was currently mad at me. No particular reason, I had not done anything; her displeasure with her family and her need of them succeeded each other at regular intervals. But after that funeral, I went home and I wrote my sister a letter. I told her about the funeral I'd just done, and I said, I do not want us to end up like that family. And I told her that I was always available to her, whenever she wanted a relationship with me.
Well, her moods continue to go up and down, but I always remember her birthday and send her a card at Christmas and do those things which keep the relationship open. I can’t govern her mood; I can't make her happy. And I refuse to be drawn into the crazies, but I can govern my own behavior, and I will do what it takes to be reconciled to her, as to others in my life – and to God. Because I don’t want all that stuff blotting out the light and keeping me in the dark. I want to walk in the light> I want to know the peace that passes all human understanding. I want to be free of all those burdens that weigh me down – especially the self-imposed ones that I can be rid of as soon as I admit that I’m the reason I’m carrying them.
How about you? What is it that you are trying so hard not to say – and to whom – and isn’t it time to quit carrying that load? Why not say it? Why not put down the load? Whether to God or man, will you not be reconciled at last?
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.