By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Our nation is divided. I was very young – and consequently sheltered – at the time of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. And so, in my memorable lifetime, our nation has never been so divided. It is not a good thing; not a healthy thing. And the violence that has erupted from that division is something the Church is compelled to address. But how can we unite a divided nation?
Some of you, no doubt, are aware that the phrase “under God” as in “one nation under God,” was a late addition to our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge of allegiance was written in 1892. The addition of the phrase “under God” was added 62 years later, in 1954… meaning that some of you in this room this morning may recall a time when those words were not spoken. And some may feel they are inappropriate to a political statement. But I’m glad they’re there because I feel they lay the foundation for the only approach that we – as Christians – can take in uniting our nation.
Being “under” something or someone implies a hierarchy; it implies that the one above exercises authority over the one who is beneath or under. Let’s face it, as human creatures, we appreciate order. In any organization, we expect someone to be “in charge.” Organizations today are big on the “org chart” that provides a graphic illustration of who exercises authority over whom. Yet, as Americans living in “one nation under God,” and even more importantly – as people of faith, we are called to submit to the authority of God which is expressed through the life and death of Christ. God’s authority, according to New Testament scripture, is exercised in a very unique way. God accomplishes God’s business plan, so to speak, in a very unconventional way. The apostle Paul describes God’s business model with a particular term: reconciliation. God’s business is to bring us into right relationship with God and God achieves that goal in an unexpected, radical fashion. God sent his Son to achieve that goal of reconciliation by taking on lowly, human form and voluntarily subjecting himself to the authorities of this world. Jesus, with all the authority of the Godhead, willingly becomes subject to the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of human flesh on this earth. Jesus, with all the authority of the Godhead, allows himself to be subjected to the most hideous form of capital punishment. The apostle Paul elaborates on God’s peculiar approach in his letter to the Christians in Philippi when he shares the text of an early Christian hymn that describes the reconciling business of Jesus in this way:
though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God as something to be clutched,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.[i]
God brought us into right relationship by humbling himself; not by humiliating or overpowering us. The logic of this world says that weaker people or institutions must accept the authority of stronger people or institutions. But that’s not the way of God. God bowed low to the earth assuming our vulnerable fleshly form. And that, Paul reminds us, is the way we are called to be in relationship with one another: from a position of vulnerability and humility.
We frequently refer to Jesus as our Savior and our Lord and he is. But every book in our New Testament makes clear that Jesus is also our model of how to behave in this world; of how to be in right relationship with others in this world. So Jesus, in John’s gospel, tells his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[ii]
My friends, whatever book of the bible you read, you will discover that being a follower of Jesus obliges us to be humble and to serve others, even – in fact, even more so – when we are in a position the world would label as powerful or authoritative.
Paul, in this morning’s passage of Corinthians, communicates that all that Jesus endured and subjected himself to was done for our benefit; so that we might be reconciled to God. Paul puts it like this: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[iii]
Friends, we are a divided nation; our world is broken because we fail to understand that power and authority are not about compelling others to get with our program and to do what we want done and say what we want said. Jesus, with all the authority of the Godhead, brought us into God’s family by dying for us, by sacrificing for us, by laying down his life for us. That is not how the world works, but it is absolutely the way the kingdom of God works. Our nation is divided; our world is broken because we regard one another according to the world’s standards, a secular pecking order that evaluates on the basis of gender and race and education and economics. But Paul writes, “From now on… we regard no one from a human point of view.” We are to regard no one according to those societal labels. If we name Jesus as Savior, we can no longer divide ourselves by male versus female, black versus white, rich versus poor, GED versus Ph.D., Republican versus Democrat because Christ came to earth and lived and died for us that we might become new creations. In Christ, the old ways of looking, perceiving, understanding, and, more importantly, evaluating, must be let go and replaced with a new way of seeing and understanding. Bible scholar J. Paul Sampley writes:
The most basic fact for Christians is this: People have value
because Christ has died for them… whoever they are,
whether they have responded to Christ or not… everyone has value.
The problem rests with us. We often want to establish hurdles
that others must jump… They must think the way we do,
act the way we do, vote the way we do, land on our issues
the way we want them to… [But] each person’s value
has already been established by Christ’s death for them.[iv]
Friends, often in politics, people focus on what is in their best personal interest. Candidates curry our votes by saying they will fight for us. And yet, if we name ourselves as followers of Jesus, we are commanded to never put our own interests ahead of others. We are called to exercise any rights and freedoms we may have by following the example of Jesus who – with all the authority of the Godhead – took on human form and served us and died for us. My friends, scripture is crystal clear: followers of Jesus are to live like Jesus: living not for themselves, but for others. When our concerns are focused on pursuing our individual interests, we are not behaving as Christians… plain and simple.
Jesus didn’t defend the rights of the strong and powerful. In fact, Jesus showed preferential treatment for those whom society placed last. Jesus didn’t pick a favorite group of folks to die for. He died for all of us. And so, we are – all of us – called to engage in the ministry of reconciliation not by pushing forward our own agendas but by humbling ourselves before one another; by seeing people not according to the labels the world uses, but seeing people as new creations, so valuable to Christ that he died for them just as he did for us. Those who did not vote the way you did, are not your opponent, they are someone for whom Jesus died.
I prayed and struggled a long time over how this morning’s sermon should close. I want to share with you a story of a young woman named Heather. On Wednesday morning she shared:
I was sexually assaulted when I was 20. A man thought that he could do whatever he wanted to do to me. To my body. I cried last night, I cried earlier this morning, and I’m crying now. When you’re sexually assaulted you don’t want to broadcast it. You bury it. Deep down in your soul. That feeling never goes away. You never forget it. America allowed someone that brags about sexual assault into our most coveted office… they essentially told us that it doesn’t matter to them. That they will look the other way and ignore what they see. I can’t fathom living under a president who thinks those things are acceptable.
Now friends, I am confident that no one in this sanctuary this morning who voted for Trump did so to endorse or even condone sexual assault. Let me repeat that: I am confident that no one in this sanctuary this morning who voted for Trump did so to endorse or even condone sexual assault. Many of us voted with concerns for our economy, our national security and our seemingly never-ending conflict in the Middle East. Likely all of us voted from a place of frustration with government officials who seem to be achieving nothing short of bickering with one another. But in the midst of our nation’s divide, we must remember that some are now in a fearful and vulnerable place. We may feel their anxieties are unfounded; but, for them, they are real. And if we are to ever be “one nation under God,” we must all find a way to seek reconciliation by following the example of Christ; by seeing those around us not as allies or opponents, but as new creations; as those for whom Jesus laid down his life. God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us and we must – all of us – answer that call to ministry.
[i] Philippians 2:6-8.
[ii] John 15:12-13
[iii] 2 Corinthians 5:21
[iv] The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 11; Abingdon Press; 2000; p. 98.
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