Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. 2 Corinthians 13:11-13)
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:16-20)
I’d like to begin this morning by telling you a little bit about a new church that has formed. It’s a few years old at this point, but is still full of the excitement and eagerness of new believers and new members. It is a church that is raising big questions about how the church of Christ is supposed to relate to its culture. Few members of this church were raised in the church, and so they are still working out the details about how to balance their Christian identity with their spirit of mission within the neighborhood. Noble work, yes, but work that has caused lots of infighting and arguing. They can’t decide whether they should be a part of distinctly non-Christian community meals and events. They can’t come to agreement on what they believe about marriage and moral issues. They argue over how they should worship and they sometimes disagree over matters of doctrine. In all of this, they don’t yet know how best to mediate personal disputes among church members, and yet they are desperately seeking unity as a community of faith.
Now I need to admit that I’ve been a little facetious with you here. Because this description of a very modern-sounding church with very current-sounding struggles is actually a description of the church at Corinth, one of the earliest Christian communities that Paul established and corresponded with. It is the church responsible for Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, the second of which we read this morning.
The church in Corinth was trying to get its act together. They wrestled with how to relate to their culture, and they wrestled over issues of doctrine and morality. They loved one another, but they argued and fought and dealt with internal divisions. The church at Corinth is an example of a community learning and struggling with how really to be community in Christ.
At the end of a letter full of admonitions and advice, Paul turns his focus to the value of unity in Christ. He closes his letter with the words we read earlier this morning: “Finally, brothers and sisters…put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
This last sentence is the way that we greet each other liturgically, every Sunday when we come to worship. We invoke the entire trinity as we come together as a worshiping community, relying on Christ’s grace, God’s love, and the Spirit’s fellowship to bring us unity in our common tasks of praise and discipleship.
Speaking more broadly, when Paul bids us the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Spirit, he is connecting the blessings of God with the values by which true community can flourish, not just within the church, but beyond.
Let me explain. Grace, love, and communion: these are ways that God acts toward us. God shows us grace, God loves us, God binds us into communion with him and with all creation. God’s face has shined on us and salvation has been given to us. But that is not the end of the story. In the same way that God meets us through grace, love, and communion, God also calls us to meet one another and our world with the values of grace, love, and communion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, explains it this way:
When God was merciful, when He revealed Jesus Christ to us as our Brother, when He won our hearts by His love, this was the beginning of our instruction in divine love. When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with our brethren. When we received forgiveness instead of judgment, we, too, were made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we were able to give; and the more meager our brotherly love, the less we were living by God’s mercy and love. Thus God Himself taught us to meet one another as God has met us in Christ. (Life Together, 25)
Grace, love, and communion are the ways that God teaches us to meet one another as he has already met us in Christ and enlivened our hearts by the Spirit.
So here is the million dollar question: What would our community and world look like if people of Christ really met one another with the grace of Jesus, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit?
Isaiah’s experience in our first reading gives us come clues.
Isaiah finds himself in the presence of God and in the midst of a divine community of worship that cries, “Holy, holy holy is the Lord of hosts! Heaven and earth are full of his glory!” Isaiah immediately identifies himself as an outsider to this community. “Woe is me,” he says, “for I am lost and unworthy, a sinner standing before the face of God, an exile to God’s chosen ones.
As we look around our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, social circles, and even around this worshiping community gathered here, it takes but little effort for us to identify the “Isaiahs” in our midst – the woeful, lost, “unclean” outsiders who feel unworthy, who keep to the fringes of our communities or are shoved to the outside. People who don’t quite fit into social norms. People of different classes and backgrounds. People of different physical or mental abilities. People who rub us the wrong way. People whose values and commitments are significantly different than ours. People who we see as too needy or too anxious or too stand-offish.
Isaiah is quick to see all the things that would cut him off from the community assembled before him. But God is quick to pull him in.
It takes one simple, holy touch for Isaiah to be brought to the inside. The seraph touches the coal to his tongue, instantly forgiving him, restoring him, and making him a whole and complete individual in God’s holy community. And when God asks “Who will go for me?” it is Isaiah, the newest member, who jumps up and volunteers, “Here am I – send me!”
This is what meeting people with grace, love, and communion is all about: reaching out with a holy touch to those who are kept to the outside of our communities, offering forgiveness and restoration to the longing souls in our midst, and showing grace and love to the woeful, lost, unclean ones who, like Isaiah, are in need of invitation and restoration.
Meeting one another with grace, love and communion means slowing our judgmental reflexes. When a car zooms in behind us and tails us when we’re already driving ten miles over the speed limit in the right lane on I-88, our gut reaction is to write him off as a jerk. When we read news headlines about politicians caught in scandals, lies, and morally questionable behavior, our gut reaction is to demand their resignations.
For most of us, judgment comes far more easily than grace. But the extraordinary news of our salvation is that in Christ, God chooses not to show us judgment, but rather to show us his love by being gracious and drawing us into the communion of saints.
Meeting one another as God meets us means that our great commission is to create new habits, training our hearts and minds to have a new brand of gut reactions: when met with angry or aggressive drivers on the interstate, recognizing that we don’t know their stories and that they might be stressed, struggling, tired, or late – and recognizing that we’ve all been there; when met with political scandal, remembering that we have all been embarrassed and shamed, and that even the most upstanding people can have flawed and complicated lives.
Meeting one another with grace, love, and communion is a big undertaking, but one that God has empowered us to do in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. When you look at your own life, which of these three values is the hardest for you to live out in your daily life? Is it hardest for you to meet people with grace? Is it hardest for you to meet the world with unconditional love? Is it hardest for you to create community and seek unity?
Take a moment to write down the value that you most need God’s help to live out in your life – grace, love, or communion.
Now write down a few ways that you can practice living out this value in the next days or weeks. Write down the old habits you want to rid yourself of that keep you from living this value. Write down new habits you’d like to create. Write down reminders for yourself so that you keep this value a priority in your daily life.
Keep this list with you this week. Share it with a friend or family member who might be able to help keep you accountable. You might want to bring this list over to the prayer corner during communion and take a minute to pray for God’s help. You might want to put the list in your Bible so that you trip over it during your daily devotions, or you might want to tape it to your mirror so that you catch a glance at it every morning.
That early church in Corinth definitely didn’t get things right on the first try. Or the second try. Or, probably, many times after that. Modern communities of faith don’t get it right all the time, either. But that church in Corinth kept trying. They kept writing back to Paul, sharing joys and struggles, asking for advice, and grappling with issues of faith because they took Jesus commission very seriously: Go, make disciples of all people. They wanted to learn how to meet each other and their world with God’s gifts of grace, love, and fellowship. They were a work-in-progress and so are we.
So we keep splashing around in that baptismal water, and we keep gathering to hear God’s Word, and we keep showing up hungry to the feast that God continues to spread before us. We pray and we praise and sit at Jesus’ feet, training our minds and hearts to approach our world with the same care that God approaches us.
And this is why, week to week, we coming back here and gather around those same words from Paul, those words that describe both God’s action and our call, that describe both our gathering and our sending, that bind us together and send us out:
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all: And also with you.