Leave your gift at the altar, and go be reconciled. (Jesus in Matthew 5:24)
The District Superintendent had challenged me to help my new church rediscover its mission. It didn’t take me very long to realize that this was indeed going to be a challenge. The previous pastor, Dr. Rob Johnson, had been there from the church’s beginning ten years earlier and was greatly admired and loved. However, a hurtful division had occurred in the church over an emphasis on psychological issues with a strong theological shift towards relational theology.
Many of the congregation became confused over whether, when they did good works or gave a “cup of cold water” (Matthew 25:35-40), they were doing that a) in the name of and for the sake of Jesus, b) they were actually becoming (incarnating) Jesus in doing it, or 3) they were simply taking care of Jesus at the time.
Although many had welcomed me as a friend, I would hear comments like, “When I see you standing in Dr. Rob’s place, it just doesn’t seem right!” There were so many psychologists in the church that after I concluded my sermon I often thought of saying to them as they left the narthex, “I wonder what I meant by that.” The wife of one of them confessed that her husband stayed at home rather than attend church because he preferred to read transcripts of the former pastor’s old sermons.
On the very first Sunday as the church’s new pastor, the adult Sunday School class was about to begin a new series of studies and the question arose, “Well now, in this next quarter, what shall we study?” For about thirty minutes, they summarized past discussions they had had, none of which sounded like it had any great significance. Then one brave person brought up the subject of God which triggered a series of questions, the primary one being, “Where can we find out anything about God? Is there any book we can find to study about God?” That got my attention.
Up until then my wife and I had just been listening. After hearing that last question, I wondered if that was a subtle invitation for me to insert a word about the Bible. However, having observed their resistance to anything authoritative thus far, I thought it best not to intrude just then. Nevertheless, I wanted to assure them that I had been listening carefully and understood what they had been saying, so I spoke up.
“I’ve been listening to all your questions and doubts and thinking about every one of them. I’m reminded of a man who had these very same questions on his mind that you have been struggling with. . .and he wrote a book about it. His name was C.S. Lewis, and the name of the book is Mere Christianity. That’s exactly the kind of book you would enjoy studying during the next few weeks.”
There was no resistance or doubt in the minds of any of them after my suggestion, so that is what we did. Using the book as an introduction, and mixing it with consistent expository biblical preaching, the next few months saw the theological emphasis transformed one hundred eighty degrees. But it wasn’t easy.
Several months after that Sunday School transformation began, I introduced a series of messages on the Beatitudes of Jesus from Matthew 5. The primary root of the word “beatitude” is the word attitude, defined as a “mental position with regard to a fact or state, or a feeling or an emotion toward a fact or state.” With the prefix “be,” I concluded, that a BE-atitude is an attitude of Being. In other words, how you respond to that which confronts you in life is determined by your attitude, be it love or hate, admiration or distaste, affirmation or rejection. A person’s attitude will determine the reaction.
In my sermon preparation, I eventually came to the text, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” As part of planning for the sermon, I wanted to find an illustration that was real, understandable, and transferable so that the application to actual life was clear.
My thoughts wandered off to Jenny, the wife of one of the church board members, and the one who had been church secretary when I first came. Having held that responsibility for several years under the former pastor, she had decided to make a change when I arrived. She had sought counsel from Dr. Johnson and gradually seemed to be growing more distant in her communication with me. Indeed, I sensed some real hostility. We were not “at peace.” This situation seemed to call for some kind of mediation. Who could I ask? Where is Solomon when you need him? Who could be the “umpire?”
As I continued preparation for the upcoming Sunday’s message, I could not get away from this feeling of discord between myself and Jenny. Finally, as I examined the context more thoroughly, following the wisdom of Dr. Walter Kaiser, president Emeritus of Gordon Conwell Seminary, who challenged expositors to “keep their fingers on the text,” it became clear from the very words of Jesus later on in that same fifth chapter, verses 23-25, that no “umpire” was needed other than the Spirit of God to confront and heal the breach. Listen to what the Master Himself says to do:
“If you are standing before the altar in the Temple, offering a sacrifice to God, and suddenly you remember that a friend has something against you, leave your sacrifice there beside the altar and go and apologize and be reconciled to him, and then come offer your sacrifice to God. Come to terms quickly with your enemy before it is too late.”
The end of this story is a joy to relate. As soon as I read those words a second time, I stopped everything, phoned Jenny to make certain she was at home, and drove directly to her house. I admitted to her that I had been troubled by the decline in our relationship and was there to make certain we would clear up any misunderstanding between us, whatever it was. We both shared concerns and clarified the issues. Her daughter’s husband was, at the time, on the Vietnam front, and family stress was extremely high. She admitted that she did indeed miss Pastor Rob, but volunteered that she “needed to get beyond that” for her own personal spiritual life and Christian development.
Finally, we prayed together, thanking God for clarity on the misunderstanding between us and also for the concerns of her entire family. I left that day feeling totally relieved, having followed our Lord’s biblical counsel in addressing and resolving a hurting relationship within the body of our Lord’s church.
Jenny’s husband called later and thanked me for being strong enough to face the issue, which had greatly troubled him also. I was delighted to discover a “non-traditional” definition of a peacemaker! And extra blessing, a by-product of our peacemaking, was the wonderful Sunday morning worship service in which many additional lives were touched.
Is there some special secret to how these things come about? You can’t program or manipulate God’s Spirit or His work in bringing about life-changing experiences. Nevertheless, one thing I discovered was the reality that God is willing to accomplish His intentional will through us when we are humbly listening to His word. He speaks to the heart, sometimes our own.
“To Him, who by His power within us, is able to do far more than we ever dare to ask or imagine—to Him be the glory” (Ephesians 3:20, NTME).