Practices for the Church on Mission – Reconciliation

If we were to compile a list of essential practices of the church on mission, things like prayer, Bible study, helping people, might be near the top of our list.

I sincerely doubt pastor and theologian David Fitch would argue against any of those things being a vital part of our lives together.  Yet his list of seven practices for the church on mission directs us to think about how those things get habitually applied as we live out our faith.

Following the practice of the Lord’s Table, he lists reconciliation as the second key practice for the church.  And this is important.  Because as we read throughout the New Testament, there is a tremendous concern not just for the key theological belief about our reconciliation with God through Jesus, but also how we live that out in the rest of our lives in regards to our relationship with others.

The letter of 1 John puts it bluntly; “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20b)

Church community is hard.  If we’re in it for any length of time, we will not only experience the care and love of a community walking with us in Christ, but we’ll also see the reality that none of us are there yet – we will encounter gossip, griping, power moves, pettiness, and sadly, sometimes people who abuse their power or position.  I’m not about to excuse any of that.  It’s real.  It’s in the church because it is everywhere, and the church is made of people still dealing with their brokenness, pain and sin.  And there will be times where it’s not about ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’ but simply differences of opinion or conflict that comes naturally as we work through how to do life and do life together.

But what *does* make the church different than the rest of the world is its ministry of reconciliation – when we are willing to do the work.  Not just inviting people to be reconnected with God, but taking the initiative to be reconciled with one another when there is something that needs to be healed in our relationships.

In other words, when the church is a place where we own our mistakes and lean into conflict not to win, but to seek truth and renewed community; that provides a powerful witness of Jesus’ presence and power to the world.

One the aspects he names of the practice of reconciliation is found in Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 5:21: “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  This concept of mutual submission doesn’t seek vindication or punishment as much as restoration, healing and renewed fellowship.  At this point, I need to pause and say that the practice of reconciliation is *not* about diminishing or evading consequences where there have been situations of abuse or deep harm.

Genuine reconciliation involves both parties, truth telling, and accountability.  We quickly get into deep waters that require not just human wisdom and commitment but God’s Holy Spirit to guide us.

As throughout the book, Fitch explores what reconciliation looks like within the community of believers, but then also how we can be hosts of reconciliation in the wider network of our relationships – how do we help bridge fractures between people, model Christ-centered submission and humility to others, and take responsibility for our actions?

And in the “half circle” where we are neither the “in-group” or the “host”, Fitch addresses what that work could look like when tackling broader issues like the need for racial reconciliation.  Critically, he acknowledges that sometimes those who are in positions of power or privilege tend to assume that they (we, as I – pastor Brian – acknowledge my position of privilege), that we are the ones who have to come up with the solutions or set the agenda and understand the issues to fix things.  Instead, the work of reconciliation may need to begin with a lot more listening and letting go, so that we can engage more helpfully and as partners.

There’s an example of this in my experience that relates to the desire to care for others.  Lots of food ministries and soup kitchens involve people generously giving of their time and resources to gather and prepare food and serve it to those who are in need.  This is good, and it almost always comes from a good intention and desire.  Yet most folks who do the serving rarely have the opportunity (or take the opportunity) to eat with or get to know those they seek to serve.  Nor are there often ways for those being served to participate in a way where there is any kind of sense that they have something to offer, should they choose to.  I know – it’s structurally hard to pull these things off.  But, going back to the last article on sharing meals together, I’ve seen what happens when people slowly build trust across the table beyond the things that might otherwise divide us.  The willingness to sit, eat, listen, and care  for someone, not to fix them, but simply to honor them as a person created in God’s image, is a powerful step that can transform lives – ours included.

I’ve witnessed a retired correctional officer who had been recently widowed sitting down in a folding chair next to a young person who was staying in a local warming shelter.  As they shared a lunch that the older man had helped set up, they talked.  As they talked, they learned that this young man had spent some time as an inmate at the same facility (though not at the same time).  Over the next hour, I watched them share, laugh, find common ground, and the retired correctional officer offered some encouragement.  The younger man also created space that welcomed and honored someone who might otherwise have been seen as an enemy.  Reconciliation isn’t often easy, it takes vulnerability, risk, presence, attention.  It is the repairing of that which is broken – and as we know, so many things are easy to break and hard to mend.   The cross reminds us of how God took the initiative for reconciliation in Christ, the cost of that act, and the invitation for us to take on the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

And what do we find in that re-joining but communion?

God is inviting us to that table, how will we extend that through joining that work of reconciliation in our own relationships?

Practices for the Church on Mission – The Lord’s Table

In his book Seven Practices for the Church on Mission, seminary professor and pastor David Fitch examines the importance of the practice of Communion for the church – not only as an internal experience, but its implications for how we carry the Gospel into our everyday world.

It’s a short book, deliberately written to be easily accessible — in fact, I read through it in a day at the airport on vacation.  But I think he’s on to something, giving us a reminder of core practices: things we all can do and apply to both church and everyday life, as well as a set of lenses to look at those practices with new eyes.

Quickly – those three lenses are the circle, the dotted circle and the half-circle.

The blue circle represents the immediate Christian community – our sisters and brothers who share a commitment to Jesus and to one another.

The dotted circle represents how we open that circle to others as they are — how that circle expands and opens to welcome others in with hospitality.  It may represent things we do at a church building that those outside the church are invited to, or things in our homes or meetings, events or missions we are a part of that we invite others to.  It is a space where we consider how to genuinely welcome others as they are.

The third ‘half’ circle is where we meet others in the world as guests, as partners.  It’s the space where we aren’t in charge, aren’t providing everything needed.  We look for the work of the Holy Spirit around us, we carry with us the presence and message of Christ (as a treasure in the clay jars of our lives) — and we simply look for ways to join what God is already doing.

With those lenses in mind, it opens up new ways to consider the practice of the Lord’s Table, the first of the seven he writes about.

Paradoxically all too often what is meant to gather us together in Communion with God and one another has been one of the things that divides Christians of various traditions.

Instead of re-hashing arguments about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, memorial feasts, or issues of how often do we have to do this, is it ok to use grape juice or do we have to use wine, who gets to serve, etc…   Fitch points us to honestly, more fundamental issues:

How are we recognizing and naming the presence of Christ when we gather to eat in his name?

How does that recognition of Jesus’ presence at the table with us call us to examine ourselves and our relationships not only with God but with one another (1 Corinthians 11:27ff) and submit ourselves to God and one another in mutual love (Ephesians 5:21).

When we are among other Christians, the practice of the Lord’s Table in the context of worship invites us to reflect on what we are doing in light of what Jesus has done: not only affecting our vertical relationship with God, but the horizontal relationships with our other believers.  Are we going through the motions?  Do we have ruptured relationships with others in our community that we haven’t done our part to seek reconciliation in?  Are we paying attention to the real presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit here and now?

In the second circle, we’re invited to think of the Lord’s Table beyond just the worship service context and into the meals we share with family and friends.  What does it mean to recognize Jesus’ presence here?  How do we ‘hold sacred space’ around the table we invite others to without making it weird?

Part of it is simply our own recognition and treating these meals as encounters where Jesus is present.  When we do that, and how we do that, is what we mean by ‘holding space’ and recognizing the presence of Christ in the moment, without expecting that non-believers will view it the same way.  So, following the pattern of Jesus, who consistently ‘gave thanks’ for the food being served, we express gratitude, hospitality, and take the time to create opportunities for genuine conversation that starts out with more of a focus on listening than speaking.  There will be enough opportunities to speak and share our experience, perspective and faith — but it needs to emerge from a genuine valuing of the other person, not just waiting till it is our turn to talk.

And finally, we are invited to consider the half-circle; where we meet people and experience their hospitality, or eat side by side with one another.

I think of so many of our feeding programs where we are invited to generously give to others (and that’s good!) and yet how few opportunities we have to actually eat with and listen to one another.  And fewer still, the opportunities to be served by those we might think actually need our help.  Remember that when Jesus sent out the disciples, he specifically called them to rely on the hospitality and welcome of others, not a call to mooching or taking advantage of people, but creating opportunities for mutuality.

Sometimes we get focused on how we can help, or naming the hurts in “the world” around us — and again, that’s good — but how can we also look for signs of God at work.

As I type this, I’m having a texting conversation with a person in Wisconsin who is a living example of this.  She is a believer who doesn’t have much by worldly standards, but works hard and is incredibly generous.

One of my cherished memories is of meals shared in the parking lot of a local library in Wisconsin, where what started as making some sandwiches to share with people experiencing homelessness became a sort of community potluck where everyone was invited to bring what they had, share it, and eat together.  Many times, this person would bring things she had prepared from food she had received from a local food pantry, to share with others.  And often, it seemed, that food would show up right as we ran out of other food and there were still people who needed to eat.  Sometimes we focus on other people’s pain to the exclusion of noticing what they want to give or contribute — because while we all have needs, we also have a need for meaning, to be able to help, and be part of community.

The meal table is a great place to start.  How can we recognize it as the Lord’s Table when we gather?