A lawyer, newly relocated to a village, went duck hunting on his property. He shot a duck and it fell not on his property but on his farmer neighbor’s property, specifically in his garden. The lawyer started to climb the fence between their two properties and the farmer came over to his garden and picked up the dead duck saying, “No, no, the duck is no longer yours because it fell onto my property.” The lawyer incredulously stated, “Do you know who I am? I’m a lawyer and I’ll sue you.” To which the farmer calmly replied, “You are new to this village and we settle disputes with the three-kick rule. The one who has the complaint gets on the ground and is kicked first and if that one can then stand, he kicks the other and that goes on until one can’t stand. In this case, if it is you standing, you will get this duck back.” So the lawyer lies down on the ground and the farmer gives him three quick kicks in the leg, side, and shoulder. The lawyer then stands up and exclaims, “ok, now it is your turn.” And the farmer states, “That’s ok, you can have the duck!”
That was a joke told by Rev. Najla Kassab at the ecumenical worship service on June 20th of the 223rd General Assembly of our denomination. Rev. Kassab is the President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, of which the PC(USA) is a part. She was the first woman ordained as a minister in the Reformed Evangelical Church of Lebanon and Syria denomination. My sermon today is based on her excellent sermon preached before approximately 1000 people who were present. That’s a big congregation! Of course, a few days before her sermon at the opening worship service for this past General Assembly in St Louis, there were approximately 3000 people present.
After her lawyer joke, Rev. Kassab went on to say that our world basically settles disputes in a similar way to the three-kick rule. We are always kicking and hitting one another, so-to-speak, and hurting one another. The norm has become unyielding anger, hard-hearted hatred, persistent spite, intense and all-consuming prejudice and unrelenting violence. The question for the Christian today becomes: What will bring our dark and broken world to a place of healing, a state of reconciliation? Rev. Kassab explains that according to our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, followers of Jesus Christ are to embody the paradigm of reconciliation so that the world can come to believe in him. When Christians show unyielding anger or hard-hearted hatred or all-consuming prejudice, we are in no way living into Jesus’ paradigm of reconciliation.
Feasting on the Word commentary explains the following about our 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2 passage as it starts its exploration of these verses: It is reported that Karl Barth, a well-known mid-20th century theologian and commentator was once asked what he would say to Adolf Hitler if he ever had the chance to meet the monster who was destroying Europe and who would ruin the whole world if he were not stopped. Barth’s (questioner) assumed that he would offer a scorching prophetic judgment against the miscreant’s awful politics of destruction. Barth replied, instead, that he would do nothing other than quote Romans 5:8: “While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.” Only the unparalleled mercy and forgiveness of God, the unstinted gladness and grace of the gospel, could have prompted the Führer’s genuine repentance. To have accused him, though justly, of his manifold abominations would have prompted Hitler’s self-righteous defense, his angry justification of his allegedly “necessary” deeds.
Yes, God’s grace is not in vain. If you have ever confronted someone’s continual anger or obstinate hatred, you will likely know they will defend themselves and justify what they have done and said until the bitter end. I would hope that if I were confronted by such a question about Hitler or someone like him, I would say: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation… We beseech you on behalf of Christ (to) be reconciled to God,” from verses 19 and 20 of our third scripture lesson for this morning. The apostle Paul doesn’t stop there with “reconciled to God” because Paul wants the Corinthians to be reconciled to one another too, as I would hope a Hitler-like person would be reconciled to me and others and, more importantly, God.
As you know, the apostle Paul established the church in Corinth as its members came to believe and follow Jesus Christ. As Paul often did, he then left to establish another church and wrote letters to his previous churches and they are a part of our New Testament. So, he wrote 1 Corinthian to encourage his new church’s belief, give them more information, and answer their questions. When he went back to visit the church in Corinth, Paul’s eyes were opened. Although that church had been doing very well when he first left, now they were very divided. They were even angry with Paul. Later he wrote the second letter to those Corinthians and our passage is a part of that. Paul’s teaching to them is that we believers are to be ambassadors of reconciliation and in turn we are to call others to be reconciled to God and one another.
We know Paul wants us not only to be reconciled to God but to one another as well because verse 16 proclaims: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” The word used here, referring to human point of view, is sarx, the Greek word for “flesh.” From the point of Christ’s sacrificing death, on behalf of all humanity, and onward, believers are no longer to see other people in the flesh, meaning in a worldly way. Instead, we are to view humanity in a spiritual way. We no longer view Christ as a human, flesh, because he has died and now we view him as divine and that is our paradigm, example, for other people too. Because of Christ, we are to no longer view others in the flesh.
Of course we know people aren’t divine but we are to picture them from a spiritual attribute of life, not a worldly attribute of life. Rev. Kassab’s view of our passage is that verse 16 is the key to understanding what Paul was teaching in this passage. The more popular verses to focus on in preaching and studying tend to begin in verses 19 and 20 with us being reconciled to God. How can we live out our reconciliation with God unless we are reconciled to one another? It is all interconnected. I believe that if Christians who follow our reconciling Lord and Savior, can’t witness to the reconciliation example we have in Jesus, from whom will others witness it? It’s too easy to ignore this paradigm as difficult and unrealistic. However, the apostle Paul posits it in his letter to the Corinthians and therefore to us.
One night when Kajla Kassab’s husband was away from home, she heard a loud explosive boom near her home in Lebanon. She gathered her two daughters and went to a back room. They all laid down on a mattress and she covered them with a mattress, which is common for people to do during war. In frightened voices her daughters asked, “What was that noise?” She told them she thought it was fireworks. Why they would need to hide in a back room both on and under a mattress from fireworks, they didn’t seem to question. She explained to her listeners that she tried to shield her children from the violence all around them during the Lebanese War so that they would not become afraid, angry and full of hate toward others. Unfortunately, the next day at school, the daughters found out it had been Israelis bombing an electric plant not all that far from their home. They came home and said, “Why did you say it was fireworks?” Then they wanted to know how far away Israel was from Lebanon. Now they were afraid.
Before the war, then student Kajla Kassab, as a Christian, studied with Muslims. She did not know or care which students were Christian and which were of Islam. They all got along and cared for each other. Lamentably, after the war, people who had been friends became suspicious of one another. They started to label one another based on their religion and the whole atmosphere at school changed. So very sad.
People easily fall into attitudes of violence, prejudice, hatred and building walls between people of different races, nationalities and religions. Yet, as Christians, Paul calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation, found in verse 20. We are to live beyond the flesh, to the spirit within and to influence people not in worldly ways but in Christ’s ways.
A true story of “beyond sarx (flesh)” is that a little, frightened Israeli girl was at the Israeli-Palestinian border by herself. We don’t know why she was there. Because she was scared, she approached an adult couple and asked them if they would help her across the street because she had been told that the Palestinians would kill her. So they gladly helped her across the road from Palestinian territory to the other side of the road. After reaching the other side, the couple said to her, “Do you feel safe?” She replied, “yes.” Then they said, “We are Palestinians.” The little girl was astonished for she had always been told bad things about the Palestinians. That was a moment of living beyond the barriers of the flesh to a helpful couple and a frightened little girl. We know that the story could have just as easily been about a frightened Palestinian girl and an Israeli couple.
Before coming to the General Assembly meeting, Rev. Kassab was in Washington D.C. at a reformed pastors’ symposium where she heard about families who had crossed the border into the U.S. being separated as the children were taken from their parents. As a Christian, she was naturally disturbed by this for this is not at all what Jesus taught us how to treat one another, strangers, enemies, neighbors or friends. During this symposium, one minister mournfully stated, “we are losing the soul of this nation.” Folks, when we live into Jesus’ paradigm of reconciliation with one another, we don’t do things like that because we no longer see faces and skin color or know another’s nationality or religion.
I think you know that Jesus’ story of reconciliation is one of great pain. Yet, scripture tells us that he emptied himself to become one with humanity. Christ’s emptying example to us is that we are to empty ourselves of our anger, hatred, malice, and violence toward any and all others. Violence only begets violence; we see it over and over again. When we, the church, think in a language of peace instead of violence, we stand out from so much of the world and we move from a culture of fear to a culture of hope.
A carpenter was looking for work and approached a farmer asking him if he needed anything done. The farmer agreed to hire him and took him out to his farm. He showed him his property line and said, “I want you to build a very high fence around my property. I must leave for a few days but, please, when I come back, I expect to see that fence built.” So he went away. On his way back home, as he was approaching his farm, he couldn’t see a fence anywhere. Not any little length of it. He found the carpenter and emphatically stated: “I said the fence was to be built around my farm by the time I got home so where is it?!” The carpenter replied, ”I heard your relationship with your brother, on the farm next door to yours, is in trouble. Instead of a fence, I built you a bridge between your two farms.”
Rev. Kassab concluded her sermon by saying that she hopes we can raise the young and the next generations of children to build bridges between peoples in an attitude of reconciliation. In that way, we will begin to create a culture of hope. She hopes our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will forgive us for we have not worked diligently enough to build a Realm of Reconciliation, God’s Realm on earth. She hopes we will say to our children something like Paul explained in our passage: “From now on we will no longer live in the flesh” but into Christ who is the reconciler. We are to be ambassadors of reconciliation each and every day of our lives. People of God, live beyond the flesh; live in and have the attitude of Jesus Christ for verse 17 states: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”
May God’s grace not be in vain in our lives and the lives of those we impact. Alleluia! Amen.