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May 24, 2016, 8:38 AM

Love Letters From Jesus


2 Corinthian 3:1-6
Does it sound like we’re patting ourselves on the back, insisting on our credentials, asserting our authority? Well, we’re not. Neither do we need letters of endorsement, either to you or from you. You yourselves are all the endorsement we need. Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it—not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives—and we publish it.
4-6 We couldn’t be more sure of ourselves in this—that you, written by Christ himself for God, are our letter of recommendation. We wouldn’t think of writing this kind of letter about ourselves. Only God can write such a letter. God’s letter authorizes us to help carry out this new plan of action. The plan wasn’t written out with ink on paper, with pages and pages of legal footnotes, killing your spirit. It’s written with Spirit on spirit, his life on our lives! 
 
Mark 2:21-22        
21“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
 
“Love Letters from Jesus”
We stood nervously in a semicircle around her; six newly graduated ministry candidates about to be introduced to the gathered assembly of Wyoming Conference clergy, at Vestal United Methodist Church. (Their center aisle is even longer than ours)  We listened intently to our instructions, not wanting to do anything incorrectly, especially in the eyes of the registrar of the Board of Ordained Ministry—the Reverend Virginia O’Malley. I had only just met her and she was intimidating—former district superintendent of the Scranton District, senior pastor at Elm Park UMC in downtown Scranton, experienced theologian and liturgist, our shepherd and guide on this journey toward ordination, a stickler for worship rituals.  My new congregation in the Scranton District spoke of her with awe. Luckily, I moved past intimidation and into friendship with Ginny O’Malley, and cherished my ministry alongside her.
 
As the clergy session prepared to start, Ginny directed us to the opening hymn: #553 “And Are We Yet Alive.” “We sing this every year at the start of clergy session,” She informed us. She spoke of the joy of singing these words, all the clergy together, in four part harmony, of course—“And are we yet alive and see each other’s face? …What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past… Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by his love…” Her voice caught in her throat as she held back tears. “This hymn is our connection,” she smiled at us. “And you are now a part of the family.”
 
This hymn is our connection…and you are now part of the family.
 
I caught myself humming this song multiple times over the past two weeks as the global governing body of the United Methodist Church—the General Conference—met in Portland, OR.; over 860 delegates from across the globe. I caught myself humming it as delegates bickered for three days about whether we should allow special parliamentary procedures for especially contentious voting that would gather us in small groups for more intimate conversation. The body voted no. I caught myself humming it as tensions mounted when legislative committees met and members treated one another and members of the larger United Methodist Church poorly. I caught myself humming it when rumors whispered of splitting the church. I caught myself humming it when delegates pleaded with the bishops to not just preside at sessions, but to lead us forward into a new way. I caught myself humming it when a contentious debate erupted as the bishops came back with a response and a proposal. “And are we yet alive and see each other’s face?” (pause) “What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past; fightings without, and fears within…” I watched General Conference and heard my friend, Ginny O’Malley, in my head. Is this our connection? Is this my family?
 
Yes. Yes, it is. Those 860+ bickering, hurting, angry, fearful, wounded delegates are my family. That council of bishops struggling with the same division and heartbreak is my family. If they weren’t my family these last two weeks wouldn’t have hurt so very much. They broke my heart because I love them; yes, even the ones who said harmful, un-Christ-like things. But, you see, they are my extended family. They are the cousins that you only see at family reunions, weddings, and funerals. I love them, and their angry, fearful words are hurtful, but I don’t live with them. They can’t poison me with their words on a daily basis. But neither can I disown them. I cannot pretend they don’t exist and leave them out there spreading those harmful words. Family is complicated.
 
But you, First United Methodist Church of Oneonta, you are my immediate family; the ones with whom I dwell. Your words and your actions impact my life every day. Your love, flowing out from the love of Christ, is my foundation, my comfort, my consolation, and my joy. You are also part of this broken and beautiful family called United Methodist. You are disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world! You give hope! You give love! You do justice, love mercy, and seek to walk humbly with our God! Oh, how the world, how our extended family, needs you! You are Christ’s love letter to the world!
 
This wonderful passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is rarely read in worship. It only appears in the lectionary in those rare years when Easter is very, very late and the season of Epiphany extra-long. What a blessing we are missing to have it read so rarely! Paul is still dealing with the divided and struggling church in Corinth, seeking to help them move beyond their differences and become that Body of Christ that he describes so beautifully in chapter twelve of the first letter, to be the community of love that he describes in 1 Corinthians 13—a patient love, a kind love, one that is not arrogant, or boastful, or rude—a love that endures forever.
 
In this second letter, Paul is also having to wrestle with the teachings of other traveling preachers who have tried to undermine Paul’s teaching. These preachers came to Corinth with some strong letters of recommendation, and have set the struggling church back in their healing and reconciliation. It seems that Corinth and/or these traveling preachers have even questioned Paul’s credentials, Paul’s letters of recommendation. Paul responds with such beautiful and radical words. Where are Paul’s letters of recommendation? Why living and breathing in Corinth! This little, struggling, divided community of Christ is a letter penned by Christ himself through the Holy Spirit onto their hearts, into their lives. They are all the endorsement Paul needs. They are living letters of love to the world of the good news of Jesus Christ for anyone to read just by looking at them! Wow! What a response!
 
Paul uses language that whispers the words of the prophet Jeremiah from chapter 31. Jeremiah promised and prophesied that a time was coming when God would do a new thing. God would write the covenant, not on tablets of stone, but on the hearts of God’s people. Here it is, Paul is saying. The new thing God promised is here, and God’s love and promise is written on the hearts, written into the lives, of God’s people! Here is the new wine, being poured into fresh, new wineskins—Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free—and it is glorious for the world to see!
 
You are Jesus’ love letter to the world! You are Jesus’ love letter to the United Methodist Church, our extended family! You are all the endorsement the Gospel needs! You!
 
Over the next few weeks (with the exception of Celebration Sunday on June 12th), we will embrace the call to be living letters of Good News through the practices embraced and taught by our founder, John Wesley. We will rekindle within our hearts the passion for our Wesleyan roots using some hymns of our church, old and new. Next Sunday we start with our life as disciples of Jesus Christ and what that means, asking ourselves “Is it well with my soul? Is it well with your soul? Is it well with our souls?” In the coming weeks, we will embrace our call to serve, our need for renewal and revival, and our commission to see the world as our parish. We will feel together our hearts strangely warmed—using some words from John Wesley—and embrace our lives as living letters of love.
 
My beloved, diverse family, we are yet alive! We see each other’s face! We have been through some troubles and conflicts! God’s love has brought us through thus far and will not abandon us now! Glory and thanks to Jesus for his almighty grace! Hallelujah! Amen!

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