To Be Social, To Be Forgiven
The Rev. Garfield Wu
June 2nd, 2019
To be social, is to be Forgiven.
On the church’s calendar, today is called the “Seventh Sunday of Easter.” Actually it is not a particularly familiar holy day. It is simply the Sunday that comes between the Ascension of our Lord and Pentecost, the birthday of Christ’s church.
In other words, today is one of those “between the times Sunday.” It falls between Jesus leaving his followers by ascending into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Rather than rendering the day insignificant, I think that is what makes it stand out. Today is a “between the times” Sunday and we are a “between the times” people. By that I mean we live between hearing the announcement of the angels, “Peace on earth and good will to all” and actually experiencing that Shalom of God. We live between praying “your kingdom come” and actually realizing “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Today’s gospel reading underscores our “between the times” status. In chapter 17 of John’s gospel, our Lord offered the beautiful and powerful prayer for the unity of his followers. In verse 21 the master got to the heart of the issue when he prayed that all who follow him may be as one. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Notice that demonstrating the oneness of the followers of Christ is to be our way of showing the world that Jesus is Lord. Obviously, the church of Jesus Christ has fallen significantly short of realizing Jesus’ unity prayer. When we drive the streets of any community we can see how differences of race, national origin, history, creeds, politics, personal opinion, and styles of worship have splintered Christ’s universal church.
My practice in gospel preaching is to search the internet to see how others handle the topic of the week. It came as no particular surprise that many ministers preaching on Jesus’ prayer for the unity of all believers included lists of those they thought needed to be excluded for various reasons. At least some Christians do not set a priority to overcome our differences and live in unity with peace, justice, and harmony. Perhaps when they say “let us agree to disagree,” they mean “let us agree to disagree until the Lord shows you that I am right.”
Jesus prayed that we be one, but we are living in a divided world ，a divided nation, and a divided church. And there seems to be a paucity of willingness to work toward unity — in the church, the nation, and the world.
There was story happened during a picnic table conversation at a family reunion, the topic meandered into how our society is increasingly diverse. One of the participants remarked that he was thoroughly opposed to this trend. “Frankly,” this person remarked, “I am not interested in diversity. I want to associate only with people who look like me, think like me, and believe like me.”
When people went deeper on this person’s life, it was confirmed that he has trouble with relationships. New friends become former friends as soon as he discovers they have some differing political opinion or religious view, disagree with him about some current social issue, or don’t meet his standards on how to conduct personal finances, raise children, or care for the lawn. This cousin did not even do well with family. He had been married four times and was estranged from all his grown children. That is not surprising. There is a high price for limiting associations to those who look like you, think like you, believe like you, and agree with you in every way and every topic. There are very few of those people in the world that can meet that standard. In fact, there may not be any.
Deep into his poem, The Star Splitter, Robert Frost put it this way:
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.
Each of us is unique. That is an underlying reality of God’s created order. There is no one else in the world just like you or just like me. The billions of genes in the DNA of identical twins match — with only the tiniest differences. Yet identical twins will tell you they differ in a multitude of ways. We have to learn to live lovingly in human community with our differences because it is not possible to live with people just like us. As Robert Frost puts it, “to be social is to be forgiving.”
The rub, of course, is that coming to terms with our differences and living in unity does not come naturally. It is hard work. Just getting along with folks who are almost like us takes enormous effort. Even the thought of living in unity with those who significantly differ from us can be overwhelming.
It might even be argued that there is good reason to resist welcoming differences. Our ancestors learned it was dangerous to trust those outside your own family. They knew from long experience that the family who lived on the other side of the mountain often did not have their best interest at heart. For hundreds of years, ideas about living in unity, peace, and harmony did not seem practical. In fact, collective human experience tends to confirm the views of that cousin at the family reunion picnic table. Because it is easiest, it must be best to associate only with people who look like us and think like us. We might even claim it is human nature to want to exclude those who differ so that we can associate with those who are most like us.
Wanting to associate only with people who are as much like us as humanly possible comes naturally. It is human nature. As people of faith, however, we are to live by a higher standard than doing what comes naturally. We are called to be the instruments of God in building a world where all the children of the Creator live in a unity of peace, harmony, and justice. That requires rising above human nature.
While it is a challenging task, it is possible to go against what comes naturally. As Paul puts it in the book of Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” (Romans 12:2a). The New Living Translation, which makes an effort to translate the meaning of the text rather than simply translate the words, puts this passage beautifully. “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Romans 12:2a NLT).
Perhaps with a tinge of light-hearted humor, religion writer, Paul Prather suggested that there is a scientific basis for understanding the biblical admonition to be transformed by changing the way we think. Prather cited the science of neuroplasticity, also called brain plasticity or brain malleability. As close as I am able to understand the science, as human beings we are born with brains already downloaded with certain software. By that I mean, we come programmed with certain tendencies, predispositions, or personality traits. For instance, we think it is human nature to want to associate with people we consider just like us because our brain came programmed for that conclusion.
Fortunately, we are not doomed to live out our lives with the “software” with which we came. The computer that sits on top our shoulders is always getting updates and fixes for glitches based on differing needs and new experiences. To take that out of the language of computers and put it into the language of psychology, we have the capacity to learn, to mature, and to change. To put it into theological language of Romans 12:2, you do not have to copy the behavior and customs of the world, God can transform you into a new person by the renewal of your mind. That means God can make you into a new person by changing the way you think, by the way you believe, and by the way you behave.
To be perfectly honest, I do not know enough about the science of neuroplasticity or brain malleability to offer an informed opinion. I do know from experience and observation, however, that people can rise above what comes naturally to do what is right in the eyes of God.
Consider the story of Nelson Mandela, the first president of a united South Africa.2 Mr. Mandela was born in a tiny village of cows, corn, and mud huts in Transkei, a region where black Africans were forced to live apart from white Africans. As a young man he gravitated toward violent groups that challenged the laws of apartheid. The white South African judicial system sentenced him to life in prison. For many of his nearly three decades in prison, he labored under a hot African sun using a hammer to make big rocks into little rocks. Indignity upon indignity was heaped upon him — including being denied permission to attend the funerals of his mother and his eldest son.
When Mr. Mandela was released from prison, he had reason to be angry and bitter about the way white South Africans had treated him. He had reason to say the time of white dominance was over; now it was time for black dominance. That did not happen. Instead of leading a bloody race war by calling for revenge of all past injustice, Nelson Mandela called for compromise, forgiveness, and reconciliation in a nation where all races are represented.
How does that happen? I submit to you it is just one of those mysteries of God’s grace. It is a fulfillment of the promise that a person can be transformed by the renewal of the mind. For those of us who live between the times, it is an incomplete glimpse into how the world will look when the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen and amen.