In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the seas, the sky, and the plants and God saw that it was good. However, God got lonely and wanted some company so He also created animals. Yet, animals alone could not provide the real connection and love that He desired, so He created a man named Adam. Adam and God talked with each other daily, but Adam was in need of a different kind of a relationship. God saw that it was not good for a person to be alone, so He gave Adam a wife. Adam and his wife, Eve, lived in the garden and spent time with each other and with God.
Friendship was the first gift that God gave to humankind and He continues to desire us to share our lives in community with others particularly through being a part of a body of believers known as the church. The church is not simply a building made of brick, but rather a living and breathing organism that shares in the joys and sorrows of daily life and that seeks to help others. The Bible tells us that God desires us to use the different gifts we are given as expressions of love for Him and our friendship with one another in various ways. He desires us to use our abilities to love one another and to lift them up and help them achieve their goals rather than just our own.
Christian singer, Rebecca St. James once said that God could have made us robots to do His will, but He wanted a real love not a forced one. He wanted us to believe and love Him and then show this to others through the way that we reach out to them during both good and difficult times.
Relationships are so vital to the church that once a year we celebrate World Fellowship Sunday. On World Fellowship Sunday we are reminded that we are not just part of a local expression of faith, but also part of the global church. Today we rejoice with those who have claimed Anabaptist identity for themselves both because of being born Mennonite and also because of choosing the faith for themselves because of wanting to emulate a certain lifestyle.
They are drawn into the care and compassion that the church not only provides but also expects of its members. They are drawn into a community with service and peacemaking at its heart. Today as we celebrate with Mennonites from the Global South, East, West, and North we are reminded that we are only one body among many. We are reminded that ethnicity, cultural barriers, and norms, do not divide but enhance us, and that we have something to add to the global church just as they have something to add to us.
This year’s theme for World Fellowship Sunday is justice and the witness of the church today. Every one of us here is a person who has social and relational needs, who desires friends to learn from, people to contribute to, and people they can confide in. Relationships are amazing things that God has blessed us with and that really add to our lives, however, there are also times when relationships can be hurtful because of careless words, thoughtless actions, and sometimes even a sense of entitlement and wanting to be right.
Many of us have been hurt or have hurt a friend at one time or another. Sometimes this may have been accidental, other times it may have been the result of a falling out, or the result of prolonged cracks just below the surface that we or the other person cannot take any longer.
It breaks God’s heart when relationships do not end up the way He intended them to be. It hurts Him to see the effects of broken relationships – fights, divorce, violence, abuse, and war. That’s why God calls us, as Christians, to not just think about the relationship between justice and mercy, but to really live it out.
This summer, God really challenged me to show mercy rather than justice. I admit that I am obsessed with justice and often want people to apologize and take responsibility for how they have hurt me. But God really changed me to follow Jesus’s example on the cross of praying for their forgiveness rather than trying to prove Himself, and of the words in the Sermon on the Mount to seek after reconciliation with those we have hurt before offering our gifts to Him.
Through these lessons, I learned that I needed to make things right with those I have wronged in my own life. Yes, there is a time to pursue justice particularly when it comes to systemic oppression – things like slavery, poverty, abuse, or the sex trade, but more often than not, when it comes to personal relationships our first and foremost response must be one of mercy rather than one of retribution. We need to seek to restore, rather than to tear down in hopes that someone will apologize to us. Unforgiveness constructs a cage for us that imprisons us until the day that the person apologizes and if they never do we can remain in that cage for life. Trying too hard to achieve justice can take its toll on us and make us into bitter people unable to trust others.
In response to what God had been teaching me, I wrote letters to those who have hurt me. Even if I no longer had contact with the person I still wrote it and offered it as a prayer to God. Even though I may still think that the other person was at fault, I took responsibility for my lack of understanding towards their position and asked forgiveness for not reacting in a Christlike manner because of my anger. I offered my forgiveness for what they had done, and stated my hope that one day we could work towards rebuilding the foundation that we had lost. I signed off every letter saying that if was my hope that even if the relationship was never restored we could both walk away in Shalom from the experience.
Being able to truly forgive really helped me to get to the place where I could be a happier person and not let it affect my relationship with any of my friends by bringing the pain into those friendships.
For me this was a great progression, but I am not saying that everyone should entrust themselves to hurtful relationships again. Although we might seek after reconciliation, there will be times when it is virtually impossible because whereas forgiveness only requires the will of one person, reconciliation involves two people who are both working towards reunification. Nevertheless, we do need to make that effort towards trying to restore peace in relationships and in our own hearts before we are able to continue to contribute to God and to the church.
Oftentimes when people hurt us we are only reminded of the pain that they have caused. We hold up pictures of them, frames of the different experiences that we have had with them so that we end up only seeing those experiences rather than seeing the person for who they really are. Sometimes we even hold these picture frames up to people that we don’t even know because of prejudices that we hold against them based on their gender, culture, religion, skin tone, or some other aspect of who they are.
World Fellowship Sunday is a time for us to look at the impact of our actions on a personal, national, and global level. It is a time for us to look at how our country has historically mistreated those who did not fit into societal or church norms and to think about how we can take responsibility and work towards making beneficial changes to our society.
It is also a time for us to recognize those our society marginalizes today. It is a time for us to reflect not only upon those that we see in the news, but those that we walk alongside daily in our neighbourhoods and grocery stores. As Nelson Mandela said, “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.”
Many of us have just made New Year’s resolutions. Our society suggests that good resolutions include losing weight, exercising more, and taking up a new hobby, and while these are all fine goals, they really do not affect the lives of anyone other than ourselves. This World Fellowship Sunday let’s think about ways that we can be a part of the global church and then make it happen. It could be as simple as learning to make cultural dishes outside of our own, becoming a globally conscious consumer, or becoming friends with a marginalized person. Jean Vanier, founder of an international movement of people with intellectual disabilities called L’Arche once said, “If you become a friend of somebody who is excluded you are doing a work of unity. You are bringing people together.” Let’s try our best to extend our hands and our hearts locally and globally as we seek to continue growing as the Body of Christ and as the worldwide Anabaptist church. Amen.