Relevant Verses: Acts 15:36-41//2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon; Rom. 8:5-11
Leading Question: What biblical stories of restored relationships are most powerful for you?
Our lesson for this week focuses on two New Testament experiences and then several passages of Scripture to show how unity can be restored when a relationship is healed.
1. Question: Paul rejected John Mark as a suitable “missionary” – because he abandoned an earlier assignment (see Acts 15:36 – 41). What is significant about his restoration? (2 Tim. 4:11)?
Acts 15:36-41: 36 After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39 The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40 But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
2 Tim. 4:11: Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.
Comment: It is notable that the man who taught us so much about grace had to learn to extend grace and forgiveness to John Mark.
The story of the escaped slave, Onesimus, and his restoration to his master through the ministry of Paul, is one of the most touching restoration stories in Scripture.
Philemon 4-22: 4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
2. Question: Is forgiveness something that can be commanded? Or is it, like repentance (cf. 5:31), a gift of God?
Comment: C. S. Lewis illustrates from his own experience, the position that forgiveness is not something that responds to human effort. Here is an excerpt from Letters to Malcolm:
I really must digress to tell you a bit of good news. Last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered – or felt as if I did – that I had really forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might. When the thing actually happened – sudden as the longed-for cessation of one’s neighbour’s radio – my feeling was “But it’s so easy. Why didn’t you do it ages ago?” So many things are done easily the moment you can do them at all. But till then, sheerly impossible, like learning to swim. There are months during which no efforts will keep you up; then comes the day and hour and minute after which, and ever after, it becomes almost impossible to sink. It also seemed to me that forgiving (that man’s cruelty) and being [106/107] forgiven (my resentment) were the very same thing. “Forgive and you shall be forgiven” sounds like a bargain. But perhaps it is something much more. By heavenly standards, that is, for pure intelligence, it is perhaps a tautology – forgiving and being forgiven are two names for the same thing. The important thing is that a discord has been resolved, and it is certainly the great Resolver who has done it. Finally, and perhaps best of all, I believed anew what is taught us in the parable of the Unjust Judge. No evil habit is so ingrained nor so long prayed against (as it seemed) in vain, that it cannot, even in dry old age, be whisked away. – Letters to Malcolm, XX.1 (pp. 106-107)
Even if forgiveness cannot be commanded, it is still something we must “practice.” It is, after all, firmly embedded in the Lord’s Prayer. Henri Nouwen illustrates the necessity of forgiveness with these moving words:
Forgiveness is the name of love among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We do not even know what we are doing when we hurt others. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour — unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family. – Henri Nouwen, Weavings vii.2, March/April, 1992
Finally, we should note the deep passions that are inevitably linked with forgiveness. C. S. Lewis links the passionate nature of God’s wrath with our reconciliation to him:
I fully grant you that “wrath” can be attributed to God only by an analogy. The situation of the penitent before God isn’t, but is somehow like, that of one appearing before a justly angered sovereign, lover, father, master, or teacher. But what more can we know about it than just this likeness? Trying to get in behind the analogy, you go further and fare worse. You suggest that what is traditionally regarded as our experience of God’s anger would be more helpfully regarded as what inevitably happens to us if we behave inappropriately towards a reality of immense power. As you say, “the live wire doesn’t feel angry with us, but if we blunder against it we get a shock.”
My dear Malcolm, what do you suppose you have gained by substituting the image of a live wire for that of angered majesty? You have shut us all up in despair; for the angry can forgive, and electricity can’t.
And you give as your reason that “even by analogy the sort of pardon which arises because a fit of temper is spent cannot worthily be attributed to God nor gratefully accepted by man.” But the belittling words “fit of temper” are your own choice. Think of the fullest reconciliation between mortals. Is cool disapproval coolly assuaged? Is the culprit let down lightly in view of “extenuating circumstances”? Was peace restored by a moral lecture? Was the offence said not to “matter”? Was it hushed up or passed over?
Blake knew better:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end. [96/97]
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
You too know better. Anger – no peevish fit of temper, but just, generous scalding indignation – passes (not necessarily at once) into embracing, exultant, re-welcoming love. That is how friends and lovers are truly reconciled. Hot wrath, hot love. Such anger is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it. The angers, not the measured remonstrances, of lovers are love’s renewal. Wrath and pardon are both, as applied to God, analogies; but they belong together to the same circle of analogy – the circle of life, and love, and deeply personal relationships. All the liberalizing and “civilizing” analogies only lead us astray. Turn God’s wrath into mere enlightened disapproval, and you also turn His love into mere humanitarianism. The “consuming fire” and the “perfect beauty” both vanish. We have, instead, a judicious headmistress or a conscientious magistrate. It comes of being high-minded. – C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (1963), 96-97
3. Question: Is Jesus’ prayer for his enemies on the cross a viable model for humans?
Comment: In key ways, Jesus cannot be a model for us. He, for example, never had to struggle with the aftermath of broken promises. And the divine pattern of reconciliation which he demonstrated (described in Romans 5:8-11) presents us with powerful imagery. But it is not something we can imitate.
Romans 5:6-11(NRSV): 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.