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Crucial words in the Christian vocabulary: Reconciliation

 

2nd Corinthians 5:16-21

Psalm 133    Ephesians 2:11-16     John 10:7-17

 

I: — You don’t have to teach a child to be mean or spiteful. You don’t have to teach a child to be cruel or to find fiendish pleasure in being cruel. You don’t have to teach a child to torment someone who dresses unusually or speaks with a slightly different accent. Only the silliest romantics (never in short supply despite their naiveness) think that children are innocent, pure, untainted. In a fallen world of fallen human beings antagonistic behaviour comes naturally.

But we needn’t single out children. Adults are no better. To be sure, we adults try to disguise what children display openly. This only proves that we adults are cruel and cagey at the same time. Still, what bubbles up undisguised and unsuppressed in children effervesces just as relentlessly in adults.

All of this adds up to a truth that Christians never doubt; namely, in a fallen world hostility is found at all times and in all places, together with the estrangement that such hostility produces and perpetuates.

The fact of prejudice is surely irrefutable confirmation of all this. Prejudice doesn’t have to be taught. And by definition there’s no reason for our prejudice. By definition prejudice is an irrational fear of specific kinds of people or classes or nations or races or social groups. Prejudice, of course, is all the proof we need that humankind’s multi-fronted alienation is rooted in an irrationality that contradicts the rationality we all like to think we have in spades. From a purely rational standpoint all such alienation is groundless. To say it’s groundless rationally is simply to say it’s unreasonable, incomprehensible. Still, to say it’s groundless rationally isn’t to say it’s groundless absolutely. For in fact prejudice, alienation for which no adequate cause can be found, is grounded in our root condition as sinners.

Several weeks ago, in our investigation of crucial words in the Christian vocabulary, we probed the meaning of the word “sin.” We noted then that one of the consequences of sin is alienation or estrangement. We are alienated from God, alienated from our true self, alienated from each other.

I admit, however, that not all human alienation appears to be rooted in the incomprehensible mystery of sin. Some alienation appears to be rooted in that sin which is entirely understandable. Why am I alienated from my cousin? Because he envies my new home. Why are you alienated from your boss? Because he demoted you simply in order to promote his son. The truth is, people have treated us shabbily. They have lied to us, or betrayed us, or exploited us, or humiliated us. In this situation the gulf that has opened up between them and us, the alienation that won’t go away, has nothing to do with prejudice. It has everything to do with events that are as undeniable as they are unforgettable.

Where we (or others) are exploited or cheated or slandered we are angry, and rightfully angry. Jesus was angry repeatedly (every day of his public ministry, it would seem according to the gospels.) He was angry when he saw defenceless people exploited. He was angry when he saw sincere people mislead by religious leaders. He was angry when he saw vulnerable people “fleeced” financially. Not only was he angry in those situations, he expects us to be angry in similar situations. The person who is indifferent where our Lord is angry is a person whose indifference we had better not call “peace-loving.” To be indifferent when others are abused or exploited or plundered is to be humanly defective.

Still, today we are probing the gospel-blessing of reconciliation. Doesn’t anger, however right and righteous, merely intensify estrangement? Doesn’t anger, however, appropriate, merely inhibit reconciliation?

The apostle Paul, whose passion for reconciliation everywhere in life is at the forefront of his thought and work, can help us here. “Be angry,” he says, “but don’t sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath.” (Eph. 4:26)   In other words, while it is sin not to be angry in the face of manifest exploitation or abuse, it is equally sin to allow our anger to fall into the settled mood of seething, festering bitterness.

A wise old Christian who had the gospel in his bloodstream said to me one day, “Victor, anger in a Christian is proper and fruitful only if it is accompanied by grief.” If I have harmed you in any way you may and should be angry with me. Yet only as you are also grieved by my insensitivity; that is, only as you see something pitiable in my callused spirit will your proper anger at me fall short of falling into festering bitterness. We may and we should be angry with the fellow who assaulted an elderly woman for the ten dollars in her purse. But if our anger isn’t merely to add to the cauldron of violence boiling already in the world (one item of which is this fellow’s assault) then we must also find pitiable the situation of that twenty-year old who is as twisted as he is and whose future is as bleak as his certainly is. If our anger, legitimate anger, towards that fellow isn’t accompanied by our grief, then our rage is as reprehensible as his cruelty.

The truth is, in a fallen world there is at all times a multi-faceted estrangement arising from what we all understand (premeditated, deliberate nastiness) and also from what no one can understand (the mystery of sin in our depraved estate.)

 

II: — Regardless of the kind of estrangement, however; regardless of the extent to which it can be understood, the gospel is inherently reconciling. Wherever the gospel is operative through the power of the Spirit reconciliation occurs. Because we love the one who is the reconciler, God, we want to be reconcilers in our own way. The last thing we want to do is render inoperative our attempts at reconciliation or discredit his. Then we have to learn how estrangement is overcome and antagonism defused. We have to learn how genuine peace is promoted rather than indifference touted. We learn this, or learn it afresh, only as we are soaked in God’s reconciliation of us and understand how it occurred. How did he do it? What did he do? How does it all work? Paul writes, “While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son.” (Romans 5:10)

[1] The first thing we have to notice here is that it is the offended party (God in this case) who initiates reconciliation. We had violated him. We had wounded him. Yet he reconciled us to himself. There is no harder point for people to grasp, I have found, than this. We always assume the opposite; we always assume that the responsibility for initiating reconciliation lies with the offender. After all, it’s the offender who caused the bloodletting. It’s the offender who turned bond into breach. “Then let the offender fix it!” we say. If my wife tears a strip off me and intimacy gives way to a gap between us the size of the Grand Canyon then surely it’s her responsibility to repair the breach, since she caused it in the first place. Meanwhile, I tell myself, I can only wait until she undoes the damage she caused. “So I’ll wait, however long I have to wait.” This logic is perfectly logical with the logic of the world; it is equally illogical according to the logic of the gospel. For according to the Gospel, God’s spell, the spell which God has cast on you and me, God himself sought our reconciliation with him when we were wholly to blame for the estrangement.

It takes a while for this reversal of the world’s logic to register with us. But once the logic of the gospel has sunk in we understand why it has to be the offended person who initiates reconciliation. The offender, the person who has caused the rupture in the first place, may not even be aware of what he’s done. (Remember, you and I were sinners long before we became aware that we were sinners; we had broken the heart of God long before we learned that we had done this.) What’s more, if the offender is aware of what he’s done he will consciously excuse or unconsciously rationalize the enmity he’s caused. Already he can recite ten “reasons” for his offensiveness. In addition, the offender will feel so “right” about it all that he would regard any attempt on his part to seek reconciliation as weakness. This is how the world, a fallen world, thinks. But this is not how Christians think in conformity to the reconciling activity of God.

[2] The second thing to be noticed is similar: the cost of reconciliation is borne by the offended party, not by the offender. “While we were enemies,” scripture informs us, “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” We offended God. Wrapped up in our self-extenuating rationalization, we were prepared to live with the consequent estrangement. But God couldn’t live with it. He, the one we had wounded; he couldn’t live with it. He sought to reconcile us to himself. At what price? The price was breathtaking: he gave up his Son – which is to say, he sacrificed himself. The cost, the pain of our reconciliation to him, God absorbs himself. Pained as he is by our violation of him; pained still more by the estrangement that arises from our violation, he pains himself inestimably more by bearing the cost of getting us home with him.

There is no such thing as reconciliation – anywhere in life – that costs nothing. Estrangement corrodes. Hostility is an acid that eats away at us even as it eats away at the person on the other side of the divide. Of itself the corrosion will only worsen until the relationship is pitted and pockmarked, then weakened, and finally crumbled. What it takes to overcome acid-fed corrosion and unsightliness and pulverization – reconciliation; this can’t be picked up in a bargain basement sale.

To say that our reconciliation to God cost him the death of his Son is to say that you and I shall never be able fully to grasp its price. Still, we can understand enough to see that reconciliation, anywhere in life, is going to cost someone a great deal. And in fact it is the offended person, already victimized, who now freely victimizes herself (isn’t this exactly how it feels?) in order to defuse the antagonism, end the standoff, and overcome estrangement.

The cost we bear, the pain we absorb, is real and pronounced even where it isn’t dramatic. Just because it isn’t dramatic it will seem insignificant to others. But it’s never insignificant even where it isn’t dramatic. I have in mind our aspiration to promote reconciliation, for instance, through our resolve not to focus on and intensify the pain we are in already through having been “shafted” (even if we can’t ignore such pain.) Or perhaps what’s required of us if reconciliation is to occur is this: we are going to resist the temptation to display or advertise the offence that wounded us in the first place. (Plainly as long as we are advertising the offence and our pain over it reconciliation is far from our heart.) Perhaps what’s required of us is this: having been stung once already we now have to risk being stung again.

“Just a minute,” someone interjects, “Anyone who sticks his neck out a second time is a fool.” I agree. He is a fool. Yet according to the gospel there are two kinds of fools: those who are merely fools because unwise, and those with much wisdom who for just that reason are “fools for Christ’s sake.” Frankly, anyone who risks herself, exposes herself, lives vulnerably for the sake of promoting reconciliation; any such person is always going to appear a fool. But the alternative to turning towards the offender in our own vulnerability is to turn towards the offender in our armour. Armour reconciles no one. What else is the cross except God’s vulnerability exposed to the world? And what else is the cross except God’s self-initiated, anguish-bearing deed of reconciliation for those who have offended him?

Few of us have been physically assaulted. But all of us have been psychologically assaulted.   We’ve all been trampled on, run over, put down, publicly humiliated, ridiculed quietly or ridiculed noisily. Pained as we are by it the gospel insists that it is we, the victim, who must initiate reconciliation.

After all, the word “gospel” is derived from the old English, “God’s spell.” A spell is something that a superior spiritual power puts on people so as to alter them. To say that we are the beneficiaries of the gospel is to say that God’s spell has altered us profoundly, altered us after his own heart. To have God’s spell put on us means that we are now impelled to do unto others as God himself has already done unto us. It was while we were enemies that we were reconciled to God by the shed blood of his Son.

 

III: — In this huge topic of hostility and reconciliation there’s a matter we have to be clear about. This matter Paul discusses in his letter to the church in Ephesus where he insists that in Jesus Christ “the dividing wall of hostility” has been crumbled. In the ancient world the highest wall (so high, in fact, that it could never be climbed over) was the wall separating Jew and Gentile. Because this “dividing wall of hostility” was utterly insurmountable it also represented any lesser wall that separated people from each other anywhere, for any reason (or no reason.) And precisely this wall, humanly insurmountable, God has broken down, says Paul, in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Now the wall doesn’t exist at all. And in place of the two hostile persons God has created one new person in Christ. And if this one wall has been crumbled, so have all the lesser walls that it represents. And who is aware of this? Christians are. Christians alone are, to be sure, but certainly we are. We know that in Christ God has fashioned one new person in place of two hostile persons.

What does it mean, then, if you and I claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ and then live as if the wall were still standing? What does it mean if we orient ourselves as if the dividing wall of hostility were fixed forever before us? Would it mean we were mistaken? Would it mean we were bigoted? What would any of us say if we came upon someone who insisted there was a huge wall squarely in the middle of Highway #27 and it was his job to make sure that the wall stayed put? We wouldn’t say he was mistaken or bigoted; we’d simply say he was insane. Listen: if you and I take the name of Christ upon our lips and then suggest in word or deed that there are dividing walls that are real and need to be shored up, we are spiritually insane.

I know, hostility and antagonism are the order of a fallen universe. And certainly we live in that universe. But finally, ultimately, we Christians live in Christ. We live in the one in whom the Fall has been overturned; we live in the one in whom all dividing walls have been crumbled.

To say the same thing differently: we have a foot in both worlds, but we don’t distribute our weight evenly over both feet. Even as we have a foot in both worlds we have shifted our weight onto that foot which is planted in the world of reconciliation. We don’t want to reflect the world’s antagonisms back to the world, thereby making everything worse. We want to reflect the reality of Christ’s reconciliation into darkened corners where darkened people continue to think that assorted walls of hostility are still standing. We want only to hold up reconciliation: God’s reconciliation with us and ours with our fellows – and all of this just because we know where reconciliation was first wrought and how it was wrought: namely, at a cross where the God we had offended and pained absorbed his pain in order to have us home again.

 

IV: — I know what someone is going to say before I sit down: our efforts at reconciliation don’t always work. There are situations where we’ve swallowed our “rights” and absorbed our pain and risked ourselves again and again only to have it all thrown back in our face. The relationship we hoped to recover has remained dead and now gives every appearance of remaining dead forever. Where are we now?

We must remember it’s never our task to be successful. It’s our task to be faithful. Our only responsibility is to be agents of reconciliation by living the truth of the reconciliation we already enjoy in Christ. The fruitfulness of our effort we must leave with God.

God has promised that regardless of the fruitfulness we don’t see, our lived witness will never be finally fruitless. Its fruitfulness may be hidden from us for now, but its ultimate fruitfulness isn’t in doubt. Assured of this we can even now claim for ourselves the joy of the psalmist when he writes, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers (sisters too) dwell together in unity.” (Psalm 133:1)

 

                                                                                                               Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                  

  March 2004