The Tragically Unfinished Work of Reconciliation

A Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church on June 21, 2015. 

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:13

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From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation… (2 Cor 5:16a, 17-18).

Reconcile. verb.

  1. to find a way of making (two different ideas, facts, etc.) exist or be true at the same time
  2. to cause people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement

***

In the beginning, there was no need for reconciliation as there was no division, no hostility, no separation, no enmity or animosity. Perfect harmony, perfect union, perfect communion. This, however, ended when Adam and Eve fell for the song of the serpent, and came under the enchanting spell of the fruit, and broke the only rule, only law, that they were given.

With this, for the first time, they hid from the Creator in the garden, filled with shame. Division between humans and God comes here into existence. They were sent away from the home that they shared with God, and were sent to the East to make their own home, in exile of sorts. Adam and eve did make a home and bore children, two boys to start, Cain and Abel. Abel kept livestock, and Cain was a farmer. The two brothers came to bring their offerings before the Creator. Cain brought some of his crop as an offering, and Abel brought the first-fruits of his livestock. We are told that the Creator regarded Abel and his offering, but had no regard for Cain and his offering.

Cain became angry and later called his brother to come out with him in the field and then he murdered his brother Abel. It is at this point that division and animosity between peoples comes into existence. And from this, the universe would never be the same. Still later we are told that the various languages came into existence at Babel, when everyone spoke one language and was in one place, and God confused their languages and the people scattered. Here, divisions became ever more apparent.

And then, one day, a Tuesday afternoon when the sun was beginning its downward trajectory, after reaching its pinnacle at new, and as the afternoon breeze began to blow, slowly cooling into the evening, a man named Abram was sitting in the shade of his tent, and God called to him.

‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Gen 12:1b-3).

And it was at this moment that things shift. Rather than people simply living separately, dispersed throughout the world, we are shown the revealing of God’s ongoing and cosmic plan of reconciliation. Reconciliation between God and humans, and reconciliation between peoples, which will culminate in the reconciliation of God’s creation to the original glory of the created order.

The call to Abram was about God reconciling humanity to Godself, through Abram and his descendants, but not just this, but also so that they, too, can be a blessing to all peoples all over the world. All of scripture is the unfolding of this. God reconciling people to Godself, and God calling God’s people to be reconciled with one another. Slowly this calling unfolds, and slowly God’s people begin to get a taste of this calling, and with Jesus the people of God is so greatly expanded to include not just a particular people in a particular nation, but is to include all peoples of all nations.

Not long ago, we celebrated Pentecost, which is when we remember the undoing of Babel. At Babel languages were confused and peoples were scattered, but at Pentecost comprehension was present and the peoples were gathered. Whereas Babel divided, Pentecost united and reconciled. Reconciliation is the ongoing work of God, and this is the work to which God calls us, as the people of God, as the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way (2 Cor 5:16).

***

This letter comes from the context of striving for reconciliation. The church in Corinth had a lot of problems. They were divided against each other. Between what we have as the first and second letters to the Corinthians, some people had apparently come and planted the seeds of division and mistrust between their church and Paul. The Corinthian church was a fertile place for growing the seeds of division and they grew. There is a letter, lost to time, referred to in 2 Corinthians as a letter of tears, a sorrowful letter, a letter which brought great sorrow to Paul in writing it and the Christians in Corinth in reading it.

Here, he reminds them that in Christ, they have been reconciled to God, and that Christ’s servants have been given the ministry of reconciliation. Paul implores them “not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6:1) and later, to open their hearts wide (2 Cor 6:13b). In this, Paul is trying to find reconciliation between him and the church in Corinth. This letter is, of course, rooted in a specific time and place and circumstances. However, the essence of the message transcends space, time, and circumstance.

***

Division, enmity, separation was not part of God’s original design, but has filled the world and we suffer from it as well. But just because it is doesn’t mean that it fits with God’s desires. Reconciliation was, is, and will continue to be the work of God in Christ. Even before we can seek God out, God calls out to us. But this is not enough, as God also calls us to reflect that grace to others, to be reconciled with one another because of what God has already done for us. After all, while we were strangers, while we were enemies, while we were distant from God, Christ died for us.

We have seen, again, in the past week, the fruits of division, of enmity, of separation as a 21 year old was welcomed into a historic and culturally significant Black church, sat with them while they studied the Bible and prayed, and then killed them. His coat bore the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, and proudly donned the Confederate flag — all symbols of separation, of division, all symbols of things that God abhors, all symbols of the very thing that we as Christians are called to work against.

Far from an isolated incident, this is a symptom of a deeper sickness, the sickness of a world in desperate need of reconciliation, but which still lives as if Babel was the final word.

We, in the United States, have a poor history of race relations. While codified racism is no longer, racism and racial tensions still exist, but it is more insidious because it is pushed down, out of sight out of mind. So often we identify the terrorists in situations like this as lone wolves. But these are not necessarily isolated, but they arise from a cultural pathology which infects us all, whether we recognize it or not. After all, it was not long ago since almost the same situation happened when another white supremacist opened fire at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek.

While the massacre in Charleston is a long way from us, we cannot wash our hands of it or think that it doesn’t impact us. After all, “if one member [of the body of Christ] suffers, all suffer together with it…” (1 Cor 12:26a).

And further, we can see already that we have more work to do in the ministry of reconciliation. This is central to who we are as Reformed Christians. The Reformed have never held to an individualistic salvation, or the false belief that Jesus came to save souls. After all, Jesus didn’t come to save souls, but came to change lives and to restore and redeem the cosmos. Thus, the Reformed have always had a social perspective and consciousness. Here is a part of one of our constitutional statements of doctrine, the Confession of Belhar:

 

We believe

  • that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Cor. 5:17-21; Matt. 5:13-16; Matt. 5:9; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21-22).
  • that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world (Eph. 4:17–6:23, Rom. 6; Col. 1:9-14; Col. 2:13-19; Col. 3:1–4:6)

  • that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity

  • that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.

This, then, is in our DNA, and we must pay attention to it.

This past week we have more evidence of how the church, not just us, but the church across the United States, has still not fulfilled its call to be reconcilers, and too often we have been complacent in the face of sin. So this ought to propel us forward to do our part in our lives and in our communities to work for reconciliation. We don’t have to fix the world, we cannot fix the world. But if we do our part, and if everyone does their part, with the power of the Spirit, reconciliation can become more than simply a nice idea.

Reconciliation is hard work, especially when we think about the type of reconciliation to which we are called: without regard to language, gender, color, culture, income, nationality, immigration status, and to a degree, even religion. We are called to be reconcilers, and no power, no ideology, can override this call of God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

Our job, as followers of Christ, is not to save souls, but to reconcile. To help people see the reconciliation affected in Christ, and how that flows through us to others.

So what do we do in the face of such evil? We ought not despair, nor ought we simply become complacent, shrug our shoulders, and brush it off. But in all things we are called to trust in God who is the true agent of reconciliation, and trust that God can and does work miracles, even today, and trust that with God’s leading and strength, we, too, can live into this ministry of reconciliation given to us by God.

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