The Ministry of Reconciliation
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
September 22, 2019
The Battle of the Bulge was Germany’s last major offensive in December of 1944, as World War II was winding down. It caught the Allies by surprise, and it also surprised those who lived in the heavily wooded area that became the battleground. Two of them were a young boy of 12 named Fritz Vincken, and his mother Elizabeth. Years later, Fritz wrote of the experience they had in their small cottage on Christmas Eve.
All day they heard the planes flying overhead, dropping their bombs and mass destruction. They sought to keep their light low enough at night that they wouldn’t be seen, but that night a knock came at their door. When they opened it, they discovered two armed American soldiers, with a third lying wounded at their feet. They explained that they’d been lost from their fellow soldiers for three days, wandering around, and asked if they could come in. Fritz’s mother initially hesitated because they knew the penalty for taking in the enemy was death. But she invited them into a back room, where she began bandaging the wounds of the soldier.
Fritz’s mother then began working on a bigger dinner than she’d planned for the two of them—when suddenly, another knock came at the door. When they opened it, they were horrified to discover four German soldiers standing there. The soldiers explained apologetically that they’d become lost from their fellow soldiers, and they wondered if they could spend the night before resuming their search the next day.
Fritz’s mother said, “Absolutely you may come in. I will even prepare you a delicious dinner.” The soldiers’ faces lit up, because they could smell the food. But then with a sternness Fritz later said he had never previously heard from his mother, she said “But I must warn you, we have three other guests here who may not be your friends.” At that, the Germans stiffened and clutched their weapons more tightly, saying “You mean there are Americans in here?!”
Before they could storm through the doorway, Fritz’s mother said, “Wait. These are young men, just as you are young men. These men are far from home, just as you are far from home. These men are lost, just as you are lost. This is Christmas Eve. In the name of Christ, may there be peace in this place.”
And then the miracle happened. The Germans agreed to leave their weapons outside. As they entered, the Americans, armed and prepared for battle, also agreed to place their weapons outside. That night, in a small cottage, German and American soldiers spent Christmas Eve together. When they gathered around the table, Fritz’s mother asked them all to bow their heads so she could ask a blessing. As she prayed, “Come, Herr Jesus, be our guest,” Fritz later wrote that when he looked around the table, everyone was visibly struggling with their emotions.
But the story doesn’t end there. The next morning, as each group of soldiers prepared to make their own way back, the Germans gave the Americans directions for the safest route back to their troops, and even gave them a compass to help them find their way!
It was a taste for one day, of the reconciliation that God promises to bring forever.
It’s a beautiful story isn’t it? There’s something about stories like these that make our hearts sing…that make us yearn for reconciliation that is so radical and knows no boundaries like the reconciliation of the soldiers in this story. Sometimes we hear stories like this and we wonder if a thing like this is possible because we look out into the world we live in and wonder how a thing like that could still happen nowadays. This is a fair question. The passage we’re going to look at this morning will hopefully give us a glimpse into how such radical reconciliation is possible and how all of us sitting in this room carry this ministry of reconciliation with us that is largely unknown and unrecognized by the world around us.
Even as we gather together for worship this morning, our nation is divided and it’s only becoming increasingly more fractured it seems. We’re divided politically, not only as Republicans and Democrats but as subsets of those parties. We’re divided racially, in hurts and attitudes. Even as Christians we’re fractured into over 43,000 different denominations. It seems as if the dividing lines are growing deeper and more prolific and as they do, we lose an appreciation for the humanity of those on the other side of the divide. I can imagine all of you feel the burden of this reality as much as I do.
And yet…God created us for relationships. As our hearts yearn for respite from the tragedies of today and long for the divisiveness of our nation and world to be healed, we have a word of hope and promise from our God and it comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
And for this reason, I choose to take a similar approach to that of the Apostle Paul in the passage that Grant read. I could stand up here to try to motivate you to seek reconciliation in the world out there because of how badly it needs it, but instead, I choose to appeal to you to first consider reconciliation in light of God’s own love and reconciliation with us. Because, the reality and the truth that God has reconciled us to Godself through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us an unquenchable and inextinguishable hope that we carry this same reconciliation and grace with us out into the divided, broken and hurting world we live in.
Read 2 Cor. 5:16-21. Now, if some of that just sounded like a bunch of theological mumbo-jumbo, then don’t worry, you’re probably not alone in this room. This passage is very theologically rich so bear with me for just a little bit and we’ll sort out this passage together.
Paul is writing this letter to the Corinthian church and he’s justifying the rationale behind his ministry to them. He says that at the heart of his Christian ministry, at the heart of the Gospel, is this thing that he calls the ministry of reconciliation. He writes that the content of this ministry of reconciliation is that God, through Jesus Christ was reconciling the world to himself.
So now, we need to pause, take a quick step back and rewind. Some of you might be sitting out there wondering: Pastor Matt, why was it necessary for God to reconcile the world to himself? I’m glad you asked, engaged listener. Now, when the Bible talks about reconciliation, it is referring to the restoration of broken relationship. Reconciliation is the restoration of broken relationship into right relationship. This is my simple definition we’ll be working off of. So when Paul talks about God reconciling the world to Godself, it is implied that the world and we as participants in the world were in broken relationship with God to begin with. And the entire Bible is actually a narrative of God’s struggle to restore humanity, which is divided, broken and hurting, back into right relationship with Godself and with each other.
Before we can understand this claim that Paul has made: that Jesus Christ has reconciled the world back to God and has put us back in right relationship, we need to first take a quick look at the Old Testament to understand some of the context of why Jesus’ reconciliation is necessary. In the beginning, as we all know, God created humanity. And it only takes humanity 3 chapters to mess it up and break their relationship with God and with each other. And it only take 4 chapters for us to start murdering each other; and the rest of the Old Testament is largely an account of God’s people, Israel, perpetually disobeying God in increasingly worse ways and breaking their relationship with God and each other over and over and over.
And it’s important to note that humanity’s sin against God is deeper than just a series of bad choices and disobedience; Scripture shows us how our sin and disobedience is driven by our inclination to want to do things our way, even at the expense of others. And so we leave the path God set out for us that’s life giving, and follow our own path that seems best and most gratifying to us. This is the pattern we see in Scripture and in our own lives.
So we see at the very beginning of the Old Testament, that God and humanity are in broken relationship and you don’t have to read long before seeing that humanity desperately needs to be reconciled not only to God, but to each other. So then God’s plan for reconciliation came in the form of the Law. The Law was not only a list of rules and commands, stating what was necessary to remain in right relationship with God and one another; more than that, it included a list of rituals and sacrifices that would allow the Israelites to mend their relationship with God and with each other when one of the Laws was inevitably broken. And the Law was built entirely on fairness and justice.
As an example from Exodus: “When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner and the dead beast shall be his.” So next time your donkey falls into someone else’s pit, you know where to turn for answers. So we see, there is a broken relationship between the man who lost his donkey and the man who dug a pit and didn’t cover it. The law states that the man who did the wrong must make payment for it, thus restoring and reconciling the relationship. You can see in this law and most others you’d find in the OT that they’re built on fairness and they make sense to us for the most part because our society is built on these same principles.
God implemented something similar in the sacrifices that are appointed in order to atone for people’s sins. It is the responsibility of the person who sinned to bring an unblemished animal to make atonement. These sacrifices also offered visual assurance of the spiritual reality of reconciliation with God.
You’ll notice a trend in these Laws: it is the offender’s task to make amends and pay the price for his/her offense. In order for the broken relationship to be set right, the offender had to make amends. And this makes perfect sense to us, right? Our society is built upon these same principles of fairness, that the one who did the wrong must make amends for it. I want to ask you to think for a couple seconds about what your response is when someone wrongs you in a relationship; for me, it’s usually to step back and wait for the one who’s wronged me to make the first move to restore the relationship. How many in here is that your first tendency to step back and wait for the person who did the wrong to make it right? It’s part of our human nature: we think it’s only fair for the person who sinned or messed up to make it right first.
God’s Law, given in order to create a society of fairness, which seeks reconciliation, seems to work for awhile, but the further we get into the Old Testament the more these sacrifices become empty rituals and the offenders no longer care to set their relationships right. The Law was a gracious gift from God, allowing the Israelites to pursue and continue to live in reconciled relationship with God and with each other, but the Old Testament shows us that it is only a temporary fix. The Law was only a shadow of what was to come, an imperfect representation of the fullness of God’s grace and reconciliation that was intended for humanity.
And then, as Paul tells us, Jesus entered stage right. Paul tells us in this Corinthians passage that Jesus Christ died in order that he might reconcile us to God and mend the relationship forever, transforming us into a new creation, one that is still human, yet permanently reconciled to God. Jesus himself in the New Testament is the unblemished and unspotted sacrifice alluded to in the Old Testament Law. But Jesus’ sacrifice, his death on the cross and his resurrection is not a temporary fix. I want us to pay close attention to how Jesus accomplishes this in contrast to the requirements of the Old Testament law and in contrast to the principles of fairness our own society is built upon.
In Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus has been strung up on a cross. His hands and feet have been nailed individually into the splintered wood. His body would hang limp on this cross for hours until at last he could no longer draw breath. Not only was Jesus subjected to the most torturous and despicably painful death, but all the while he was mocked, spat on and humiliated. His clothes are stripped from him. The very people who a week earlier had praised his name as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, now stand by silently watching and mocking because they would have rather let a murderer go free in Jesus’ place while Jesus is left to die the most humiliating of all deaths. They force a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head as a torturous and mocking salute to the man he had claimed to be. The crowd spits on him as they yell: you’re bogus! If you were really the Son of God you would be able to save yourself!
As we read this, as I read this, everything inside of me screams for justice. I want nothing more than for Jesus to wipe that smug smile off of their faces and to give them what they deserve. But instead, what does Jesus say? In the midst of being tortured and humiliated, he says: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These 10 words are possibly the most backwards, and yet incredible response ever spoken in the history of humanity. Jesus Christ, the man who was tortured and humiliated, offers reconciliation and forgiveness to his torturers and to the ones who humiliate him.
In Jesus, God is revealed to be in the business of reconciliation. Jesus gave himself over to violence and death, in order to absorb it all and overcome it in his resurrection. Jesus did not perpetuate the violence done to him, seeking revenge or payback, but he absorbed it and shows us a new way of living; a new way of responding to people who hurt us – in Jesus Christ we see God’s ultimate answer to sin: forgiveness and reconciliation. God reveals a new way of living; on the cross and in the resurrection Jesus defeated the powers of sin and death, giving us hope of a life that is able to transcend the vicious cycles of violence, sin and death.
Jesus, in his act of permanently reconciling us to God has subverted and upended this principle of fairness that the Law and our society are built upon. The onus is no longer on us as the offenders to make amends, but God, the one who was hurt by our sin has made amends for us. Most of us would say that our likely response to being wronged is to take a step back and to let the one who wronged us come make it right. But God chose not to take a step back with us—God didn’t wait for us to mend our relationship with him, in fact we had no way to. But God, as Jesus Christ, stepped down into the brokenness of our world and into the messiness our sins. God came all the way to meet us in our sin at the very place we have wronged God, and before we could even ask, God has said: I forgive you, my child.
Paul writes in Romans that Christ died for us while we were still sinners! Paul writes that Christ, who knew no sin, who was innocent and unblemished, became sin on the cross to overcome it. He reconciled us to himself without asking for anything in return, except that we follow him and seek the same reconciliation with those around us. Paul says that God has entrusted us with God’s ministry of reconciliation. The very ministry and unconditional forgiveness that has saved us and reconciled us with God in the person of Jesus Christ, we now carry with us in our bodies out into the world. And as we already know, our world is desperately in need of some reconciliation!
So, what next? Paul tells us that we are ambassadors on behalf of Christ, but what does it mean or what does it look like to carry Christ’s ministry of reconciliation with us into our daily and ordinary lives?
Reconciliation is a daily endeavor of seeking to live in unity with one another, full of humility and grace. Jesus didn’t wait his entire life until the moment he was on the cross to forgive; no, Jesus sought to forgive, offer grace and reconcile broken relationships every day of his life and ministry. Paul, in this passage we read, emphasizes that our reconciliation with God is not only a possibility, but it is already a reality! Christ already did all the heavy lifting, so Paul exhorts us to BE reconciled!! We must live into the reality that we are reconciled people full of grace and healing that we carry with us for the rest of the world to witness and be restored by; we are a new creation, so we must live like it! Paul is telling us to not just come to church and say that we are reconciled, but actually live like it, every hour of the day!
What would it look like to be an ambassador of reconciliation while we’re driving down I-90, while you’re shopping at Yoke’s, while you interact with your neighbors, while you do a project you don’t want to? You see, offering forgiveness and seeking reconciliation doesn’t only need to happen with the big things, but if anything, it’s more important in the small, daily decisions we make, like whether or not to honk angrily back, or whether or not to respond in frustration to our kids or our co-workers. What would it look like if we offered grace to someone who had let us down or done a job wrong rather than responding in anger?
Two years ago, just hours after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, hospitals put out an alert that they were in need of more blood in order to treat the 500+ injured victims. Within such a short time, hundreds of people flocked to mobile blood donation facilities and waited hours in line to donate blood. We’re used to seeing people only wait that long in line for Black Friday deals, and yet all of those people, whether they knew it or not, they all carried with them God’s ministry of reconciliation for the world; they offered with their very own life blood, the promise of restoration and wholeness.
Reconciliation means offering life, grace and forgiveness, but it also means seeking justice. Just because we’ve forgiven and offered grace, doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to injustice. God’s reconciliation intends to set things right, not just in our own lives, but in the world. I’ve had conversations with some of my atheist friends who don’t understand why Christians don’t care more about social justice issues in the world. The problem with Christianity as they’ve come to know it, the kind of Christianity that is only concerned with getting a one way ticket to heaven, the problem is that that version of Christianity has nothing to offer to the world. It’s no wonder that so many people don’t give a rip about Christianity because they think it’s a selfish enterprise, only about seeking personal salvation, and I don’t blame them for thinking that because in the last few decades that has become the Christian American caricature.
But we see in Paul’s words that God’s act of reconciliation with us is enough to compel us to seek justice and reconciliation for those in our community, nation and world who desperately need it. God’s love for us compels us to set things right. We have a chance even as Cheney Congregational to change the stigma Christianity has received. We have a chance to demonstrate to our nation and world that God desires nothing short of complete and total reconciliation.
I’m going to close with one final story of how Christ’s love has compelled believers to seek radical reconciliation in our world. I’m sure most of you remember the shooting that happened four years ago at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people were killed in an African-American church during a prayer service by a young white supremacist who said he was hoping to incite a race war. This is an excerpt from a wonderful and challenging book called “America’s Original Sin”.
“On the day that [the young man who committed the massacre,] appeared in court for the first time, family members of the people killed were there. Although there was no plan beforehand, some of them decided to speak directly to him. Nadine Collier startled the courtroom when she said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And God have mercy on your soul.” Her mother had been one of the shooter’s victims. Alana Simmons, whose grandfather had been killed, then stood up and said, “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions…And that is what we want to get out to the world.” Despite their anger and pain, others offered forgiveness to the young white supremacist.
“The anguish, grace, and forgiveness of one family member after another stunned the world. Those families are not just victims now. They set the tone for the new national conversation –and action—on race that is long overdue. They want and will require justice but are also offering forgiveness. They have told the country that love is stronger than hate, and that only love can defeat hate.”
So what is the love of Jesus Christ compelling you to reconcile? Where are you feeling compelled to seek justice, to offer forgiveness, or to demonstrate grace that can only come from our Heavenly Father?