A Note on Reconciliation
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
In a list of aphorisms that you might characterize as “wisdom sentences” someone posed the following: “Why is a car’s windshield so large and the rear view mirror so small? Because our past is not as important as our future … so, look ahead and move on.” There is a lot to be said about the counsel to maintain a forward look in life—the gospel itself is inherently forward looking because the best is always yet to come. (When we speak theologically of the eschatological nature of the gospel this is what we mean.) AS helpful as this forward look may be, it is my experience that “moving on” from certain things is not as simple as this aphorism makes it sound.
Think with me about the many estrangements we experience in life. The gospel assessment is that we live in a fallen world in which hostility is found everywhere together with the estrangement that such hostility produces and perpetuates. The gospel declares that this is rooted in the incomprehensible mystery of sin. One of the consequences of sin is alienation from God, alienation from our true self, and alienation from one another.
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. Family members are alienated from one another because one sibling is envious of the other sibling’s new home. A person is alienated from a boss because the boss overlooked them for a promotion because his son or daughter is coming into the business. The truth is that people have treated us shabbily. They have lied to us, or betrayed us, or exploited us, or humiliated us. In this situation a gulf has opened up between us and we can’t deny that a gulf exists.
The Apostle Paul states that the gospel is a message of reconciliation. I invite you to reflect with me as we probe this gospel-blessing of reconciliation. Reconciliation in one sense has a forward look to a day of happier relationship. But it isn’t achieved by simply “moving on” and ignoring the source of the alienation. Jesus was angry repeatedly when he saw defenceless people exploited or sincere people misled by religious leaders. The person who is indifferent where our Lord was angry isn’t really very “peace-loving.” If we shrug our shoulders with indifference and simply move on there is no reconciliation as far as the gospel is concerned.
So when we (or others) are exploited or cheated or slandered we are angry and rightfully angry—as was our Lord. We may wonder, then, if anger, however right and righteous, does not merely intensify estrangement; does it not 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) Do not let this anger fall into the settled mood of festering bitterness. Clearly the reconciliation promoted by the gospel is not a promotion of indifference to real hurts.
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, and he has given us the ministry of reconciliation we want to discover what this reconciliation looks like. We want to learn how estrangement is overcome and antagonism defused. 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, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.
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. I have found that this is a hard point for people to grasp. We typically assume the opposite; we assume that the responsibility for initiating reconciliation lies with the offender. After all, it’s the offender who caused the breach so let them initiate the fix if they are truly interested to make such repair. 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 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. Do we know that we have offended God? We were not aware that any reconciliation needed to take place.
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. When we seek reconciliation, for instance, through our resolve not to focus on and intensify the pain we are in already through having been “shafted” the pain we bear is real. 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. 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 initiates reconciliation. We endeavour 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.
3. About results of our attempts at reconciliation. I readily acknowledge that 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. Be content that you have done what you can and remain open to the potential of reconciliation actualized.
Perhaps, like me, you live with a relationship that you pray was different and a rift healed. You try to absorb your own pain and not dwell on it. You wonder—how is it that both offender and offended attend church and pray “forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us” and yet can’t figure this out? I encourage you to continue to pray and remain open to the reconciliation that our Lord foresees in the giving of himself for us.
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)
4. We read today our Lord’s parable we call the parable of the prodigal son. It is the wonderful news of the father’s welcome of the wayward son; the unconditional welcome home after all had been lost in the far country. It is the story of a father’s reconciling love who bears the loss and makes the welcome possible. Our Lord was telling any who would hear that this is what the love of the One he called the Father is like.
I note with you that Luke presents the setting of Jesus’ parable as occurring while he was on his way to Jerusalem. Remember Paul’s assertion that “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” So here is Jesus telling his followers and any who would hear of the welcome of the Father, a welcome that he is on his way to Jerusalem to secure. Such love staggers; to think that he who knows what it is that will bring our reconciliation preaches reconciliation even as he is on his way to be that reconciliation for us!
In the liturgy of Israel the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the High Priest was to take from the community of Israel two goats for sin offering. One was slaughtered upon the altar in expiation of the sins of the people. The other goat was brought forward so the high priest could lay hands on its heads and confess the iniquities of Israel and then sent into the wilderness bearing sins away. Both kinds of sacrifice were needed to help people understands what God was about in making atonement for sin.
The fact that the ritual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, culminated hidden behind a veil in what was known as the Holy of Holies, taught Israel that the ultimate ground and rationale of atonement is hidden deep in the mystery of God’s own being into which it is impossible to intrude. Paul touches on this mystery when he wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,” and “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.”
In many respects as we stand before the cross we are like the Israelites on the Day of Atonement; the ultimate ground and rationale is in the mystery of God’s own being as Father and Son bear this together. It is mystery to us but not to Jesus as he walked that road to Jerusalem.
As you think again of that parable note that according to Jesus all barriers to entering into the joyful feast of the Father are self-imposed. The wayward son and self-righteous elder brother are equally welcome to go into the feast. It is certainly not the Father who prevents. With our Lord’s parable in mind listen again to Paul’s entreaty—“we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”