Entrusted with the Message of Reconciliation

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
June 3, 2012 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

On a Friday morning during sabbatical, our phone rang. Often during the day it’s a sales call or a recorded political message, but nonetheless I answered. It was a recorded voice, a robo-call.; but this one was different. It was from the college our son is attending. Apparently, they have our home phone number. I know they have our bank account number.

The call indicated that the campus had been placed on emergency lockdown because of the sighting of a person with a gun. It is the kind of gut-punch call that every parent dreads, that we all dread. I called Kenneth right away; he was in class with doors locked and blinds pulled and he was safe and fine. I breathed a bit easier, but just a bit. I spent the next several hours waiting by the phone, TV on, online and texting, immobilized and anxious. He was safe and fine – good. But what about others? Were every other parents’ children safe and fine – or faculty or staff? I have saved his text – “all clear.” It was a false alarm, which was good, and even in the face of anxiety, I was grateful for thorough communication and the fact that a plan was in place.

But I thought about that moment more and more in the days that followed. False alarm or not, something is going on in our world. When I grew up, we had a tornado plan. Now schools have different kinds of plans. Columbine and Virginia Tech haunt our collective memories. On February 27, a student shot and killed 3 fellow students at Chardon High School outside Cleveland, a community we pass regularly on I 90. On April 2, a gunman killed seven people at Oikos University, a Korean Christian college in Oakland. The Trayvon Martin story continues to play out, which while certainly about race and our racial brokenness, must also ask the question why on earth did the man who shot him have a gun in the first place.

What about our world – its brokenness and despair – has made attacks like these expected, acceptable, routine, inevitable...shrug-our-shoulders-and-move-on news items? And what can we, as people of faith, as followers of the Prince of Peace, do to counter this and all forms of acceptable and expected brokenness, to be agents of reconciliation?

In 1958, two Presbyterian denominations united, a larger one, of which this congregation was a part, and a smaller one, Scottish in origin, based largely in central and western Pennsylvania, where Presbyterians are densest. It took another 25 years, 1983, for the full northern and southern streams of American Presbyterians to re-unite, 122 years following schism at the time of the Civil War. 122 years for us to be whole!

The 1958 union called for a new theological statement to be written, and so the church adopted the Confession of 1967, named after the year it was adopted – how creative we are! Some of you may remember the debate around it, the controversy, the full-page newspaper ads pushing for its defeat. It was controversial for what it said, or to some, didn’t say, about Jesus and the Bible, which sounds familiar. It was also controversial because of what it said about social issues – not just the issues themselves, but that it said anything at all.

The organizing theme that the Confession of 1967 is built around is “reconciliation.” Reconciliation, taken from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, a portion of which we’ve just encountered. In many ways, here is the absolute heart of the gospel, the core of our faith. Hear it again: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

The heart of the gospel; the core of our faith. We are new creations, reconciled to God, called to live in reconciliation in the world.

The committee that wrote the Confession of 1967 did not pull this passage out of thin air as they looked for an organizing theme. John Calvin called this a “remarkable passage,” and the twentieth century Reformed theologian Karl Barth believed it to be at the central message of faith.

Reconciliation can feel like one of those fancy words theologians use. But its meaning is not hidden, nor elusive. The brokenness of our relationship with God is healed through Jesus. Healed. Made whole. Paul is saying, and we believe, that the ministry of making things whole, of healing, has been accomplished in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Our task is not to earn that wholeness, but to accept it – that’s what grace is.

So much of American religion suggests otherwise, that we should live in fear and anxiety until we say the right thing or do the right thing and God, with some reluctance, welcomes us back in. Not so, says Paul. Not so, says the promise of grace. Not so, says the hope of reconciliation. Christ – in his very self, in his very life – makes all things new and makes all things whole.

Reconciliation means that acceptance has already happened – your relationship with God is already whole; my relationship with God is already whole. Nothing is in jeopardy.

But it doesn’t stop there. It cannot stop there. This cannot only be about individual brokenness, but communal brokenness and global, universal brokenness. Paul insists that God was reconciling the world to God’s self – not merely individuals, not even just the church. The world.

So that for us to experience reconciliation with God means that we work toward reconciliation with others. This is not about conversion; this is not stereotypical evangelicalism – believe and be saved. It is something more holistic and comprehensive – having been healed, we heal a broken world.

It’s up to us, apparently. We have been given a ministry of reconciliation; we have been entrusted with this message. As we’ve accepted the gift of reconciliation for the living of our own lives, our primary relationship with God, we are to seek to live into it with others.

I don’t know where you are, or what relationships might need healed – with a friend, a spouse or partner, a child, a parent – but the promise of this vision allows us to pursue healed relationships with those who matter to us. Not to gloss over differences or to pretend conflict and brokenness didn’t happen. But not to stay there forever, either. To acknowledge and move on, to live fully. It’s hard work, to be sure, but anyone who has lived with a broken relationship with a loved one and then experienced this kind of deep healing knows that it is worth every ounce of effort.

But there is more to it than that. Reconciling the world to God.

The committee that wrote the Confession of 1967 knew that they were living in, and the church was called to witness to, a world and culture in deep conflict. Civil rights. The Vietnam War. The war on poverty. Disagreements about human sexuality, at that time the impact of birth control and images of sexuality in media. If the church had nothing to say to these things, if the message of reconciliation could not overflow from individual lives to the church to all the world, then we might as well pack it in and go home.

The controversy about the Confession rose when the church spoke – not prescribing particular positions, but insisting that this vision applied to life itself, that if the church wasn’t leading the world into new understandings about warfare, race, poverty, sexuality, then something was wrong.

Nearly 50 years later, those issues are still with us, are they not? Though fought in different places and for different reasons, war is still being waged. Poverty still haunts our cities and drives a wedge between those who have and those who do not. Soon there will not be a majority race in this nation, yet racism divides us still and we struggle toward equality. And human sexuality, well, it’s good we have that one so clearly figured out!

The church was criticized 45 years ago for misguided meddling, but it’s difficult to think of a time – whether John Knox acting out in Scotland in the 1500’s or our Presbyterian forbears standing at the front lines of the colonial revolution or the church finally coming to embrace an abolitionist vision – when we haven't been called into the messy and complex arena of the world.

What we often miss is the motivation and inspiration for doing so. And it happens right here, in Paul’s 2000 year old words to a small and struggling church seeking to figure out what it means to live with one another and what it means to live in the world.

The Confession of 1967 has been important to me, not merely as a historical document to study, but as it connects a theological vision of Jesus and the Bible with a moral and ethical call to live our faith in the world. To embrace its theological vision is to live life differently, forgiven and freed. To embrace its moral call is to live in the world differently. Not to be a liberal Christian or a conservative Christian, nor (heavens no!) a Democrat or a Republican, but to realize that there can be no partial reconciliation, no half-way healing.

How we live in the world will be a matter of discernment and the spirit; that we live in the world as ministers of reconciliation is not up for debate.

*That’s important to remember in a moment when it feels like our polarized culture is spinning apart.
* That’s important to remember as our Presbyterian family faces schism, congregations pondering leaving.
* That’s important to remember on a day when we recognize our outreach ministry and the many people who make it happen, seeking to make reconciliation manifest and real as we serve food or offer shelter or work with school children or travel to Kenya.

Advocacy is our growing edge, and we know why, that the healing of broken systems is a matter of faith as well as politics, that in order for all of God’s children to live fully into the gift of reconciliation, they need to be fed and sheltered and educated and treated fairly and justly.

I often think about South Africa when thinking about all of this, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that helped a nation divided by apartheid move to a new era in its history. Truth and reconciliation – the honest and often painful acknowledgement of past injustice before entering a new reality. Remembering the past but not bound to it.

That movement was led by people of faith, because they knew. Then knew why on Sunday mornings we confess our sins, not to remind us how bad we are, nor to reside permanently in our brokenness, but to acknowledge in order to move on. They knew that the power of the gospel could not be confined within the four walls of the church. They knew that each race could not have full and true peace until it established communion with the other. They knew, per theologian Miroslav Volf (See Exclusion and Embrace) that any human reconciliation is only partial reconciliation, and that it is never a human achievement.

They knew, and we know, that whether a conflicted soul or a conflicted relationship or a conflicted church or a conflicted world, that when we sit down at table together – as we will do in just a few moments, and break bread, and share cup – wondrous things can happen, healing and hope and wholeness.

And the sometimes daunting news, the sometimes challenging news, the sometimes mysterious news, but the always good news, is that we – we – have been entrusted with this message. We are ambassadors for Christ. We are ministers of reconciliation. Amen.


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