By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:11-21
The English language is a strange thing, those who write it, read it, speak it, realize that every now and again there comes a word that becomes so commonplace, so ordinary, that it almost loses its meaning. Words creep into our vocabulary, and whether we know what they mean or not, convey what we're trying to say or not, we use them because everybody else does. And they go in cycles, these words, like “paradigm”, which was used ad nauseam for many years. I've gone through so many paradigm shifts over the years, I'm still not quite sure what paradigm I'm living in. Or, as I was reminded this morning, “nexus” is another one of those words that was used over and over again, as well as “egregious”. Things weren't bad or awful or dreadful, they were egregious. Then that word that sends me into orbit: “narrative”, which is used without any thought of what a narrative may or may not be!
I believe that the word “conversation” is going to go exactly the same way as paradigm and narrative. Sometimes such overuse of words is serious. Words that have real power and meaning get so overused that the origin and purpose of them loses its meaning. One such word is “reconciliation”. It is a powerful word, used in recent years to describe major political discourse, and trends. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, in Rwanda, and in Canada are not least amongst these. Reconciliation has a powerful political impulse to it, but it can become overused to the point that it loses its meaning and importance. The origin of the word is actually found in the Greek, “katallasso” is really the word of a diplomat, going back to the time when a diplomat would report about warring factions and say that there had been a peace treaty signed.
Originally it had diplomatic import, meaning the end of war and conflict, and the coming together in a treaty of those who had been at odds. It's a powerful word. In the New Testament it has power and meaning beyond simply the reconciliation of a treaty. The Apostle Paul uses the word on numerous occasions. It's not as populous in his writing as “forgiveness” or “grace“ or one of the most powerful, “freedom” and “liberty” but it's there. It's in his famous treaty to the Book of Romans, probably the greatest of Paul's writings, and it is also in the Book of Corinthians, both the first and the second Letter to Corinthians. Here we find reconciliation taking an even deeper meaning. It goes right to the very heart of our understanding of God, and of ourselves and how we live.
Reconciliation is a powerful word and Paul uses it very carefully. He was schooled in law, and in rhetoric. He knew the Roman and the Greek traditions of words, and never used a word lightly. When he used “katallasso” he did so with deliberate purpose. Remember last week we looked at the City of Corinth and concluded that it was torn between its Greek and Roman origins. That within this highly pluralistic city, what I describe as a city there were competing religious views. There was also a very strong Jewish community with whom the Christian community was closely tied and Christians would meet with Jews in a worship setting. But the new fledgling church was unsure of itself, not sure how to relate to all the differences in Corinthian society. How were they to live in this complex and divided world, in this pluralistic city? What trends, what Gods, what ideas should they embrace and what things should they hold onto?
Last week in I talked about Paul's first Letter to Corinthians: that Christ was the foundation and they mustn't lose sight of that. In his second letter, he goes even further and talks about the need for reconciliation. For Paul everything was predicated on God's reconciling act in Jesus Christ. Everything was founded in what Christ had done in the reconciling act of the cross and the resurrection. For Paul, for the earliest Christian community, and for every subsequent Christian community, their own sense of reconciliation was rooted in what Christ had done for them. It was as if as Paul suggests, there was this mighty chasm between God and ourselves. This gulf between a holy God and an unholy people, and how is that chasm to be crossed, how is that divide between God and ourselves to take place.
Paul sees the bridge of this gulf is Christ himself … The mediator. Christ mends the chasm and the wounds that separate humanity from God, that separate the Christian community even, from God. It is through Christ that we are reconciled, and we are reconciled through the forgiveness of sins. We're forgiven through the very power of Christ's cross. This is at the heart of our faith. The great Bishop N.T. Wright, who in writing about what really is at the essence of Christianity said the following:
The heart of it our fellowship is not static, but it enables the community of those who believe, to go together in unity across traditional divisions of the human race. This is a unity which is nothing other than the unity of Jesus Christ and his people. The unity indeed which Jesus Christ has won for his people precisely by his identifying with them and so through his death and resurrection affecting reconciliation between them and God.
This is, in a nutshell, the heart of fellowship; this is what Christians live with. But at times we still live as if we have that broken relationship with God, as if somehow we are at enmity with God, and that there is no reconciliation between us. We feel in our hearts divided from God, by our guilt, by our inability to fulfil the expectations that we think God has of us … of some egregious (sic.) sin that we might have committed at some time in our lives. Or we're at enmity in terms of our relationships within the Body of Christ. We feel a chasm at times and we don’t take seriously what Paul was saying in the Letter to the Corinthians: that the chasm has already been healed, but you need to live in that. You need to know that it has happened.
Many of you will remember the tragedy of 9/11, which still casts a shadow over our world these many years afterwards. There was a book written called First Sunday, a collection of the sermons that were preached the first Sunday after the events of 9/11. Some of you will know that the sermon preached here by me that day is in that book. After what happened in New Zealand, I went back and read some of the sermons preached that day. One was written by a Pastor McCarthy, from New Life Church in Wisconsin. It's a fantastic sermon.
In it he talks about the brokenness that everyone feels following such an attack, and says the following:
I have come to the conclusion here that I cannot repair myself that which is broken, Christ is the one who is able to put me and our world back together. Christ is the one who can repair the hurt, the devastation of the nation's recent tragedies. The scenario reminds me of the old nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, all the king's horses and all the king's men cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again.’ But while the natural ways and my ways fail, I am promised through the word of Christ that he can put me and our world back together if I place my faith in him.
In other words, sometimes chasms are so great in our hearts, and our souls, and our lives that we cannot put them back together. I sometimes hear people say “Oh but we don’t really need Christ to be a reconciling force or to be a reconciling presence, we just need to make up our mind.” No, no, no! Sometimes we need a power beyond ourselves to heal the brokenness, and the gulf, and to live in the truth and the power of that reconciliation. Sometimes we cannot find in our hearts the power to forgive ourselves, the power to forgive someone who has wronged us. Sometimes we need a power beyond ourselves. This pastor got right to the heart of it. Sometimes you can't put Humpty Dumpty together again, you need help.
Paul does not stop with just our own reconciliation with God, or even the reconciliation that we have through the chasm of sin. He says for one person died, we all have died and he no longer holds our sins against us. But more than that, he talks about the whole world being reconciled to God … That this is a cosmological thing, beyond simply the individual and their relationship with God, which is often what we reduce the reconciling power of Christ to. We forget that this is a peace treaty between a broken world and God. I sometimes hear that God doesn’t really need the world, as if the world really matters to God. God can live quite nicely within God’s self without ever having to worry about the concerns of the world.
But in a conversation I had with the brilliant theologian Paul Fiddes at Oxford three weeks ago, he reminded us that it is not that God needs the world, but God has chosen to need to world … “God has chosen to need the world”, because God as we read in the Gospel of John, so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. The world therefore, is important to God, not a part of the world, not a northern or a southern part of it, not a black part of it or a white part of it, the world … The world is important to God. In Christ the world is reconciled to God and all its brokenness, the world is loved by God and God's desire is to bring that world into his covenantal love. In other words, it's been done: The peace, the unity, has been accomplished. The war is over, the harmony restored, but now it's for us to live in that peace. It's as if to use the classical term about reconciliation in diplomatic terms, it's as if the ambassador has come to us and declared that there is peace and harmony, but we are not prepared to hear his word and we live as if the war is still going on.
The problem, at times with religion, is that it seems to exacerbate that sense of a continuing war or a continuing conflict as opposed to claiming the reconciling peace and love of Jesus Christ and living within it without fear … Without fear. Some of you will remember the movie called the Hermit in Gully Lake. A movie in which I played a small part, and that got absolutely no coverage at all, probably because of that. Although I must admit Randy Bachman wrote the tune at the beginning of it. It's about a hermit in Nova Scotia’s Gully Lake (and this is the important part) who boarded a train to escape conscription during World War II. Do some of you remember this now? The Hermit of Gully Lake decided that he would jump off the train and live in the woods until the war was over.
He lived in the woods for 30 years! And even though some people told him the war was over, he didn’t believe it. He thought the fighting was going on and so he lived in the woods in fear of being arrested, for fear of getting in trouble, or being part of the war that he despised so much. The story goes that eventually he came out, made appearances, went to the occasional céilí, but deep down in his heart he was suspicious that the war was not really over. You hear of this, of people fighting after the declaration of peace has been given, of people living in fear and not believing the truth of what they have been told. This is something that is commonplace after a war.
Well it's the same with the way we live … Christ has already declared our peace, Christ has reconciled the world to himself, not holding the sins of the world against us, but in the forgiveness of the Grace of Christ, restoring and redeeming and renewing, but still we live as if the struggle goes on. We do not live in the peace of what Christ has done on the cross. I hope that this Good Friday reality will come home to you and you will see in a broken world.
Paul does not stop there, there is one last thing he says, that we are to be messengers of reconciliation. He uses the phrase “we are Christ's ambassadors” as if Christ is making his appeal through us. In other words, it’s not enough to simply recognize that there is this reconciliation has taken place through Christ, we have to be the messengers of it.
In a very powerful sermon here in 2002 just a few months after 9/11, the Reverend John Harries preached about the world is becoming very interwoven culturally and ethnically, religiously and spiritually, and is much more complicated, and integrated than we'd ever known. That was in 2002 … Can you imagine what he'd say today?! The reality is that he quoted from this passage of Corinthians about being messengers of Christ reconciliation, this is a message we need to give to the world. This is a message that we need to share. There is an evangelical imperative here to share the good news of what Christ has done in his reconciling power with the world. But at the same time, to live that out in respect of people with whom you might have religious or cultural, linguistic or historical differences, to live the peace that Christ has given.
We find that hard to do because we don’t take the cross and its reconciliation seriously enough. There are going to be people with whom we have reasonable disagreements. The word does not mean that we just cover over all sins and all wrongs as if they never happened. It does not mean that we cannot have differences of opinion with other religious traditions or ideas. Not everything is equally true in the world. It's not as if it's my truth and your truth (another phrase overused these days). That there is a thing called truth and therefore reason for debate and disagreement, absolutely. But respect and love and recognition that for the whole world Christ died, absolutely. And with that we enter into any conversation, any dialogue, any relationship with people who might be different than ourselves in the spirit of reconciliation and in the spirit of love.
How on the one hand can you possibly hold on to your belief in the power of the risen Christ's forgiveness if that is not the very power in which you live in the world? You have to have both. It starts with Christ, but it must manifest itself in reconciliation and understanding. Recently I have been reading the biography of the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, by his son. It is a fascinating read. Many of you know George Wallace was one of the greatest voices for segregation in the south in the 1950's and 60's. He was so strident in his belief that in 1962 when Vivienne Jones, a student and another black student tried to enter the University of Alabama, he stood at the door and blocked them from going in. I think Bob Dylan wrote about that in The Times They Are a Changin’.
Ten years later he was shot and ended up in a wheelchair – still embittered, still angry, still holding to his views, but years later George Wallace went through a religious conversion, he became in his own words “a new creature”, a new Christian. As Paul talks about in today’s passage: “Behold, we are new creatures” and he realized that the views he held, that had driven him for so long, were contrary to the will of Christ. To the person who shot him he offered forgiveness for the wrong that had been done to him! “How”, he said, “can I possibly ask for the forgiveness and the reconciliation of Christ if I don’t offer it to the one who wronged me?” That’s the power of reconciliation that I'm talking about! Thirty-three years after that event in Alabama, he presented Vivienne Jones who he had prohibited from entering that university, with an award for courage, and the award was named after his own wife.
That is the power of reconciliation. That is the power of what Christ does. If we think this word will lose its power because it's overused, let us not allow that. It is a powerful word, rooted in what God does for the healing of the broken, for the restoration of those whose souls are weak, and for the harmony of the world. It is a peace treaty, the peace has been signed, the declaration has been made, and we are at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.