by Bishop Tim Harris
The gospel of reconciliation: 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2
I want to start with what some might regard as a provocative statement:
The gospel entrusted to us is personal and communal, but never individual.
Our human relationships matter, and are front and centre in our relationship with God. We cannot relate to God on a one to one basis, isolated from relationships around us. Reducing the gospel to an individual interaction between ourselves and God owes more to our western culture than it does to the gospel revealed to us in Scripture.
Is that a provocative statement? Not at all, and it is readily confirmed with reference to our gospel traditions. Just think of the Great Commandments (Matt. 22:37-40): “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
This doesn’t come as a choice of two. They are two sides of the one coin; they are inseparable.
So the way we relate to our neighbours, and to one another, matter to God, and it in recognition of that that I want to explore our gospel calling to be people of reconciliation, to recognise our calling to be one of seeking reconciliation.
Reconciliation starts with God, the source of life. Life is defined and shaped by God, and as we have been created in the image and likeness of God, so we view the world around us as God views it. This is the assumption behind 2 Cor. 5: 16: 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.
We view this world, and especially the people who populate it, as God does. And as we see from the preceding verses, that is to view others from a stance of love: ‘for the love of Christ urges us on’.
So our outlook is not particularly hard to understand:
We are called to love a God who is just and righteous, and to love with our whole being: heart, soul, mind and strength. And in doing this, God calls us to live rightly with our neighbor.
In our prayer book, this exhortation comes immediately prior to confession. In the light of such an expectation, who of us can stand before God without acknowledging the extent to which we fall short. Yet in the enacted drama of our liturgy, this is just the prelude. God responds to our cry for mercy, and so our relationship with God is redeemed, and we are assured that we are now right with God.
In the words of our passage: All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ (5:18), and again in v. 19: 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.
This leads us to a second foundational gospel truth, also reflected in 5:21: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As reconciliation starts with God, it is provided for only through Christ, so that we may relate to God rightly, and become the righteousness of God. This takes us to the work of the cross and resurrection, such a momentous happening that we will never fully comprehend, yet which stands as the great turning point in history.
There are so many dimensions to the work of Christ upon the cross, and in what changed as a result of his resurrection, but here Paul sums it up so succinctly, and no less profoundly: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
That is one heck of a sentence! I don’t want to mess it up with my inadequate commentary, other than to put locate it within the great biblical narrative as a whole.
Reconciliation brings the overarching great creation project back on track. The goal is much, much bigger than our own private salvation: it is part of something so much bigger than us. We are redeemed and reconciled so that in and through us, God will complete what has been intended for humanity from the outset – that creation would be fruitful and flourish, and become all it was intended to be, and to become.
So as reconciliation:
· starts with God
· and is provided for through Christ
· so too it defines our calling as God’s people:
God has commissioned his church with the ministry of reconciliation. It is entrusted to us, a message we are to proclaim, and no less to live out. Elsewhere Paul describes it as a ‘gospel of peace’ (Eph. 6:15), and of course Jesus declared that “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9).
Any understanding of our mission and ministry as a church must be grounded in our call to be a people of peace, a people of reconciliation. I suspect we are largely in agreement with that – but the real question is to what extent does that characterise our life as a church? If we were to ask the average person walking down Rundle Mall as to their perception of the church, would we be described as a people of peace, a people of reconciliation?
The challenge is to live out what we proclaim. And that is precisely the direction Paul takes it in verse 20: So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Now the more you look at it, the more curious this verse becomes.
Firstly, it is lost in our English translation, but it is a classic plural ‘yous’ statement. In fact, even clearer than Aussie drawl, we are better served by the US western twang: “y’all”
“Y’all – you need to be reconciled to God”
That part is clear enough. What is more striking is who Paul is addressing this to—the Church at Corinth. It is as if Paul was speaking to our Synod, and say to us: “Y’all – you need to be reconciled to God”
To which we would reply – what do you mean, surely we are reconciled to God? Why would Paul be exhorting the Corinthian church over the need to be reconciled with God? The answer is that the work of reconciliation needed to go further: they were not reconciled with each other, and nor with Paul.
The Corinthian church was renowned for its divisions and differing parties. Some were separating off from others; and Paul was subject to very personal comparisons and criticisms over his character and style of leadership.
Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian Church, as also to the Church at Rome, is essentially you cannot be reconciled to God if you fail to seek to be reconciled with one another, and with those around you. In Paul’s way, he is making just the same point as the great commandment. We cannot love God, and ignore our neighbour.
Which leads us to the pointy bit of our reflections:
How does a passage such as this challenge us, and guide us in understanding our mission and ministry?
Let me suggest some applications in our own context, although of course there are many more:
Firstly, continued work is needed in seeking reconciliation with our aboriginal neighbours. Aboriginal people were here long, long before us. We have moved into their neighbourhood, and made a pretty significant impression on the landscape in so many ways.
All is not right in our relationship with Aboriginal peoples, and we are not living rightly as a community in that regard. There is gospel work of reconciliation to be done.
As a city here in Adelaide, within the wider state of South Australia, and no less as a nation, there are issues that may be literally identified as matters of life and death that need to be addressed. We will hear more on this as we get into the work of Synod.
As we reflect in what it is to live rightly as a community with our neighbours, we also need to take some responsibility for how we relate to our regional and global neighbours, and especially the significant number of genuine refugees seeking shelter and basic human provisions.
Significant issues for our reflection, but I need to draw this to a conclusion.
How does this passage shape the way in which we gather here this evening, and over the weekend as a Synod?
As we arrived, a significant welcome was extended to us, inviting us to come together, to participate in something much deeper and bigger than who we are as individuals.
I started with the statement: the gospel entrusted to us is personal and communal, but never individual.
How is this reflected in our Anglican liturgy? The older orders of Holy Communion included a robust exhortation as we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table. We are to make peace with one another, and especially with our neighbour:
“You, then, who truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to live a new life…”
In our revised forms of service, this has been replaced by the ‘Greeting of Peace’, much more than a casual moment of greeting. The ‘Greeting of Peace’ is a gesture of reconciliation and commitment to live rightly with one another.
Let us do so this evening as we commence this weekend together, and may they be—in God’s grace—steps towards a deeper, respectful more truly loving relationship as a gospel family established in Christ, and no less as neighbours and as a community.