Reconciliation: God’s Gift to Humanity
The word ‘reconciliation’ is used and understood in many different ways. The politician thinks of reconciliation as conflict resolution; the therapist thinks of inner healing and integration; the ecologist thinks of finding a renewed relationship with nature, rediscovering the balance between what consumes and what sustains; the mediator thinks of getting everybody to live in peace with each other; the accountant thinks of balancing the accounts. But the Christian Faith has a very rich understanding of reconciliation that is often forgotten, frequently overlooked, normally made more complicated than it is and usually watered down. My appeal – and the thrust of my three contributions at this conference – is that we rediscover that distinctive understanding that lies at the heart of the Christian faith, recognise it and celebrate it as God’s gift to humanity not just for Christians, but to the whole of humanity.
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that reconciliation lies at heart of the Christian faith and at the heart of the Bible. The book of Genesis begins with creation as God planned it. God, human-beings and creation are in a symbiotic relationship with and between each other and with the world in which they live. But very soon, it all breaks down and Genesis 3 charts how human beings fell out of relationship with God, each other, within themselves and with creation. Note how falling out of relationship with God affected all other relationships.
It went from bad to worse. Genesis recounts how God decided to destroy all living creatures and, with the help of Noah, wanted to start again with a clean sheet. This is the genesis of reconciliation when God made a covenant that he would never again destroy the earth in this way. We then see countless attempts by God to establish a fresh relationship with humanity –God has a deep longing for reconciliation. But while there may have been short-term successes, none of them really worked. First he sent, Abram, then Jacob, Esau and Joseph. Then there was Moses, the Judges, the prophets....all of these were attempts by God, working through people, who had issues about their own inner reconciliation, to establish a new relationship with the whole of creation. Finally, in exasperated love, God sends his son Jesus Christ, who personifies reconciliation, who is the embodiment of reconciliation and who achieves the reconciliation for which God was longing and he achieves it through the cross. So reconciliation between God and humanity was achieved through Jesus Christ on the cross, though we have not yet fully apprehended this. Just as we do not fully apprehend the vastness of God’s love and forgiveness, so we do not fully apprehend his reconciliation....more about this later. The Bible ends in the book of Revelation with a vision of humanity reunited/reconciled with God in the New Jerusalem apart from those who exclude themselves from this relationship.
So, reconciliation is like an underground river that flows through and feeds the whole of scripture, occasionally bubbling up to the surface and identifying itself. But it is St. Paul who places his finger on the theme, draws out its significance for faith and places it at the heart of his thinking and theology.
Reconciliation is God’s gift to humanity, not just to the church, but to humanity. Reconciliation is at the heart of faith. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of reconciliation. Therefore it follows that reconciliation should be at the heart of our mission and ministry. It is not part of ministry, it is not a prelude to ministry but it is ministry.
In this second part of my talk, I want to draw out four features of reconciliation that are particularly important.
First, reconciliation is mediated through relationships and it all starts with God’s initiative and desire to be in relationship with us. Relationships, not techniques, are of primary importance. Reconciliation is God’s gift. Reconciliation starts with God and feeds and energises our relationships with each other, within families, between communities, between nations, with the planet and, perhaps most difficult of all, within ourselves.
If all is not well with one area, it will affect all the others and, like a house of cards, all may fall down. If my relationship with my neighbour is not right, it may have something to do with my relationship with God. Treating our environment and planet as objects to be used and discarded will be reflected in the way we treat and view each other. When two nations are warring, it has something to do with the warring that goes on within us all.
Secondly, reconciliation involves conflict. Reconciliation is often linked with the removal of conflict, but this goes against the understanding of reconciliation in Christian theology. Indeed, a sign that one is on the path to reconciliation is an increase in conflict. The ministry of Jesus Christ, God’s embodiment of reconciliation, was marked by conflict which increased during the course of his ministry. St. Luke’s Gospel in particular highlights the symbolism of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to the heart of the Jewish faith and it is in Jerusalem where the opposition to Jesus is at its strongest. The conflict reaches its agonizing height with Jesus’ death on the cross and it is at this point when reconciliation between God and humanity is achieved. When Jesus meets with his disciples after the resurrection, the wounds of the crucifixion, which are the marks of the conflict, remain on his body, but they have been transformed from the marks of death to signs of new life.
The conflict related to reconciliation is not just outside of ourselves, but also within. We need to be concerned about inner reconciliation, recognising that it is more than a lifetime’s work. There are times for all of us when there is a war within and sometimes we think we are losing. St. Paul articulates this well in his letter to the Romans which has so much to say about reconciliation:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So far I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Reconciliation is not about the removal of conflict, nor is it about its resolution, but rather about the transformation of conflict from something destructive to something life-giving. It is important to remember that in our ministries when we are in the middle of struggle – it can be a creative and significant place to be.
Conflict is essential for growth and healthy living. It is not a sign of failure nor is it necessarily a sign of sinfulness. Indeed – and I know that we all do it for a quieter, more peaceful life - avoiding conflict can be a way of preventing the work of the Holy Spirit. The Church is facing a number of issues at present which are generating a great deal of conflict, namely, assisted dying, responding to the issue of same-sex marriage and the key question of its relationship with the wider Anglican Communion. There has never been a time when the Church has not faced major issues of conflict and there never will be. What is vital is the way in which the issues are handled – as far as the Church’s witness to the world is concerned, the way in which the issues are handled will speak more loudly than the issues themselves. But it’s not just those big issues of conflict being played out on the big stage that are important. Those issues with the flower arrangers, the PCC, the CEO, the organist, the Vicar next door and yes, even those issues with the bishops.....these are equally important and call out for being faced and transformed from destructive tension into dynamic creativity. And faith communities need to be places of reconciliation where conflicts are handled. Every kind of ministry is a ministry of reconciliation.
Thirdly, reconciliation is a journey. It is a journey rather than a destination, although there are short stops on the way. Reconciliation is not an isolated, one-off event, but, rather, it is a way of life, shaping our attitudes and providing a way to articulate our beliefs. Once it is accepted that God has already reconciled the world through Jesus Christ, then the Christian’s primary task is to point to that reconciliation, focus it and help make it a reality in the communities in which they live and work (which will include families, church and world) and within themselves. All of this will involve a change of culture which will place reconciliation at the heart of the Gospel, where conflict will be regarded as full of potential and opportunities, where dialogue and relationship are seen as essential to healthy living and where we learn to live with conflicting truths rather than think that we need to choose one over and against the other.
Reconciliation is not the same as mediation or conflict resolution. Mediation and conflict resolution can be paths to reconciliation. While there will be occasions when disputes are resolved, long sought-after agreements reached and self-discoveries made, these are small victories (reconciliations with a small ‘r’), on the way to Reconciliation (capital ‘r’), which is a full and complete realisation that we are embraced by the infinite love which is God. This is the answering of the prayer in the letter to the Ephesians (3.18-19) that, ‘you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’
Such complete Reconciliation with God will be experienced not in this world, but in the next. Nevertheless, the small victories (reconciliations with a small ‘r’) are glimpses, experiences and foretastes of the fullness of what is to come.
But the quest and journey towards reconciliation is not only a Christian pursuit. It is a human pursuit. Many faiths encourage their devotees to seek a relationship with the deity they worship and with their neighbours. People of no faith recognise the need for human beings to work at their relationship with their communities and even with the planet. There are many movements, both religious and non-religious, that encourage people to strive for an inner harmony and integration, eg ‘mindfulness.’ The search for reconciliation is hard-wired into humanity and Christianity has this at the heart of its theology and Christianity has something quite distinctive to show the world about it. The challenge for Christians is to witness to this priority and remind society of its importance.
Finally, reconciliation flourishes and deepens in a climate of celebration and thanksgiving. Reconciliation is fuelled by celebration and thanksgiving. Although problems and difficulties will be faced and encountered and injustice and suffering may be involved, reconciliation is not primarily about problems. In fact, reconciliation will be difficult in an environment which is primarily problem-focused. The Eucharist is the sacrament of reconciliation in that Jesus draws together those seeking reconciliation and offers an experience of reconciliation. Reconciliation will, in the end, be achieved because it has already been achieved and is now being experienced: such assurance gives momentum to the process.
My sisters and brothers, every kind of ministry is ultimately a ministry of reconciliation because reconciliation lies at the heart of the Gospel and we need to rediscover that. Jesus Christ, the embodiment of reconciliation is the Good News: reconciliation is good news. When we share Christ’s cross of reconciliation, so, too, we share Christ’s glory.
Rochester Clergy Conference - University of Hertfordshire - 8th September, 2015. Lecture 1.