by Ken Sehested
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything
has become new! 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.
—2 Corinthians 5:17-19
Few things are more uniform among Protestant churches the world over than Sunday school. Many are surprised to learn that this organized form of Bible study began in Britain in the 18th century. And its specific purpose was to provide literacy training for poor children. It was a ministry of reconciliation in an age when industrialization was deepening the chasm of poverty.
But Sunday school, like the ministry of reconciliation, has been tamed. In 2004, shortly after the release of gruesome photos of abuse and torture in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, a ranking U.S. Senator responded this way to a reporter’s question: “This is not Sunday school. This is interrogation. This is rough stuff.”
Thirty years ago, on my first trip to apartheid-era South Africa, I was stunned to learn that the word “reconciliation” had derogatory connotations even for those Christians committed to racial equality. Why? Because the word had been warped in the National Party’s lexicon to mean: “When you are reconciled to the fact that we are on top and you are on the bottom, then we will have peace.”
As Filipino poet Justino Cabazares has written, “Talk to us about reconciliation only if your living is not the cause of our dying.”
The work of reconciliation—so prominent in the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the discipleship, so pivotal in Jesus’ mandate to love enemies—is frequently misunderstand in the church and is openly derided in the world whose norm is “reward your friends, punish your enemies.”
How, then, are we to cultivate our calling to be agents of reconciliation? Consider these eight suggestions.
1. The newer English translations of v. 16, “from a human point of view,” is an improvement over the King James phrase, “after the flesh.” But both are terribly misleading. As elsewhere in much of the Newer Testament, the word “flesh” is not a reference to material reality set off against “spiritual” reality. Rather, the reference is to existing patterns of domination that are diametrically opposed to the new creation that is promised. To be spirit-filled is to live humanly in right-relatedness.
Right: Jacob Steinhardt, Jacob and Esau, 1950, color woodcut
2. Regarding those who are “in Christ” (v. 17), the traditional translation reads “he is a new creation.” It should be “there is a new creation,” because the language is deeply relational and is now governed by the promise of the coming new age. The transformation that occurs is like when Neo, in the movie “The Matrix,” discovers the world he has known is an oppressive fabrication. After this stunning revelation, everything changes.
3. We are saved for the world, not from it. The work of repentance is not to prepare us for heaven but to propel us into the world’s broken places. We sing with the psalmist that “I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (27:13), confident in the Word that promises “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). The table of our Lord is such that offerings are to be postponed until reconciliation is initiated (Matthew 5:23-24).
4. The Gospel’s disarming of the heart, and of the nations, is a unified mission. Redemption is always personal but never merely private. To recover our ministry of reconciliation, we need more evangelistic messages that provoke the kind of confession of Jesus as personal Lord and Savior made by Zacchaeus (Luke 8). The church’s evangelistic mission is in contradiction to that of the world, where violence is the Devil’s evangelistic tool.
5. Our capacity to forgive is proportionate to our experience of being forgiven. The work of grace is a fear-displacement process. As Jesus taught, “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47). The deeper our reverence for God, the greater our capacity to risk for the neighbor. Resting in God readies us for our rendezvous with earth’s trauma.
6. Forgiving does not mean forgetting, at least in the short term. The work of reconciliation requires the labor of truth-telling. The Prophet Jeremiah cried out repeatedly against those who “have treated the wound of my people carelessly” (6:14 & 8:11). The journey of reconciliation toward the promise of peace requires treading the path of justice.
7. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. The former is a transforming initiative we can take on our own. Forgiving frees us from the toxic grasp of vengeance. It is our imitatio Christi (imitation of Christ), who acted while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8).
8. Finally, reconciliation is a lifelong covenant, not a one-night stand. Even the disciples, upon hearing the Commission before Christ’s ascension, were both reverent and doubtful (Matthew 28:17). Often enough, so are we, for the apparent evidence often favors those “whose belly is their God” (Philippians 3:19). Even still, being “surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, we lay aside every weight and run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus . . .” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
# # #