Bridges of Reconciliation (Part 1)

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Bridges of Reconciliation (Part 1)

May 6, 2018         Maple Grove UMC

 

To build bridges of healing, compassion, and justice

through our relationships with God, self, and others.

               That is Maple Grove’s new Vision Statement. It’s visionary language because it invites us to see the world a new way—to see all our ministries, everything we do, as bridges to God, and bridges to lonely, hurting people. These words invite us to look for what we need in order to draw closer to God and one another. They inspire us to see our own lives as bridges to reach others with healing, compassion and justice.

          We begin this worship series on Building Bridges with 2 Corinthians 5 and the bridge of reconciliation. Be reconciled to God, Paul writes, and be ambassadors of reconciliation to others. Surely in these angry, divisive and polarized times, what the world needs now is not just love sweet love, but the special form of love called reconciliation. Reconciliation can be as big as the generations of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the endless bloodshed in Syria.

          It can also be as close as home. I’ve heard that there are spouses (this would never happen in the parsonage, you understand!) who after angry words have been exchanged and both spouses have reason to feel hurt, each one will lie on their own side of the bed, backs turned to one another, arms crossed, neither one saying a word, each one waiting for the other to make the first move. Until perhaps minutes, perhaps hours, perhaps days later, one finally reaches a hand across the divide, just letting it rest on the other’s shoulder. That hand is the bridge of reconciliation.

 

          2 Corinthians was written during a period of intense conflict between the apostle Paul and the church at Corinth. Paul was an early hero in that church; he spent more time there, I believe, than anywhere else besides Ephesus. But after he left, other teachers came to Corinth, teachers who disagreed with Paul and disparaged his character. Many of the Corinthians turned against Paul. One of them treated Paul so harshly that even other critics of Paul had to rein him in. Paul had intended to visit Corinth once, maybe even more, but so great was the conflict that Paul canceled these visits and sent Titus instead.

          This letter, 2 Corinthians, is Paul’s olive branch to the Corinthian church, his attempt to patch things up, and chapter 5 is the high point of his appeal. Now, in the midst of this conflict, we might expect Paul to say something like, “Come on, Corinthians, let’s be reconciled to each other.” But instead Paul says, “Come on, Corinthians, let’s all be reconciled to God.” Paul understood that Christians cannot claim peace with God unless we are at peace with one another. And when we are truly reconciled to God, peace with one another will follow.1

              

               2 Corinthians 5 is a treasure chest of good theology about reconciliation:

  • In terms of our relationship with God, note that it’s not that God needs to be reconciled to us; it’s that we need to be reconciled to God. Sometimes we think God is angry about our sins and that we need to appease God or win God over with our repentance and faith. But the truth is, God doesn’t need to change at all. God is always standing there with open arms, ready to receive us home. In fact, Paul says, God has already reconciled the whole world through Christ—all that remains is for us to take God’s hand.
  • And in terms of our relationships with one another, Paul insists in 2 Corinthians 5:14 that Christ died for all, for everyone without exception. In other words, Christ died for me and Christ died for the people with whom I have conflict. Therefore, I can’t relate to those people only in terms of our disagreement; I have to relate to them as persons for whom Jesus gave his life. That puts our conflict in a different perspective.

     Paul is saying not that Christians need some day to be reconciled to one another, but that in Christ reconciliation has already been accomplished. If anyone is in Christ, he says, everything old has passed away. There is a new creation, a new world to live in. Therefore, as one Bible scholar has put it, the old conflicts, like our old sins, have passed away. Like it or not, I am “already reconciled to my neighbor who is now my brother or my sister.” When we keep our eyes on Christ, our Reconciler, we have no time for enmity, no energy for hostility, for everything has been made new.2

 

          That’s the theology. Here’s what it looks like in real life. In the Walking While Black film that we showed last weekend, there is the story of a white police officer who, feeling pressure to get convictions and get bad guys off the street, was persuaded to falsify evidence against an African-American suspect. An innocent man went to prison, and it wasn’t until four years later that the cop ‘fessed up and the man was released. When he got out of prison, the man confronted the now former officer, demanding to know why he’d lied. The former cop first apologized but then said some things that made matters worse, and the two parted with one still bitterly angry and the other feeling guilty and helpless. Years later, by chance, these two men got assigned to work together one-on-one, and they stood there staring at each other. “I figured I was going to take a beating,” the white man says. “I deserved to take a beating.” Instead the black man from whom he’d taken four years of his life, reached out and hugged him, forgave him, became his friend and coworker. Why? Because, he said, “We’re brothers now. Brothers in Christ. All that happened in the old life; there’s a new creation now.” Through Christ God has reconciled us to himself and given us the ministry of reconciliation. I hope you’ll see the film when we show it again June 21.

 

          Reconciliation is not a passive experience, it is an intentional activity. We don’t get to lie back on our side of the bed, arms crossed, waiting for someone else will make the first move. Rather, in Christ we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ—God sends us out as agents of reconciliation.

 

          This scripture has been working on me for weeks now. So here is how I have been an ambassador for Christ this week. I am painfully aware that over seven years as your pastor, I have done and said things that caused people pain. I’m also aware that others have said and done things that hurt my feelings. And whose fault it is—that’s always hard to say, and in the end it doesn’t really matter. All that happened in the old life; in Christ there is a new creation. Christ died for those who have hurt others and for those who have been hurt; we’re all sisters and brothers in Christ. Reconciliation isn’t a passive experience, it’s an intentional action. So this week I sent hand-written letters to several people at Maple Grove, people with whom I’ve had conflict—asking their forgiveness, offering my forgiveness, seeking to build a bridge over all that might hold us apart. I admit—it was hard to do. But I couldn’t preach this sermon to you until I had done that.

          All too often, we lie in bed, turned away from each other, arms crossed, waiting for someone else to make the first move. Well, in Christ, God always makes the first move. And we are ambassadors of that God. I’ve told you what I did this week, as an ambassador for Christ, as an agent of reconciliation. You too, are an ambassador for Christ. What will you do? What bridge of reconciliation will you build for God this week?

1 Drawn from Ernest Best, Second Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987), 58.

2 Glenn T. Miller, “2 Corinthians 5:11 – 6:13,” Interpretation 54/2 (April 2000), 186-88.

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