Tired of the partisan bickering in our politics, our churches, and our organizations? Paul tells us that Christ entrusted us with a ministry of reconciliation, and that we are empowered as Christ’s ambassadors to reconcile on God’s behalf. But how? Drew’s sermon comes from Joshua 5:9-15, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Be a minister of reconciliation in your life this week.
Reconciliation on Holy Ground
The Old Testament Passage, found in the book of Joshua, records a really strange moment. An angel appears to Joshua, and Joshua is so focused on his earthly battles, that he asks this angel, “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” The angel says, “Neither, but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
Isn’t that a weird moment? I mean, if an angel showed up in my life, I wouldn’t try to put it into my boxes of who is right and wrong, I would try to put myself on the right side with God. Wouldn’t I? As you start to think about it, and think about real experiences in the church, maybe it’s not so strange. We can get so deeply involved with what we want, that we can forget to think about what God wants. You’ve probably seen it before, a change in the liturgy gets proposed, and all of a sudden everyone is up in arms, and nobody is thinking about who gets hurt when those arms start swinging. I’ve been there. I’ve carried the banner of “We’ve always done it that way!” into battle on behalf of what I liked the most, and in the heat of those fights I have no doubt that if an angel came to me I would have asked the same question: Wait, before you get started: Which team are you on? Never would I have stopped to wonder, which side am I on? What does it mean to be on God’s side?
But of course the angel does not declare a side for whom he fights. He is on the Lord’s side, and the Lord’s side alone. God isn’t here to fight out battles. We are here to fight God’s battles. God and God’s word aren’t weapons to be used in the battle of what we think is right. The Bible isn’t full of verses so that we can shout them at each other, or use them in facebook posts that we hope will cause certain people to read and change their lives. It’s full of wisdom so that we can submit to it, and find a new way of relating to each other. God did not come into the world to make divisions, but to reconcile the divisions already present in our world.
This is what Paul wrote about in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Now Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians is one that’s full of conflict. If they were on facebook, they might list their relationship status as “It’s complicated” So Paul writes to the Corinthians, who are at least as stubborn and hardhearted as we are, to teach them about Christ, and Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. And what Paul tells the Corinthians has a lot to say to us. It can teach us a lot about what it means to be on God’s side, instead of trying to get God to be on our side.
The first thing we should understand about the ministry of reconciliation is that it is God’s work, and that God begins it. We can tell this is important, because Paul says it twice in the same sentence. “All this,” he says, “is from God, who reconciled himself to us through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…” The point is that it’s God who does the reconciling.
The first four words of the Bible, from the book of Genesis, are “In the beginning, God.” These words seem like just an introduction, but they’re much more than that. What they tell us, is that God is the author and creator of all. Some scholars think that these four words are a statement all on their own, separate from the rest of the sentence that follows. But the point is this: it is God who initiated creation and it is God who enacts God’s reconciliation in us.
Now this is great news. Anyone who has ever attempted a reconciliation, whether its with a family member who had a falling out long ago, a neighbor who “accidentally” weedwhacks our wisteria, or a criminal who wronged us, knows how difficult it is. The personalities are strong, people don’t see eye to eye or understand each other. Most of the time the best we can come up with, is a half-hearted apology, an uneasy truce. A Thanksgiving without anyone exploding can sometimes be the best that we can achieve when it comes to reconciliation. So to reconcile God with the world, to reconcile ourselves to God, this is a much bigger task than between family members. God is the infinite, God is beyond our understanding, more good than we can imagine, wholly other, wholly different from the fleshly things we can understand. This is a much bigger task than we can do on our own. So we give thanks that it is God who initiates, it is God who reconciles us to Godself, rather than us trying to reconcile God to our world.
But how does God reconcile the world to Godself. The task is certainly too much for us, but how does God do it? This is the second thing that Paul has to share with us. He mentions this twice as well. Through Christ, God reconciles the world to Godself. It is in Christ that we are reconciled to God. But how does it happen? In Christ, God took on human flesh, and came down to earth to us. Though God is beyond sin, God became sin, that we might participate in the righteousness of God.
Paul gives us a couple of words to help us understand what this means. The first is redemption. So what does it mean to be redeemed?
For Christmas, someone sent me a gift card to amazon.com. But since Amazon isn’t a physical place, there’s not really a physical card. They just had an email printed out, and on the email is a string of numbers and letters that has no meaning or value whatsoever. They’re meaningless, just gibberish. Until you type them into the website, and redeem them. Then, all of a sudden, those letters mean you have money in your account, and you can buy what you need. This is what happens to us through Christ. We’re just bouncing through life in a pinball machine, with no direction, tossed and turned by everything we run into. But through Christ, our lives are given direction, meaning, value. This is what it is to be redeemed. It is to be turned from nothing into something, from a random string of letters and numbers into something valuable that serves a purpose in life and provides what you need. Redemption – turns us from meaningless chaos into a life of value. So that’s the first word Paul gives us to understand what’s going on.
The second, is reconciliation. So let me unpack the term reconcile, a little bit, Reconcile in this context refers to human relationships, but reconcile is also a banking term. I know this because every few years I try to get all my finances together. I’ve got this software on my computer, and you can download your bank statement, and then file each charge in whatever category you’d like, so you can see how much money you spent on groceries or restaurants or gas or whatever. And when I think I’m going to get my finances back in order, I do this for a while, and then I get too busy, and get several months behind and I’ve made some mistake in filing stuff that I can’t figure out, and I eventually just give up. So when I’m trying to start again, the software says to me, you’ve got all of this old data, all these old transactions and they don’t match with the new data you’ve put in. Do you want to reconcile?
What that means is that the software will go back through all the old transactions and put in a new transaction that cancels it out, so that all of those old transactions are no longer counted, so that it matches with reality and I can start fresh. This is what Paul talks about when he talks about Christ’s ministry of reconciliation to us: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us,” Paul says. And he says “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.” So through this reconciliation, which God begins, and is done through Christ, we are redeemed, we are turned from something of no value into something of great value, with a purpose, and we are reconciled, our trespasses and failures and mistakes of the past are not counted against us, and we are a new creation. And, Jesus did this once for all. Not just for the perfect, the innocent, the deserving, but for every single one of us, every person bopping around in a pinball machine with no idea where to turn, whose life is just a string of events one following the other, has been given this gift of redemption and reconciliation.
This would be a nice place to stop. It would be a very feel-good message if Paul stopped there. But of course Paul doesn’t stop there. Christ’s ministry of reconciliation is not over. It is done through Christ, but it is still ongoing. God is at this very moment reconciling Godself to the world through Christ. And Christ has entrusted that ministry, that ministry of reconciliation, to us. We are participants in God’s ministry of reconciliation. Not just as receivers of grace, but as givers of it.
How do we participate in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation? First, we announce it to the world. Then second, we’re called to stand in Christ’s place, as reconcilers. Paul says that we are ambassadors for Christ. Christ entrusted his ministry of reconciliation to us. So now we are to reconcile God with the world. So what does it mean that we are ambassadors? An ambassador is the go-between between two parties. The ambassador represents the home country’s interests in the host country. They are given a mission, and empowered with the flexibility and authority to complete that mission. So just as our ambassadors represent the interests of the United States in countries all across the world, so we are called to represent God’s interests all over the world.
And in order to do so, we can no longer see things from a human point of view. If we are going to be out in the world representing God’s interests, then we are going to have to look at the world the way God looks at it, and then act in the way God acts, facing aggression with meekness, standing against the proud with humility, giving redemption to those who have lost their way, providing the means of reconciliation to those whose balance sheets have become to heavy to bear. We have to give up the judgment, the labeling, deciding who is our friend and who is our enemy before we reach out our hands or join in support. For God, reconciliation comes first. As Glenn Miller, a professor at Bangor Theological Seminary puts it, “reconciliation is too important to wait for all the theological details.”
It’s funny, when Joshua asks that angel, “Are you for us or against us?” The angel doesn’t answer yes. The angel says, “Neither, I come on behalf of God.” In other words, God isn’t for us. God loves us, God cares about us, God reconciles us to Godself, but God isn’t for us. We are for God. We are here on behalf of the Lord, as a part of the reconciliation and redemption of the world. When Joshua realizes this, and bows down before the angel and says, “What would you have your servant do?” The angel’s reply is simple: “Take of your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.”
Through Christ God reconciles the world to Godself. And Christ does so in us, not counting our trespasses, taking the debts from our accounts. Christ didn’t come to be on our side against our enemies, he came to reconcile between our sinful selves and God’s infinite goodness. If we want to put ourselves on God’s side, we have to be a part of that reconciliation, we have to be ambassadors on behalf of God’s interests in the world. And to do that, we cannot see the world from a human point of view, we can no longer look at the world with the fleshly lenses we have with us. We have to see the world from God’s point of view. We have to see that this place that we live in as holy, the people within it as holy and worthy and deserving of love, because they are being reconciled to God’s holiness. We have to take off our shoes, and open our hearts, and love as like Christ, who for our sake became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.
 Miller, Glenn “2 Corinthians 5:11-6:13” Interpretation, vol. 54 no. 2 April 2000, p. 188.