“VIBE” TALK ON 2 CORINTHIANS 5:14-6:10 –
JUNE 19, 2011 – HOLY TRINITY, VANCOUVER
After the sad events of last Wednesday evening, few should need convincing of the urgent need for reconciliation in our world.
The terrifying, heart-rending sight of literally thousands of young people rioting, fighting, looting and destroying property on downtown streets served a powerful reminder that all is not right in Lotus Land. And while some may prefer to place most of the blame on the shifting shoulders of a few, anarchist troublemakers, no amount of scapegoating can relieve us of the communal responsibility for allowing things to come to such a pass. Most of those who participated in the mayhem after the hockey game were, after all, everyday young people, whatever the precipitating factors.
If a society, any society, can rightly be judged by the worst, as well as the best behaviour of its citizens, then it cannot be just a few hooligans who stand in the dock. We cannot distance ourselves from the perpetrators by demonizing them, because every single one of us, including the church, bears some responsibility – not least for our failures to share the gospel or to pray for our city and its leaders as much as we ought.
So while some of our dreams, or perhaps illusions about Vancouver may have been left in the rubble last week, there remained pressing questions not only about the kind of community that people wish to rebuild, but about our part in it. And as we think about those, the theme of tonight’s talk, which was picked months ago, surely stands front and centre.
We can and often should seek healing and reconciliation in so many different ways – social, as well as psychological, relational, as well as physical. But underlying them all, tonight’s reading reminds us of the fundamental human need for reconciliation with God through Christ, and that, the Bible tells us, offers the greatest healing of all.
We don’t always pay much attention to the really big questions. What are we here for perhaps, or how can we find our ultimate purpose in life? Yet all of us have times when such issues become front and centre, and a community crisis like that of this past week can be one of them.
Our reading certainly addresses the big picture of healing and reconciliation and it highlights two key points. The first is the persistent priority for personal and corporate reconciliation with God throughout our lives. The second really flows from that, and that is our primary purpose to be healers and reconcilers to others.
For the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5 and 6, the whole of the gospel is ultimately about reconciliation and renewal. When we come to faith in Christ, we benefit from the cosmic work of healing and restoration that God has wrought through him. “All this is from God,” he states in verses 18 and 19, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”
And the basis of our reconciliation is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, when he paid the price to set us free from the consequences of our mistakes. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” [in other words, to take our place and bear our punishment], Paul says in verse 21, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
A Persistent Priority
As a result, we are not only set free from the past and “justified,” or counted guiltless, before God. We find and receive the ultimate healing, the greatest healing of all, as we are released and restored from the negative effects of sin in our lives. We become “new creations” in Christ, and we are called to work and live out our spiritual rebirth by making it a “persistent priority” to seek personal and corporate reconciliation with God.
Those who are yet to come to Christ must obviously be reconciled with God. And before that can happen, they must first receive the good news of the gospel that God sent his only Son to save them. Yet the process of reconciliation does not stop at conversion. The Christian journey involves a continual process of making and finding peace with God and others, as we receive God’s grace and healing into different areas of our lives.
That’s why Paul also tells the Corinthians, who are believers, to “be reconciled to God.” Not because they do not enjoy the benefits of salvation, but because the apostle wants his readers to experience God’s blessings more deeply. And he continues that theme in Chapter 6, verses 1-2. “We urge you also not to receive God’s grace in vain….I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation!”
This marvelous message of reconciliation thus has a double focus. It is obviously important for those who don’t yet know Christ. But it equally applies within the church, as we help each other to enter more fully into the inheritance that Jesus has won for us on the cross.
As Paul makes very clear in verses 3 to 10 of 2 Corinthians 6, the Christian life is not an easy one and we can all expect to suffer for our faith. But God calls us to growth and sanctification, whatever our circumstances.
And one of the main ways that we can meet that priority is to offer up and let go of those things that separate us from God on a regular and consistent basis. For it is as we recognize our shortcomings that we allow God to make them good and it is as seek God’s mercy that we acknowledge God’s grace.
A Primary Purpose
It is also as we ask for reconciliation that God empowers us to be “Christ’s ambassadors” and to share the gospel of reconciliation with others. And this is a “primary purpose” in ministry, as the apostle Paul states very clearly in 2 Corinthians 5:20. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us,” he writes. Then he continues: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
So the church has been entrusted with a glorious and life-changing ministry. We have become nothing less than “ambassadors” or representatives of Christ. We have been commissioned to share the gospel. We have even been given the privilege of being God’s spokespeople, as it were, to call others to come and receive the wonderful work of grace from which we have already benefited.
That’s a “primary purpose” in ministry, as Paul states it: to be God’s reconcilers and to spread the good news of God in Christ. But even as we do that, we must continue to pay attention to our own issues. We sin and we require God’s forgiveness. We have wounds that require healing and we carry burdens to let go. And the only way that we can find lasting relief and renewal is to allow God to meet us at our deepest points of need.
So the message of our reading is ultimately one of paradox. The church becomes strong when we allow God to be our strength in weakness. The church becomes rich when we realize our poverty without God. We are reconciled to God when we recognize our distance from God and ask Christ to bridge the gap as only he can. And the exciting news is that this ministry of reconciliation then becomes a persistent priority and a primary purpose throughout our Christian lives.
“From Exclusion to Embrace”
In his sermon, “From Exclusion to Embrace,” Skye Jothani spoke of an Anglican leader who has become world-famous for his work for social healing and reconciliation in South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against the evils of apartheid and in his book No Future without Forgiveness, “he shares stories and insights from his leadership role in his nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
The objective of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa was for those who had committed atrocities to tell the truth — both blacks and whites. But it did not end there. After confession, the goal was to bring reconciliation and forgiveness — “to break the cycle of hate so the entire country could move forward.”
In one chapter Tutu recounts testimony after testimony of people who came before the commission to talk about the torture and murder of others. Two of them were a Mrs. Calata and her daughter. Calata’s husband had been been “arrested, detained, and tortured by the police numerous times.” But one day he disappeared. On the front page of the newspaper, Calata saw a photograph of her husband’s car on fire. She cried so loudly during the hearing that the commission had to be adjourned.
Then when it reconvened, Calata’s daughter testified. Years had gone by, and she pleaded with the commission to discover who had killed her father. But she was not crying out because she wanted vengeance or justice. Instead she said: “We want to forgive, but we don’t know whom to forgive.”
Eventually members of the police confessed to the crime. But rather than continue the endless cycle of hatred, Calata and her daughter forgave the men who tortured and killed their husband and father. And why and how could they do this? Basically, observed Jothani, because that’s what Christ’s people do.
He then posed two challenging questions. Does forgiveness mean that we do not care about justice? Does it mean there is no consequence for evil? Jothani’s answer to them was a decisive “no.” What it means instead, he concluded, is that we leave justice and vengeance in God’s hands. He alone can judge rightly. Our job, as agents of his kingdom on earth, is to break the cycles of hate — to move from a people of exclusion to a people of embrace, forgiving others just as God, in Christ, has forgiven us.
Let me repeat that. “Our job, as agents of [God’s] kingdom on earth, is to break the cycles of hate — to move from a people of exclusion to a people of embrace, forgiving others just as God, in Christ, has forgiven us.” You couldn’t find a much better, much more biblical definition of what the ministry of reconciliation with which we have all been entrusted, can actually entail in practical terms.
The Church’s Calling
But the church’s calling extends even further, of course, because we have a message of reconciliation to share that supersedes all others. So we are called not just to seek social healing and reconciliation by working for forgiveness and understanding. We are tasked not only to strive for peace and justice. We have the unique privilege to help others find ultimate reconciliation with God through faith in Christ.
“All this is from God,” Paul writes in verses 18-20 of 2 Corinthians 5, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” What a purpose! What a priority! And as we consider the tragic events of last Wednesday in Vancouver, it surely remains the greatest ministry and the greatest gift that we can offer.
Dean Peter Elliott of Christ Church Cathedral comes from a rather different place on the theological spectrum from me and I wouldn’t always quote him. But he published a thought-provoking piece about the Vancouver riots on the Cathedral’s website this past week and I was especially struck by his conclusion.
“The events of Wednesday night in downtown Vancouver have strengthened my commitment to the work of the church:” Peter wrote, “…being part of a community that seeks to practice forgiveness and learn the ways of compassion are not just optional religious extras in society: this work is vitally important. In a dramatic moment within Luke’s gospel, Jesus beholds the city of Jerusalem: ‘As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!’” (Luke 19: 41).
“May our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ teach us the ways of peace,” the Dean concluded. To which I would say “Amen.” And may we take every opportunity to share that gospel and the healing and reconciliation which only it can bring with all-comers, including and perhaps especially those, like the rioters, who most need to hear it.
 – Skye Jethani, in the sermon “From Exclusion to Embrace,” http://www.preachingtoday.com.
 – Peter Elliott, “Riots in Our Pacific City,” http://www.cathedral.vancouver.bc.ca/2011/06/22/vancouver-after-the-riots/
The above sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:10 was delivered on June 19, Trinity Sunday, 2011, at Holy Trinity, Vancouver’s “Healing Vibe” service. ©John Oakes, 2011. All rights reserved.