2 Corinthians 5:17-21
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 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. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
What do you think of when you hear the word “reconciliation”? I grew up in a conservative Anabaptist church and I really don’t recall hearing this word used, perhaps because I wasn’t listening. The first time I recall hearing the word “reconciliation” was when I was in high school in the late 1990’s. I took an accounting class in high school about the time when more and more things like accounting were being done on personal computers. My parents were using an early version of Quicken for home and business expenses. But since much of the world was not using computers for their personal accounting, we had to learn how to do accounting the old fashion way: on paper.
One of the documents that we learned how to fill out was called a Reconciliation of Bank Statement. Back in those days we relied on something called “the mail”. Today we might refer to it as “snail mail” because it is a little slower than the electronic, instantaneous world in which we live. Back in the 1990’s people wrote things called “checks” and exchanged them with other people in place of money. They would take these checks to the bank and the bank would honor that check for a specific amount of money. All of this might take a couple of days.
So if you were to write out a check or make a deposit on the same day that the bank was sending out your monthly bank statement, that check or that deposit would not show up on your bank statement. Therefore, the balance in your checkbook, and I know that we all keep our checkbook balance up-to-date, would not match the balance on your monthly bank statement. That’s why you reconcile it.
So a Reconciliation of Bank Statement is a document that you fill out to show any outstanding checks or deposits not shown on your bank statement to account for the discrepancies. When you reconcile your bank statement, you are making things right again. Through reconciliation, things become as they are intended to be. That is the way I define the word reconcile: it is to make things right.
Many of you know that I do not like easy answers and overly-simplistic theology. Over the years I have rejected many definitions and summaries when I have heard people attempt to define “the gospel”. But I have come up with a definition that is short, to the point, and I believe rather accurate in defining the gospel. I like to say that the gospel is the good news that we can be reconciled to God and each other through Jesus Christ. I believe that we cannot separate one from another and any attempt to define the gospel without reconciliation with both God and our neighbors/enemies fails to account for much of the teachings found in both the Old and New Testaments. Through Jesus, we can make things right with God and with each other. So let’s go back through the Bible to see why and how reconciliation is needed and possible.
I won’t read all of the chapter, but when we start “in the beginning” of the Bible in a passage known as the creation narrative, we find that God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them over a period of six “days”. And at the end of each day, God looked out on what he made and he said, “It is good.” Then on the sixth day, God created man and woman in God’s own image and he looked out over all that he had created and he said it was “very good” or “exceedingly good”.
The Hebrew words used here are tov maod. Tov is a word the will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched “The Fiddler on the Roof” or any other movie/play that depicts the Jewish culture. During moments of celebration a Jewish person might tell another individual “mozel tov,” which we would translate as “good luck.” Tov means good.
Maod is a little bit of a challenging word to translate. Another place that I know it is used in the Hebrew Bible is Deuteronomy 6:4-5, a passage commonly known as “the shema”. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
Is there any word in those two verses that might mean “exceedingly” or “very”? It is a little tricky, but the word that we translate as “strength” here is maod. Maod literally means “to the nth degree.” Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, soul, and to the nth degree, with all of your being, exceedingly. You can see why the translators chose “strength.”
The biblical languages are a little more primitive than what we might be used to. If we want to show that something is better than something else, we use superlatives. Something might be good, something else might be better, and still something else might be the best. Nice, nicer, nicest. You get the point.
But in the biblical languages, superlatives are conveyed differently. For instance, in the book of Revelation, the angelic beings gather around God and say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord almighty.” The reason that they repeat the word “holy” is because there isn’t an easy way to say holiest. The three holies are to show that God is the most holy of all beings.
So we come back to the creation narrative and God finishes creating, looks out on all that he has made and says that it is tov maod; it is good to the nth degree. What God has made is perfect. There is no pain, suffering, or death. The people have full communion with God and they walk around naked, because they have nothing to hide.
When God made human beings, he gave them some simple instructions. Don’t eat of a certain tree. That was it. They understood and they didn’t try to explain this commandment away using logic or reasoning. But like my 21-month-old boy, when they heard no, they asked, “What will happen if?” And we all know the story from there. Human beings rebelled against God. That’s chapter three of the book of Genesis.
So we go on to chapter 4, and we find the story of Cain and Able. Cain kills Able, the first recorded sin of one person against another. Go one more chapter and we are introduced to a man named Noah, and we are later told that Noah was the only godly person on the earth. All the people were wicked. So in only a few short chapters, we go from a creation that God described as tov maod, good to the nth degree, to all of the world being wicked. Things are not as God intended them to be, they are not tov maod, they are not right. There is division between God and humanity and within humanity between individuals, tribes, families, and countries.
That sounds like bad news to me. But here is some good news before we get to the good news. God provides a way to be reconciled with him. God provides a way for us to make things right with him and a way (or ways) to be reconciled to each other.
I know that everyone frequently picks up their Bible and turns to the book of Leviticus for pleasure reading. Actually, some of the rituals are pretty interesting to me, but there is also a lot of weird stuff in Leviticus. Chapter 16 lays out the order of service for Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. This ritual includes the sacrifice of a bull and a goat and the sending of a second goat out into the wilderness with the sins of the people upon its head as a symbol of the sins of the people being sent away. It is both bloody and beautiful at the same time. It is hard to say which of the sacrifices actually atones for the sins of the people, but on that day, the people are forgiven and things are made right with God. One definition for atonement is reconciliation. The Day of Atonement in the Jewish tradition was the day when the people were reconciled to God.
If you turn a few more chapters into Leviticus you will come to chapter 25 where God lays out something called The Year of Jubilee. Every 49, maybe 50 years the Hebrew people were to observe this opportunity to free people of their debts, return land to its original Israelite owner, free slaves and indentured servants. It was a way of leveling the playing field. No longer were there extremely rich and powerful people and extremely poor and weak people. Every 50 years or so there was an attempt to bring social equality back to the people, back to the way that God intended for things to be. Reconciliation between people.
Then, around the year 4 BC, a child was born in a stable and everything changed. When this baby grew to be a man, he went into his hometown of Nazareth, entered into the synagogue, took the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, and read this (as recorded in Luke 4:18-21), “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Freedom to the prisoners, sight for the blind, set the oppressed free, and the year of the Lord’s favor? Sounds like some reconciliation is taking place through this fellow. And when he says that he has come to proclaim good news to the poor, the word that we translate there as good news is euanglion in Greek, which we often translate as gospel.
Of course, this man was no ordinary man. This was Jesus. And Jesus said to anyone with ears to hear, If you want to be reconciled with God and with humanity, come and follow me. It is that simple. Come and follow me.
Now I do say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek because following Jesus is anything but easy. And if you have ever sought to be reconciled with someone else, you also know how difficult that can be. Families divide over things like inheritance and politics. Marriages end frequently, over 50% of the time. Even Kim Kardashian couldn’t make it work. People walk away from God, some never to return. But Jesus teaches us these counter-intuitive methods for reconciling with God and with other people. He talks about carrying someone’s pack an extra mile, turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, and he even at one point compares following him to bearing one’s cross. Nobody ever said that this reconciliation business was going to be easy. But Jesus does say that it is necessary.
The Good News is that we can be reconciled to both God and humanity, and I do believe that Jesus provides the opportunity for us to do both. So much of what Jesus taught seems to be about how we can be reconciled to others, and just as Paul teaches in our scripture for this morning, Jesus provides the way for us to be reconciled to God. Jesus became our mediator, bringing us back into right relationship with God. Rather than the yearly sacrifice of a bull and a goat on Yom Kippur, we have the one-time sacrifice of the Lamb of God. This is the Gospel. Through Jesus Christ, we can be reconciled to God and each other.
Now the hard question: which one is more important? Before you answer, I want to call your attention to the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 5:21-24,
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
If you remember that a fellow believer has something against you, first go and be reconciled to them, then come and offer your gift. Jesus said this, not me. Jesus said to go and make things right with the other person first!
I don’t want to make more of an issue of this than it really is, because I don’t think that this passage is saying that it is more important to be reconciled to others than it is to be reconciled to God. We can’t say for sure what kind of offering is being made by the person in the text, but it wasn’t a gift for atonement as only the priest would have been able to make that sacrifice. This was more likely a sacrifice of praise or a sacrifice to be restored after a period of ceremonial uncleanliness. The thing that I think that this passage points out is that it is more important to God that we be reconciled with others than it is for us to offer him praise. And God wants our praise, he just wants us to be reconciled to others more. Perhaps we can go one step further and say that we can’t worship and praise God fully until we have been reconciled to others.
The last passage that I want to call your attention to is Matthew 22:36-40. In this passage, some smart-aleck lawyer comes up to Jesus with a question to try to trap him. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
That first part should sound familiar to you. That is the Shema that I quoted earlier from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Love God with all of your heart, all of your soul, all of your nth degree, all of your being. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says that the second commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Remember that this lawyer never asks Jesus what the second greatest law is, but Jesus does not hesitate to give him both laws. It is almost like Jesus is saying I know you only want this one law, but these two laws go hand-in-hand. You cannot separate them. You can’t have one without the other.
Love God and love your neighbor. Jesus refused to separate these two commandments and through Jesus we can do these things. Jesus provides the way for us to be reconciled to God and reconciled to others. That is the Gospel, the good news.