2 Corinthians 5:16-21
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 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.
This may come as a surprise to many of you, but I do not dance. I have danced. I can dance. But I choose not to dance.
You see, my feelings have been hurt too many times. I remember the first time I danced with the woman who would one day become my wife. I told her, “I could dance like this with you forever” to which she replied, “Why, don’t you want to get better?”
Then there was the time that I drove for miles deep into the country, looking for a secluded location well off the beaten pass, only to be disappointed. I was invited to go and see a barn dance. But that place wasn’t even shaking, let alone doing a big fat boogie.
I’m no dancer, and not much of a comedian either, but I do understand that there are a variety of styles and types of dances. Some involve only one person, moving independently across a stage like a ballerina. Others involve multiple people. There is a give and take. Someone moves and the partner responds. Action leads to reaction.
However, there are times when the dance does not work out just as we would have hoped. Sometimes one partner zigs when the other expects them to zag. They can seem out of step. And if you really want to, Google “dancer drops partner” and you can find some pretty hilarious videos showing what happens when two dancers are not on the same page.
Today’s passage invites us to enter into a new dance and to see other people as dance partners. While many people view others as a way to get ahead or get something for their self, followers of Jesus see others as intricately connected and a part of this dance. They are not an object for you to lust after, they are not an easy target for you to exploit. This might be the way the world sees others, but that isn’t how we view them now that we are in Christ. Now they are partners in this dance, this give and take, this action and reaction. As Christians, we are called to be in step with God and others.
This is why Paul writes that we are to no longer see one another from an earthly or worldly point of view. It’s not all about how we can use other people for our own gain, but how we can work together as a part of this dance that God has choreographed for us, this kingdom dance that reveals the beauty of God.
Paul goes on to say that there was a time when we even viewed Jesus in this way. We asked the question, “What can Jesus do for me?” But as I have said many times, being a Christian isn’t just about what you can get out of it. It is about being a part of God’s redemptive plan for creation, what I have called here a dance. Now we view all people – all people – differently. Now we see them as individuals created in God’s image; people worthy of Jesus dying for. People worthy of us laying down our lives for. Partners in this great dance.
Back in the day when people were viewed and valued based on what they could provide for us, we assessed each person and gave them a value. The rich, the famous, the beautiful, the athletic were all given a higher value. But when we stop viewing people based on what they can give us and start asking what we can offer them, we become fundamentally different. Paul writes in verse 17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Or as John Howard Yoder has translated this verse, “If anyone is in Christ there is a whole new world.”
It isn’t just that you have been transformed by Christ, but that you are a part of a transformative kingdom, the kingdom of God.
One of the attributes of being a kingdom person is that we forgive. As forgiven people we are called to forgive others. In Matthew chapter 6 Jesus even says that our forgiveness is contingent upon forgiving others. But forgiveness isn’t something that comes naturally to us. We want to hold it against others. When others step on our feet while we do this dance we naturally want to step on their toes a few times as well. So when we as Christians do forgive others, it can seem a little weird to those who are not familiar with the ways of Jesus.
We have seen this in events over the last few years that have grabbed the attention of the world around us. We have seen the expression of forgiveness from the Amish community of West Nickel Mines, PA when a man shot 10 little girls before turning the gun on himself. As kingdom people the Amish community of West Nickel Mines took it upon themselves to forgive the shooter. They even went out of their way to minister to the family of the shooter, knowing very well that they were hurt as well, having lost a loved one.
Even when the rest of the world says we don’t have to, even when the rest of the world wouldn’t blame us if we didn’t, even when the rest of the world says we shouldn’t, we forgive. We forgive because we follow a forgiving God.
There is a story in Matthew’s gospel of a very generous forgiver by the name of Peter. Jesus has just spoken with his disciples about how to deal with people who are not living up to the expectations of the church, people who are out of step in this kingdom dance. So Peter, wanting to show how full he was of grace and forgiveness, asks Jesus, “How many times should I forgive a brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
I call Peter a generous forgiver because it wasn’t expected of him to forgive seven times. It was a Hebrew tradition to forgive someone three times. After that you were just encouraging them to hurt you again. So Peter goes and he doubles what was expected of him and adds one more for good measure. If forgiving someone three times is good, forgiving them six times is twice as good. So why not go for seven?
But we see Jesus’ response in verse 22, “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” If Peter was a generous forgiver, Jesus overflows with forgiveness.
But there is more to this statement than just being generous forgivers. If we turn back to Genesis chapter 4 we find the story of brothers Cain and Abel. There is a little bit of sibling rivalry going on here and Cain ends up killing Abel.
Cain’s punishment is to be banished from his home and he is forced to be a wanderer for the rest of his life. And this punishment, which seems pretty light when you consider what Cain did, seems to be too harsh to Cain. Cain is afraid that someone will kill him. So God puts some kind of mark upon Cain and promises in verse 15, “anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.”
Several generations later, a man by the name of Lamech is born. Lamech marries a couple of nice young ladies and he decides to give a proclamation of power in verses 23-24: “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”
When Jesus responded to Peter that he should forgive someone who sins against him, not seven times, but seventy-seven times, perhaps Jesus was drawing the attention of the disciples to how countercultural and antithetical to worldly thinking this idea of radical forgiveness is. It isn’t about getting someone worse than they got you. It is not about dancing all over their feet when someone steps on your toes. It is about accepting that someone has hurt you and forgiving them, inviting them to move forward, inviting them back into the dance.
If we come back to today’s passage from 2 Corinthians you may notice that this passage does not use the word forgiveness, not even once. Instead Paul uses the word “reconciliation.”
To be reconciled means to make things right between two or more parties. If I buy a dozen eggs and I short the seller by one dollar and realize it later, go back, give them the dollar, and they forgive me, we have been reconciled. Things are made right between us.
However, reconciliation is not the same thing as forgiveness. Reconciliation involves forgiveness, yet reconciliation is going one step further. Let’s look at a few of the differences.
1. Forgiveness does not require the offender ask for forgiveness where reconciliation requires cooperation and effort from all parties involved. In the example that I offered earlier about shorting someone one dollar for a dozen eggs, the seller could forgive me for shorting them the dollar. They could cancel my debt, even if I never spoke to them again. If I was buying the eggs at the Farmers’ Market and I walked away without giving the proper amount, they probably wouldn’t chase me down for that dollar. They probably aren’t going to put a picture up by their cash register with the word “WANTED” printed across the top. They could forgive me. Hey, it’s a buck! But without me coming and trying to make things right, we could not be reconciled. We are still out of step.
2. Forgiveness does not require the offender to admit or even know that they have done wrong while reconciliation requires repentance and asking for forgiveness. So I’ve shorted the vender at the Farmers’ Market a dollar, which is very possible because I can’t do math in my head. I take my eggs, head to the car, drive home and enjoy a nice omelet. I never know how much – or how little – money is in my wallet. I probably will never realize on my own that I have shorted them the dollar. But they know. And they can forgive me without me even realizing that I stole from them. We haven’t been reconciled because I have not repented and asked for forgiveness. I still owe them the dollar. But they have forgiven me.
3. Forgiveness is recognizing that someone has wronged you and not holding it against them. Reconciliation is doing something to make things right and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Let’s chance examples and see how this might affect people in a real-life scenario.
Too often we hear stories of women that stay in abusive relationships, verbally and/or physically abusive relationships, because a well-meaning preacher told them that they needed to forgive their abusive husband for hitting her. So the woman, being a good submissive wife, keeps going back to the abusive husband. He hits her, she moves out, she hears a sermon about forgiveness, and she goes back to him. Life is good for a period of time until the cycle begins all over again.
What we are seeing in this example is just forgiveness. And as important as forgiveness is, it isn’t the fullness of what God wants for us. For that husband and wife to be reconciled, he must admit that he was wrong, ask for forgiveness, and then change his ways. Reconciliation in this situation is going to require counseling. It is going to be a slow process. But without repentance, forgiveness, and a change, this couple will never be reconciled. Forgiveness is important, but I believe that God wants us to work toward reconciliation with all people. And I think that is the central message of the cross.
One of the many confusing things that I find in the Bible is when Jesus goes around healing people in the first century he often does something unexpected and seemingly out of place. He forgives them.
One such case is found in the second chapter of Mark. There is the story of Jesus teaching in Capernaum to a large number of people. The house where Jesus is teaching is packed out and people are lining up out in the street just to get a peek at this new preacher, to hear a sound byte or two.
There are some guys that are trying to help out their friend, who happens to be a paralytic. He can’t walk on his own, so they carry him to Jesus. And when they can’t get close to him, they open a hole in the roof and lower him into the house, right in front of Jesus. Now that is an entrance!
Before the paralytic man or his friends have a chance to say a word, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
He didn’t ask for forgiveness. He didn’t even go looking for forgiveness. He went looking for a physical healing and he was first forgiven.
Stories like that make me wonder if what Jesus does on the cross can be better understood as his part in reconciliation, not just forgiveness. Forgiveness can be a one-sided act. Reconciliation requires at least two parties.
The Bible also speaks of the cross as a reconciliation event. Colossians 1:20 says it this way: “And through [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
I believe that the cross is not simply God’s way of forgiving us. Indeed it is that, but it is more, it goes further. It was God’s effort to work toward something bigger than forgiveness. It was God’s attempt to be reconciled with humanity.
Remember, reconciliation takes two or more parties. It takes two to tango. Reconciliation requires something from us as well. To be reconciled, the offending partner needs to admit that they made a mistake, they need to repent. They need to ask for forgiveness. And they need to not continue to make those same mistakes over and over. If that person makes those mistakes again, sure, God forgives again. But they have not been reconciled.
My friends, forgiveness is a wonderful thing. I don’t mean to make forgiveness sound unimportant or optional. But through the cross, God did his share to make things right between him and humanity. The cross is not simply an invitation to be forgiven. The cross is an invitation to be reconciled, to enter back into that dance that God has choreographed for us. And yes, we will step on each other’s toes from time to time. But we are called to work at getting back in step with God and humanity.