2 Corinthians 5:11-21New International Version (NIV)
11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
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.
We talk about the Gospel a lot in our church. We know that the Gospel is the Good News! But go deeper, what does that mean? Usually, someone will mention grace. Someone will mention peace with God, gettin’ right with the Lord. Someone will describe breaking the chains of addiction or overcoming suffering. Someone will mention spending eternity with God in heaven.
So who is right? I think that all of those are good answers. If I opened it up to the group you would probably say some things that I hadn’t thought of. Some answers will be better than others, and some might be downright wrong. But in general, I like to think that the Gospel is bigger than we often make it out to be.
So when I define the Gospel, I like to use big, inclusive words. My response to the question, What is the Gospel? is “Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can be reconciled to God and humanity.”
To reconcile simply means to make things right between two parties. Now this suggests that there was something wrong between two parties. How many here have ever done something that might cause a separation between you and God? I would expect that everyone here has because we are all sinners in need of grace. Now how many of you have ever done something that might cause a separation between you and another person? If you aren’t raising your hand, you must be living in some secluded tent out in the middle of nowhere all by yourself. We need to have grace for one another as well.
When I say that we can be reconciled to God and humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, what I mean is that, as we know, the death and resurrection of Jesus can bring us back into a right relationship with God. But a lot of what Jesus says during his life has to do with how we can live together and be reconciled to one another. Remember that we call the entirety of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the Gospels. Not just the last few chapters of these books that deal with the resurrection. There is good news throughout, and that’s the Gospel Truth!
Let’s go way back to the book of Genesis, where we are told that God created the heavens and the earth and it was good. God created human beings and it was, not just good, but very good. Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden and had a relationship with God where they seemed to just talk to God like I’m talking to you right now. However, they chose to listen to the serpent and not to God, and in that moment they disturbed the relationship between them and God. Now they felt things like shame. They hid from God. They had broken the trust between them and God.
We jump ahead to 2 Corinthians 5, and we find this in verses 17-19: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, 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.”
Let’s break that down. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.” That’s how the NIV translates that phrase. The NRSV says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” The NLT says, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person.” The KJV is my least favorite here, where Paul’s words are translated, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.”
What Paul literally writes is “If anyone is in Christ, new creation.” You can see why there are so many different translations of this phrase: the literal translation is wooden and makes no sense. But notice that the emphasis on is new creation. Then he goes on to say “The old has gone, the new is here!” The word Paul uses that we translate as old doesn’t mean the previous model or outdate version. Uh, I have the old iPhone. It’s from 2016! The word carries the connotation of existing from the beginning. It is the original.
The phrases “new creation” and “the old/originial has passed away” should draw us back to Genesis where God created and said “it is good, very good.” Through Christ, God has reconciled us to himself and it is good again. It is therefore our job to make sure people know that it is good again. We are given us the ministry of reconciliation, the ministry of making things right again, the ministry of letting people know that it is very good.
We broke the relationship between us and God, and the Good News is that God has restored it. That is what we sometimes call the vertical dimension of reconciliation, which can be represented by a vertical line pointing up and down.
But we as Mennonites have historically understood that our role as ambassadors or messengers of reconciliation is more than just about our relationship with God. Yes it is that, but it is more.
Matthew 5:23-24 says, “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.”
Wow, those word are powerful and they are written in red in my Bible. This reconciliation between members of the church is vital for our understanding of Christianity! Mennonites have taken this commandment so seriously that it has often been a part of our time of self-examination before taking communion. Historically, the Bishop would ask you, “Are you at peace with God and your fellow man?” If not, you need to go make things right!
One thing I want to warn us all about here is not to misinterpret what Jesus is saying as if he was saying that making thing right between two people is more important than making things right between God and us. When Jesus talks about offering our gift on the altar, in the Jewish Temple System, this would not have been an offering for atonement. The atonement offering was made once each year by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The High Priest made that offering. What Jesus was saying referring to here was an offering of praise, incense, herbs, or the like. This was a sacrifice that a Jew would make to praise God.
So when Jesus says to leave you offering on the altar and make things right with your brother or sister, he isn’t saying that God wants us to give priority to making things right between us and others over making things right between us and God. But Jesus is saying that we are to make things right between us and others before we offer our praise to God. First go and be reconciled, then come make your offering of praise.
Hold that in the back of your mind a second and we will come right back to it. This reminds me of when Jesus is being tested by the Sadducees and Pharisees in Matthew 22, asking him, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replies in verses 37-40, “‘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.”
They didn’t ask Jesus for two great commandments, they only asked for one. But Jesus simply could not separate the two. Love God, love your neighbor. Likewise, we can’t separate being reconciled from God with being reconciled to one another. This is the horizontal aspect of reconciliation. And when you combine the vertical and horizontal aspects of reconciliation, it forms a familiar shape: a cross.
We simply cannot separate love for God and love for neighbor. 1 John 4:19-21 is just another reminder of that:
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
I think that it is important at this stage to differentiate between forgiveness and reconciliation. To be reconciled means to make things right, and it requires that both parties admit their part in the breaking of the relationship. But sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible for various reasons. For instance, there are times when people refuse to admit that they did anything wrong or they can’t ask for forgiveness.
This week we got a box of vegetables from our friend Susan as a part of their CSA. One evening I was cutting up a pepper for a salad and I decided to take a bite out of that pepper. It was one of the hottest peppers I had ever tasted!
I’ve since forgiven SusanJ. But have we been reconciled? If I never say anything to her, she might not know of my “pain” (keeping it light here for a reason, my friends). We are reconciled in that situation. Or maybe I do say something, and she laughs rather than apologizing. She doesn’t think she did anything wrong, why should she apologize? I should learn my pepper! In such a situation, I can forgive, even if she does not admit her wrongdoing. But that’s not reconciliation. Or, as is most likely the case, when I tell her about the experience I had she might start rubbing her hands together manically, laughing like a villain in a comic book because her plan had come together perfectly. I can still forgive, but that’s not reconciliation.
In reality, I did tell Susan about the pepper, and she did apologize. I think we are cool now.
Reconciliation is always the goal. But even when reconciliation isn’t possible, we still must forgive. Don’t forget Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
With all of this talk about forgiveness and reconciliation, it is almost inevitable that someone will ask a very important and very serious question: What about justice? We are repeatedly told that God is a God of justice. Isaiah 61:8 begins, “For I, the Lord, love justice.” And every progressive church in the world is quick to quote Micah 6:8, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Well what is justice? Some say it is fairness, equality, or something along those lines. Plato, in his book The Republic, says that justice is giving to each what is owed. If you mowed my yard, I owe you adequate compensation. If I stole from you, I owe a debt to you and to society.
As we consider justice, the first thing that I would like to say is that even when we have been reconciled with someone or have forgiven someone, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other consequences for our action. I think that one of the most dangerous places the teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation has been used is in cases of domestic violence and abuse. We’ve heard the story too many times, a husband hits his wife and children in a fit of drunken rage, but then apologizes in the morning. The wife forgives him, and all is good until the next time. Forgiveness is an important part of healing, but to forgive someone doesn’t mean that you don’t take steps to keep it from happening again.
Likewise, we can forgive someone when they have hurt us or stolen from us, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a debt to society. In such a situation the court system makes the decision on what is “just.”
Before moving to Virginia, Sonya’s parents were members of a Voluntary Service (VS) Unit in Alamosa, Colorado. They weren’t your typical VS members, with grown kids and they themselves in their late 50’s while most other volunteers were in their early 20’s. One of those volunteers, Chloe, was full of life, love, and energy.
One day while out riding bicycles with another VS member, Chloe was struck by a pickup truck. The driver did not stop, but fled the scene, only to be identified later. Chloe died at the scene, just 20-years old. Her killer was 16.
If you have been around the Mennonite world for any length of time, you can probably guess how the Weaver family reacted to this event. They mourned the loss of their daughter, but they forgave the young man who had hit her and drove off. Herm Weaver, Chloe’s father, told the boy who killed his daughter at his trial, “She would wish for you a full life. She has no desire to end two lives.”
The Weavers asked the District Attorney to forgo the usual punishment as jail would not grow him as a person. Rather, Herm said to the young man, “I want you to carry on, in some small way, the work Chloe came…to do, to make it a better world.”
Ultimately, the young man was sentenced in a traditional fashion as the judge said that an example needed to be set because the young man, the boy, was involved in a hit-and-run accident that cost another person her life. We can forgive, and indeed we must, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences for our mistakes. And I would say that in this situation, there can be no justice. You can’t make that right. There was no justice, just punishment.
But Chloe’s legacy didn’t end there, in large part because the decisions of her family to forgive also had consequences. A reporter covering the trial for a local paper would write that the Weaver family showed “unusual commodities [of] love, compassion, forgiveness and hope… Their religion is not just a Sunday habit. It is as much a part of their daily lives as breathing.”
You see, we in the church don’t always measure justice the same way the world around us does in large part because justice is a rather subjective thing. Who decides the appropriate punishment for a 16-year-old found guilty of unintentional vehicular manslaughter? Who decides what is due to one who has been hurt by something I’ve said or something I’ve forgotten to do?
In the Old Testament, we have the Lex Talionis, the law of equal retribution. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But aren’t we glad that even though God is just and God loves justice that he does not demand eye for eye and tooth for tooth? When people ask about justice, we need to ask “Whose justice? Who gets to define what is just?”
In the New Testament, justice is not defined by getting what is owed. Instead, through the cross of Jesus, we see that Jesus absorbs what is owed to us. To make things right, God comes into this world and takes what is owed to us, our punishment, our pain. And though there are often still consequences to our actions, we have been forgiven. Even more so, we have been reconciled to God.
As ministers of reconciliation, we are called to share that in Christ there is a new creation; the old has passed away. We can be made right we God, and we must seek to be reconciled with others. We simply cannot separate the two, and that is the Gospel!
It is my prayer that, like the family of Chloe Weaver, forgiveness and reconciliation becomes a part of the air we breathe.