April 8, 2013 by jmar198013
This is my table talk from yesterday morning, April 7th 2013, given at Jacks Creek Church of Christ. What I did, basically, was read 2 Cor. 5.14-21 through the lenses of Stanley Hauerwas’ essay, “Peacemaking: The Virtue of the Church.” The love of Christ overwhelms us, because we suppose that if one died for all, then all have died. He died for the sake of all, so that the living would no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died and was raised for them. So we don’t recognize others by what counts for merit among the world. Maybe that’s how we saw Christ once upon a time. Well, not anymore. For anyone in Christ there is a new creation. The old things are gone, and see—something new has arrived! This is all God’s doing. God has reconciled us to himself. And God has gifted us with the vocation of reconciliation. God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, not holding their sins against them. And he entrusted the task of spreading the word of reconciliation to us. So we act as Christ’s spokespeople. God is making his case to you through us. We beg you, on Christ’s behalf: “Be reconciled to God!” For our sake God made the sinless one a sin offering, so that through him we could come to embody the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5.14-21)
When we gather around the table, we make the claim that “Christ died for us.” In 2 Cor. 5, Paul insists if we confess that Christ died for us, we must also confess the claim Christ has on us. People for whom Christ gave his life simply have no business living for themselves. Our lives have been drawn into Christ’s, who died and was raised for us. We have been claimed by Christ for God a reconciled and forgiven people so that God might speak forgiveness and reconciliation to the world through our lives. Being the church means being a people with a vocation of reconciliation.
If the church’s claim that “Christ died for us” also means that we have a vocation of reconciliation, what does reconciliation require of us? I ask that question because the word “reconciliation” might evoke fuzzy, heartwarming images for some of us. Especially if we are hip, socially aware Southern evangelicals earnestly trying to get over ourselves. We might imagine that reconciliation means a white man shaking hands with a black man, or wealthy suburbanites feeding a chili supper to inner city poor. If we are especially adventurous, we might even suppose it involves admitting we know a gay person or two and allowing that, all other things being equal, they’re no worse than other heathens we’ve met. The problem with these life-affirming, “very special episode” images of reconciliation is that they may be based on a lie. For in our world, reconciliation is often reduced to a political strategy that requires a forgetfulness of past sins. Those who have been wronged are asked to shut up about it in exchange for public niceties from now on. That’s not reconciliation; it’s a public relations campaign.
By contrast, the reconciliation to which the church is called requires a radical change in our disposition toward our enemies: both those who have wronged us and those whom we have wronged. The reconciliation that constitutes the life’s work of the church requires a truthful forgiveness that is possible only once sin has been confronted and acknowledged. Any peace does not require the confronting and confessing of sin is not reconciliation; it is a cover-up.
The claim this table makes on our lives—that “Christ died for us”—means that we have experienced reconciliation that comes through truthful forgiveness. God has confronted our sin in the death of Christ. The cross brings our conflict with God out into the open, so that we are not allowed to pretend our sins never happened. God will not let us take cover in the fragile peace of forgetfulness. God confronts as in the death of Christ as one who has been injured by our sins, yet does not hold our sins against us. Not even the sin of judging his Son wrongly and executing him. Having shown us our sin in the cross he pleads with us to make peace with him. Just think of this: the Father of the Son we have murdered calls to us to come be forgiven by him and make peace. God exposing our sin to us through the cross reveals to us that we cannot make right our wrongs. We cannot undo what we have done (or what has been done to us) any more than we can un-crucify Christ. And yet, it is our inability to undo what has been done that feeds our conflict and hostility with God and each other. This is why it is so crucial that Paul names us not only as those for whom Christ died, but also those for whom Christ was raised. Resurrection names our hope that God is able to make good what we cannot. Without the resurrection, the cross allows us to know ourselves only as sinners without hope. Now our resurrected victim, Christ, stands with his Father calling out to us to come be forgiven and make peace. For we cannot be at peace until our wrongs have been acknowledged and we have been forgiven them. The risen Christ, joining his voice to God’s pleading for our reconciliation, is our assurance of forgiveness. In the death and raising of Christ, we are given a new identity as people who need to be and have been forgiven. We have been claimed by the love of Christ, the one we recklessly killed. We have been claimed by the relentless forgiveness of his Father. To be so claimed means we cannot live for ourselves any longer. Our new identity imparts to us a life’s work of proclaiming forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.
A people whose life’s work is based on God’s reconciliation of us through the death and resurrection of Christ is able to imagine what will be required of us. Reconciliation on God’s terms means nothing less than doing what needs to be done when what cannot be undone has been done. I suspect that Paul, the former persecutor of the church, understood his ministry as a vocation of reconciliation because his call came for him as a burden of wrong that he could not make right. He recognized in the risen Christ his victims, joining their voices with Christ’s, pleading for his reconciliation. He could not undo the harm he had done to the Jerusalem church. He could not resurrect Stephen from the rock pile. But he could, and did, continue Stephen’s feeding ministry by making sure the poor of the Jerusalem church had enough to eat when a famine broke out. You don’t have to be a particularly careful reader of Paul to notice that he saw his life’s work as a labor of reconciliation. For Paul, there was simply no other way to live than to embody God’s relentless pursuit of peace through forgiveness.
Knowing ourselves as sinners in need of forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Christ means that we are already part of God’s new creation. We have been given a new way to relate to the world, even those in the world who would count themselves our enemies. We are able to see them now as we see ourselves: as people who need to be and have been forgiven. We can learn to view our enemies as gifts from God, for through them God is calling us to imagine ways of forgiveness and reconciliation. God likewise gives the church as a gift to the world, to invite them to forgiveness and reconciliation. God has given us to the world as a gift because the world needs forgiveness and reconciliation, and those come as gifts. The world will not find forgiveness and reconciliation from those who seek first to control the world or make the world safer. The world finds forgiveness and reconciliation by God placing a forgiven and reconciled people in their midst.
It may be that some of you are scratching your heads, wondering what it is specifically we need to be doing about this vocation of reconciliation. I don’t know that I have the moral authority to tell you that. What I can do is tell you a story—a true story, not a preacher story. I suspect this story might help us begin to imagine what it might mean to live as a people with a vocation of reconciliation. On the evening of August 31st, 1979, an Amish family, Levi and Rebecca Schwartz and their seven children were returning home from a Tupperware party near Berne, IN. Along the way, four young men in a truck passed their buggy. One of the youths threw a clay tile from the truck into the buggy, which struck the youngest child, seven-month-old Adeline in the head. Baby Adeline was killed instantly. When the young men were apprehended, it turned out that they had been spending the entire evening throwing objects from their truck at Amish buggies and homesteads. In fact, one of the boys had even thrown a plank at an Amish pedestrian while driving at 70 miles per hour. The townspeople called for swift and harsh punishment for the young men, but the judge was able to hand down only a fairly light sentence because the Schwartz family refused to testify against the young men. In fact, the Schwartzes endorsed a letter from one of the Amish elders that was presented to the judge, pleading on the boys’ behalf. The letter read: “We believe that the four boys have suffered, and suffered heavily, since the crime, and they have more than paid for what they did.” When asked what an appropriate punishment for the youths would be, one Amish community member replied it would be for them to have to attend the child’s funeral. Baby Adeline’s father, Levi Schwartz, said: “I can’t say I feel hate or anger. If I saw the boys who did it, I would talk good to them. I wouldn’t talk angry to them or want them to talk angry to me.” In fact, while the boys were in jail, the Schwartzes visited the boys to make peace with them. I tell this story because what the Schwartzes and their community did makes sense only because there is a God who pleads with us, through his murdered child, to be forgiven by and reconciled to him. The Amish of Adams County, IN simply embodied this God’s relentless forgiveness. And if we can imagine responding as they did, we are in the vicinity of understanding what it will take to make us the people this table claims we are.