Has the Church in America Lost Its Ministry of Reconciliation?
Reflecting on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, One Day after Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 38
Old Testament: Genesis 33:1-17
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Perfect Light of revelation, as you shone in the life of Jesus, whose epiphany we celebrate, so shine in us and through us, that we may become beacons of truth and compassion, enlightening all creation with deeds of justice and mercy. Amen.
But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept (Genesis 33:4)
Old habits inherited from Christendom have shaped us to live and indeed even to thrive on antagonisms. Meanwhile, people outside the church look at us and see only conflict, anger, and even hate. Our witness to Christ is damaged. And as we enter the world, we've lost the wherewithal to engage what God is doing in Christ to save the world.
The old habits of Christendom die slowly. And yet God, I contend, cannot work his mission for the world via the anger, antagonism, and violence that characterize the world apart from God. If the church is to open up a new space beyond enemies for the work of Christ in the world, it must do so by his Spirit, through his presence—David Fitch, The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith that Feeds on Making Enemies, p. 10-11.
Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, as St. Paul notes, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” We, the followers of Jesus are ambassadors taking that message of reconciliation in word and deed to the world. But I contend that centuries of Christendom* have woefully undermined our calling as Christ's ambassadors because we have been trained by the worldly powers to believe that the ends we want to achieve are better served through the power and coercion of nation state politics than the witness of reconciliation that should be embodied in the church. We are motivated more by our angers and antagonisms than by the suffering and reconciling love of the cross. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but we reserve our love only for those who love us (Matthew 5:43-47).
Reconciliation has been on my mind of late because I think many Christians in America of all political stripes (and yes, I include myself as well) have unintentionally resigned their position as Christ’s reconciling ambassadors.
We have rejected dialogue in favor of protest.
We have exchanged the desire to understand those we disagree with instead embracing angry insults.
We choose to diminish the image of God in others by cursing our opponents on Twitter and other social media platforms, rather than to view them through the eyes of Jesus who hangs on the cross forgiving those who put him there.
We use our desire for justice as an excuse to harass people who support political positions we find objectionable.
We delight when those on the other side get what's coming them rather than mourn their misfortune.
We embrace the cross of Christ as what God has done for us, but ignore the fact that the way of the cross is how God expects his people to live in the world.
We acknowledge the suffering love of Christ on our behalf, but reject such suffering love as the method by which Christ's followers offer reconciliation to the world.
We have removed the crown of thorns as the symbol of divine victory and replaced it with the jeweled crown that conquers through violence and coercion and political power.
We have unintentionally rejected our complete and total allegiance to God’s kingdom by embracing an unspoken and unquestioning commitment to earthly tribes and nations.
We have exchanged the universal nature of the gospel for the provincial character of geographical boundaries.
We have claimed that Jesus is Lord, but functionally live as if Caesar is running the show by our obsession with nation state politics as the most effective answer to our problems.
We believe the next presidential election is the most important in our lifetime forgetting that the previous election was also “the most important,” all the while forgetting that Jesus is Lord.
We have resigned our calling as Christ's ambassadors of reconciliation by taking up the convictions and methods of the nations that Jesus explicitly rejected (Mark 10:35-45); and because of this we do not see the world through the eyes of the crucified Christ, but through the violent coercive power of the world.
In that context we as the church cannot offer the reconciliation of Christ because as David Fitch rightly notes, “[o]ur witness, as a people, to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has become tainted with the ugliness of enemy making.” We have failed to heed the words of the great Lesslie Newbigin, “When the Church tries to embody the rule of God in the forms of earthly power it may achieve that power, but it is no longer a sign of the kingdom.”
The work of reconciliation is hard... but it is necessary.
*Christendom, or the Christian world, has several meanings. In a cultural sense, it refers to the worldwide community of Christians, adherents of Christianity. In its historical sense, the term usually refers to the medieval and early modern period, during which the Christian world represented a geopolitical power juxtaposed with both paganism and especially the military threat of the Muslim world. In a contemporary sense, it may simply refer collectively to Christian majority countries or countries in which Christianity dominates or nations in which Christianity is the established religion.
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