What is reconciliation? What is forgiveness? What does any of it have to do with Jesus? And why in the world should it matter to any of you?
In a letter to one of the earliest Christian communities, the theologian Paul writes:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Paul is writing here to a group of Christ-followers located in the ancient city of Corinth. He had an intimate and at times conflict-laden relationship with this motley crew of Christians. Right now is one of those times of conflict. The Corinthians have brought into question Paul’s authenticity and authority regarding what has happened to the world on account of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Here in this letter Paul is making his appeal to the Corinthians.
He gives them one of his most beautiful and concise summaries of the meaning of Jesus: In and through Jesus God was reconciling the world to himself—such a broken and painful world, full of hatred, anger, envy, depression, oppression, conflict, murder, and theft. God came to put this world to peace, to set things right. According to the prophets, which Paul certainly had in mind here, God had long ago declared that it was much too small a thing for him to simply restore his own people Israel to health and wholeness. Rather, he had much greater plans in mind. His healing would instead reach to the ends of the earth. Paul believes the day has come—in and through Jesus God’s plan has reached its climax. In and through Jesus God is reconciling the world to himself.
Paul claims that he, as a messenger of God, embodies God’s reconciliation. Earlier in this letter Paul claims to have come to the Corinthians in weakness, not in power, for this is what God’s reconciliation looks like. He and his colleagues have borne untold suffering to bring this message to the Corinthians, for this is what God’s reconciliation looks like. He has done and will do nothing for any reason but pure love, for the the reconciling God loved him first. Paul’s life is an embodiment of God’s reconciling work in Jesus. The new life and love and freedom of the Corinthian community is his resume so to speak, and also the proof of what God is doing to the world through Jesus. The Corinthians themselves are an embodiment of God’s reconciling power.
Reconciliation expresses a tangible and communal reality. It’s when former enemies can be in the same room together, or its when we can eat at the same table as friends with people we have had violent disagreements with. It requires two or more parties. However, at the root of reconciliation is forgiveness, which does not depend upon the response of the other. Just as at the root of God’s reconciling was his forgiveness, as Paul says, “his not counting their sins against them,” so also human reconciliation begins with and is enabled by forgiveness.
But why forgive? Indeed, forgiveness seems an unreasonable option. Many view it as an act of weakness, belonging to what Nietzsche called it a morality for slaves. The powerful have the strength to get what they want and exact vengeance. Only those who do not have this power feel compelled to forgive. Others invert this system: the weak should never forgive the powerful, but should demand from them every last penny. Much of progressive culture in our society thinks like this, manifesting Nietzsche’s will to power in their own way.
Yet, Christians are commanded to forgive, even though it seems a strange or imprudent, even offensive thing to do. They do it because God did it first for them and has set the example. When they forgive, they become living parables, painting pictures of who their God is for the rest of the world and inviting others into the new reconciled world that he is making.
But what is forgiveness? It is a posture towards others made possible on account of God’s prior posture of forgiving. It is a posture towards others that refuses to let those who disagree with you to remain disagreeable to you. It refuses to allow enemies to remain enemies; to allow the monsters of this world to remain monsters. Forgiveness makes human beings out of monsters. Yet, it never excuses their evil. Rather, forgiveness refuses to let people’s disagreeability and evil be the final word about them. It flows from a God who refused to let us speak the final word about ourselves.
Genuine forgiveness is made possible by God and is two things: a suffering death and a rising to new life. This mirrors Jesus’ crucifixion, his suffering death on a cross, and his resurrection, his being raised from the dead. Baptism, that strange ritual with the water, is how one enters into, makes their own, Jesus’ death and resurrection. Forgiveness is the daily embodiment of that reality bespoken in baptism.
You descend into Christ’s death in the baptismal water. Forgiveness is likewise a painful suffering. Forgiving is not forgetting! It is painful to forgive! It is a death to leave God with the final word about a person. This goes for your boorish conservative or liberal relatives who make holidays unbearable, and for your racist uncle or neighbor. Dare we say it is true for the Bin Ladens, the Weinsteins, and the Richard Spencers of this world. The pain only becomes more acute the more personal it gets—our unloving parents, those who objectify us for our viewpoints, those who abuse us.
After descending into Christ’s death, you ascend into Christ’s resurrection as you leave the baptismal water. Forgiveness is likewise a resurrection. Is is a freeing act in freedom. God was reconciling the world to himself on the cross out of utter freedom. No compulsion. Genuine acts of forgiveness are also acts of freedom and can never be compelled, either by others, which becomes oppression, or ourselves, which becomes codependency. This free forgiveness also frees. It frees the forgiver who is bound in chains of anger and pain, and it frees the forgiven to let God speak the last word about them.
And so, as you live lives characterized by forgiveness, you turn your lives into embodied stories of reconciliation, living parables of God’s once-and-for-all act in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We are so often inclined to view forgiveness as unreasonable and impossible. Therefore, I would like to leave you all with the story of someone whose forgiveness has become a picture of God’s forgiveness, a living parable. They’re lyrics from a song by the Canadian hip-hop artist Shad. He and his parents were refugees of the Rwandan genocide. In this song, his mother recounts the trauma she underwent in Rwanda, watching her entire family be murdered, and her path to forgiveness. She writes:
You’ve invaded my nights
Singing your haunting lullaby
Drowning other voices
Sending me to sleep.
You’ve awakened me many mornings
Like an unexpected alarm
Shattering my dreams
I’ve talked to you in tears and anger
Spat on you in rage
Whispered to you in sorrow
Tied you in chains
Thrown you in jail.
I’ve pulled you out
Asked you many questions
Knowing there would be no answers.
I tied you in chains
Again and again, round and round
Until the chains, in my dizziness, bound me to you, you and I becoming one.
Bound by the chains of hate
I knew then the choice to make.
I untied the chains,
Of those who converged on my dad
Leaving him dead.
I untied the chains,
Of those who propelled the grenade
Scattering my brother’s brains.
I untied the chains
Of those who strangled my sister’s newborn
Leaving us an endless grave.
I untied the chains of those who knifed my sister’s throat
Leaving her begging for a better death.
I untied the chains
Knowing the one who said to do it seventy times seven
Totally understand the depth of my pain.
You will probably never have to deal with trauma like. But forgiveness, no matter how small it is—even it if it is forgiving those with whom you disagree, is never easy. It may take years, and it may cause you untold suffering. But as you forgive, you live out the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in your bodies. Your life becomes an embodied story, a living parable, of God’s reconciliation of the world.
Now, I would like all of you to close your eyes and imagine someone who is disagreeable to you or who has hurt you. Perhaps this is because they believe things that are offensive to you. Perhaps they are your extremely conservative or liberal family members who make holidays difficult. Perhaps it is someone who has more concretely hurt you. Perhaps it is a father or mother who was never there for you. Jesus, and therefore the Church, has one name for all these types of people that have hurt us or are offensive to us: not enemy, not monster, but neighbor. I want you to imagine that in Jesus Christ God has given you the freedom from all of the pain and anger, even hatred. I want you to imagine that he has given you the freedom to see these people as forgivable, knowing that Jesus has suffered the same pain that you have suffered, and that you will suffer in doing this. Perhaps forgiveness can’t come now. Perhaps it will not come for many years. I only want for you to be able to imagine the possibility of a journey set before you, a death and new life, crucifixion and resurrection shaped journey, set on the stage of God’s reconciliation of the world to himself, and I want you to know that Jesus’ own footsteps have already trod out your path.