WORKING TOGETHER (RECONCILIATION)
2 Cor. 5:16-21
June 8, 2014 is a significant day as per the almanac of Churches. We are going to celebrate Pentecost Day, reminding ourselves of the movement of God’s Spirit among peoples and nations, working out the purposes of the reign of God.
June 8, 2014 is also going to be significant historically because on this day the world is going to witness one vital expression of working together for reconciliation. It is on this day that the Palestinian president Abu Mazen and Israeli president Shimon Peres will meet together for prayer along with Pope Francis.
Allow me to quote extracts (in italics) from a text published in the Vatican Insider of 2nd June 2014 and draw insights from what Paul says in his letters, particularly in 2 Cor.5:16-21, and in related biblical texts. These insights have important implications for all ecumenical movements in the world.
The purpose of this meeting is not to attempt mediation or discuss new road maps: Francis wants to keep the encounter strictly religious. “The purpose of the meeting will be to pray not to mediate,” Francis said on the return flight from the Holy Land to Rome. “The two presidents and I will only meet to pray and I believe that prayer is important and doing this helps. Then they will go home. There will be a rabbi, a Muslim and me…” Elsewhere Francis said: "In this place where the Prince of Peace was born, I desire to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, and President Shimon Peres, to raise together with me an intense prayer to God for the gift of peace. And I offer my house in the Vatican to host you in this encounter of prayer."
Note that Pope Francis asserts “The purpose of the meeting is not to attempt mediation or discuss new road maps.” In an article published on the Time website . . . Christopher J. Hale wrote: “Francis’ successful overture was especially remarkable considering the failed efforts by the United States earlier this spring to get both sides to the table to begin negotiated peace talks…” Countries, and in particular the superpowers, have been trying to broker peace and reconciliation, in line with their political ideologies of justice and peace, and within their framework of economic development, nuclearization, militarization, and strategic alliances, spelling out human utopias.
Paul cautions Christians: “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” (2 Cor. 5:16). The disciples tended to view Jesus as the Messiah who would establish the Jewish nation as the super-power on earth. When Simon Peter had declared that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:15), he had such an image in his mind. Therefore he could not accept it when Jesus began to tell the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matt. 17:21-22). James and John dreamt of sitting one on the right hand and the other on the left hand of Jesus Christ in his kingdom (Matt.20:21)Even after the resurrection, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
Further on, the Jewish Christians tended to domesticate Christ and Christianity. For example, they said to Christians of other ethnicities, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”(Acts 15:1)They emphasised a Christianity of Jewish religious works. Therefore Paul argued with the Corinthians, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Gal.3:2-3). Then again they tended to reduce Christianity into human centred sects: the disciples of Apollos, the followers of Cephas, the worshippers of Christ and so on (1 Cor.1:12).
Thus Christians have been inclined to regard Christ and Christian concerns from human points of view. They have ‘christened’ their own human ideologies and practices, and put them forward as the only way for reconciliation and peace. “There is no alternative” (TINA) they seemed to be advocating. Indeed they are viewing Christ from their human points of view. Moreover, one interpretation of the Greek phrase, kata sarka, literally “according to the flesh”, would go beyond translating it simply as “from the human point of view.” For Paul, “flesh”, as a power, is diametrically opposed to God’s Holy Spirit. According to Romans 8:1-17, to live according to the flesh is to have a mind that is hostile to God; it is a life that displeases God. Living according to the flesh leads to death (Romans 8:6, 13).For Paul, the desires of the flesh are in no way harmonious with the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:16-24). In Galatians 5-6, the fruit of the Spirit is the very sign of God’s act of new creation - God’s act of transforming and redeeming and calling all people into newness of life.
Therefore in 2 Corinthians 5:16, when Paul says that we no longer know anyone “according to the flesh,” Paul is asserting that in going for working together or for reconciliation we should not fit Christ into any framework that suits our theologies and ideologies, and which is contrary to the values of the reign of God, such as that of the Jewish Messiah and its related Zionist imperialism. In 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God’s new creation has dawned, and they are part of God’s handiwork. The Spirit’s work is the guarantee that the new age has dawned (2 Cor.5:5). “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor.5:17)
As Biblical Commentator, Carla Works puts it,
“The revelation of Jesus to Paul has produced such a crisis (Galatians 1:12, 16). Seeing the resurrected Lord has changed how Paul sees the world all around him. Paul is now aware that God has invaded the world as he knows it. The old is passing away. The world that Paul knew is not all there is. The new has dawned. God is in the business of rectifying God’s creation, and Paul has seen God in action. He cannot go back to life as normal.
The distinctions that matter in the old world -- Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free -- do not matter in the real world. Because in this new world, God is reconciling all to Godself -- regardless of gender, status, sexuality, identity, or position. All are enemies of God and stand in need of reconciliation”
Note the words of Carla Works: “The new has dawned. God is in the business of rectifying God’s creation, and Paul has seen God in action.” Therefore, we notice that on 8th June as a Muslim, a Jew and Christian meet in the Vatican for prayer, they, through their praying together, as the Pope envisages it, would be seeking God to take hold of their lives, and hopefully open new ways of reconciliation. As Sadhu Sundar Singh, the Indian Christian saint once put it, prayers are not requests or demands we make of God to fulfil things according to our human points of view; rather prayers are like eggs placed under a mother bird, so that when they hatch, the baby birds conform to the image and nature of the mother bird. Pope Francis asserts, “The purpose of the meeting will be to pray not to mediate . . . I desire to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, and President Shimon Peres, to raise together with me an intense prayer to God for the gift of peace.” If reconciliation has to happen, let us not seek some sort of compromise of human proposals; we should allow the voice and values of God to dwell in our hearts so that we conform to the will of the God of justice and love.
Here is an ecumenism that transcends religious boundaries of Jews, Muslims and Christians. Here is an ecumenism that seeks reconciliation as per the leading of the Spirit. While many people are sceptical about the outcome of the 8th June prayer meeting, “David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel . . . did acknowledge, however, that the meeting would help the ‘effort to foster a different mind-set among Israelis and Palestinians’.”
Reconciliation is an essential ministry of God. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ . . . in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them . . . For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor.5:18-19, 21).” It is rather difficult to comprehend how this reconciliation is facilitated by Jesus. Traditional theories of atonement such as Ransom, Satisfaction, Penal substitution, and Moral influence have been of help to Christians to understand how Jesus has taken upon himself the consequences of human sinfulness, has obtained the forgiveness of human sinfulness, and has facilitated reconciliation with God. Sin is finished but the sinner is embraced in transformed relationships.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom.5:6-11)
Reconciliation with God also implies reconciliation with one another:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph.2:13-16)
Reconciliation involves eradication of sin, but not the extermination of the sinner, in terms of bringing in a community of justice and love. Such a perspective invites us to rethink the traditional understanding of the parousia. In an article entitled “Moltmann & the Parousia: A Christocentric Reconsideration” written in 2004, Jeremy Berg (http://spirituality.ucanews.com/2014/05/30/parousia-the-second-coming/) writes:
For Tertullian, Christ’s coming will make “the whole world shake, filling the earth with dread alarms, making all but Christians wail”; for Hippolytus, all await “the terrible Judge, in fear and trembling unutterable”; for Augustine that Day “strikes great terror”.…
Moltmann recognizes that such vindictive images of Christ’s judgment often come directly from the New Testament writers themselves, who borrowed from the popular Jewish apocalyptic expectations of judgment. Still Moltmann suggests that such awful images of the judgment are inconsistent with what we know of the character of Christ, and any understanding of the final day of reckoning must therefore be “Christianized” so that we recognize the Judge as none other than the crucified one….
Moltmann argues that when Jesus comes he will not judge according to “the punitive law of retaliation which the universal Judge apocalyptically enforces”, as most of our popular images suggest. Rather, he will come to “to set up the kingdom of peace, founded on the righteousness and justice which overcomes all enmity.” He will judge according to “a law whose purpose is rehabilitation” rather than retaliation.
The danger of this statement is obviously that it opens the door for an argument for universal salvation. Yet his main concern here is to rule out the chances that at “the final judgment the coming Christ will act in contradiction to Jesus and his gospel…He (i.e. the coming Christ) would then put Jesus himself in the wrong, and would be appearing as someone different, someone Christians do not know.”…
Moltmann challenges this by arguing that Jesus comes to “slay enmity for ever—enmity, but not his enemies.” Christ himself taught others to love their enemies! Does he in the end obliterate his own? Or does he instead judge in order to put things right? …
The ultimate purpose of the parousia, for Moltmann, “is not reward or punishment, but the victory of the divine creative righteousness and justice, and this victory does not lead to heaven or hell but to God’s great day of reconciliation.” Moltmann clearly insists that the “judgment is not the last thing of all” but “What is last and final is the new word of creation: ‘Behold, I make all things new’ (Rev. 21.5).”
Indeed as Paul says, “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 (2 Cor.5: 18-19). The word “reconciliation” refers to the process of changing something thoroughly and adjusting it to something else that is a standard. For example, when we adjust our watches to a time signal, we are reconciling our watches to a time standard. Similarly, in the Bible, reconciliation is the word used to refer to the process by which God changes human beings and adjusts them to the standard of the divine perfect character (cf. Rom 11:15 which refers to the “reconciling of the world” while 2 Cor.5:18 talks of “reconciling someone to someone else”)
It is for such transformative reconciliation that we are called to work together. While we ourselves are being reconciled, we are called to be ambassadors of such reconciliation. Note the words of Paul in 2 Cor. 5:18-20 “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. (emphasis added)
The Vatican Insider text further highlights the words of Pope Francis:"Everyone wants peace, many people build it every day with small gestures, many suffer patiently and bear the fatigue of many attempts to build it. And everyone - especially those who are at the service of their people - have a duty to be the instruments and builders of peace, above all in prayer." "Building peace is hard, but living without peace is a torment. All men and women of this earth and of the whole world are asking us to bring before God their ardent desire for peace.”(emphasis added)
Even as this prayer meeting is to be held on 8th June 2014, not only the three persons, but all people are urged to partner in the prayerful act of reconciliation. Addressing the many faithful present at the General Audience, the Pope said: “I ask you, do not leave us alone: pray, pray so that the Lord may give us peace, give us peace in that blessed land!” (emphasis added)
May the Spirit of God bind us together with God and one another in transformative reconciliation, and may we continue to be committed to the gospel of reconciliation of all creation!
General Secretary, NCCI