2 Corinthians 5:16-21 – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Today’s readings drag us into the complicated world of relationships and dysfunction. It is, without putting too fine a point on it, almost assured that relationships will be,at least at sometime in their life, dysfunctional, one side or the other gets out of sync and slips into a place of its own, unable to relate or live with the other. It happens in marriages and friendships, in professional and work areas, on the international and national political stage – it happens in almost all areas of life.
It is the stuff which makes life the most interesting.
Somebody is alleged to have said that it is what makes making up such a challenge and a skill. How to begin again, how to re-mind ourselves, retool our minds, so that what was in dysfunction functions again? How do we see in what appears to be a lost cause the possibility of re-commencement, re-engagement of new life and hope?
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk suggests; “Reconciliation is to understand both sides; to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, AND then go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side.”
Often our approach to this kind of challenge is built around ‘either – or’, ‘one or the other’, resulting in one or more of the parties having to back down so the other wins, all in the name of reconciliation and moving on. Unfortunately reconciliation built on that type of ideology is only temporary, for it builds resentment and hostility in all parties. Those who have backed down resent the loss and those who win think they should have won more.
In Hanh’s suggestion we find the neat little word “and” – “Reconciliation is to understand both sides; to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, AND then go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side.”
And is one of the most useful words we have, unlike or which separates, and, unites – it brings together both sides of an argument and makes them one. It is about the ‘oneing’ of life in all its complexities. It makes one and when things are one they begin to work together to reconcile the differences.
My mobile phone synchronises with my computer. When I connect and hit synchronise the two reconcile or become one – what is on one is on the other – it notes the difference, the double ups and then either deletes or includes as appropriate, and after a few minutes you have the two, one. It reconciles the phone and the computer.
In our second reading today, Paul is battling to achieve the same result with the Christians at Corinth. Paul had, in a sense, raised these people in the faith, nurtured and brought them through only to find now that they are estranged from him because of the influence of other so called Christian leaders. We are not told who, but obviously they were persuasive in getting the Corinthians to follow them and to leave Paul.
Perhaps out of anger, but probably out of concern for those he ‘loved’ and a concern that they are receiving good teaching; Paul responds. He does so with some of the clearest theological teaching we find in the New Testament.
Paul’s appeal for reconciliation arises out of a complex, messy human situation. Much as he desires the Corinthians to be reconciled to God, Paul also earnestly yearns for some kind of reconciliation between the Corinthians and himself. These are not two separate issues. Paul recognizes that what goes on in human communities, how we relate to one another, has implications for how we relate to God. It is not just about us; nor is it just about God. It is about how we understand ourselves to be in relationship with God and with one another, all in the same moment. The two are inextricably linked.
To illustrate this, Paul juxtaposes two ways of viewing one another, using the example of the Christ. At one time, he says, we looked at the one we call the Christ and saw, nothing special: perhaps a prophet, perhaps a fool. We judged on the basis of our human experience (“a human point of view”). Then something happened that allowed us to see in Christ the one in and through whom God reconciles the world to God’s self. Paul does not specify what this “something is”, and it is different for each of us. We experience the presence of God not only in our own lives, but come to recognize the presence of God permeating the entire cosmos. Our way of seeing has changed, as well as our understanding of how we are in the world, as Paul goes on to say “if anyone is in Christ, there is an (ongoing) new creation” (verse 17).
Ongoing, here, does not mean in the sense of evolution, but in the sense that creation, when it is sustained as we are in Christ, is in a constant state of renewal. This on-going act of creation, says Paul, occurs through Christ for it is “In Christ” we experience God reaching out to us and ourselves as creation restored; if we recognize ourselves as a part of this new creation, then we no longer view one another in the same way. Our vision has changed.
Reconciliation is not simply something to be desired; it becomes an imperative because we have experienced reconciliation with the one who has given us (new) life. If, in this most important of all relationships, we find that our “trespasses” (which can also be rendered “missteps”) are not held against us, we too are challenged to reach across the boundaries and barriers that separate us, whether due to missteps, misunderstandings, or misconceptions, and find ways to renew our relationships as a part of the on-going act of creation.
Were Paul and the Corinthians reconciled? Holly Hearon suggests: “We do not know. The danger remains that one or the other side will confuse their status as ambassadors with the role of God, and reconciliation with conformity. As it stands, we are only left with the issues and the possibilities. Much as I like tidy endings, I am drawn to the open-endedness of this situation because it gives us room to consider what we might do in this, or any other, situation where we are still searching for the reconciliation that will open up the potential for the renewal of creation. It is in this act, says Paul, that we may become the righteousness of God.”
It is in this sense that the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son is also an incomplete reconciliation story. It ends without the ends neatly tied up. We are not sure of the Son’s motivation for returning, was he really repentant and coming home for the right reasons, or just for a hot shower and a good meal? What was the father’s motivation for accepting him back, true love or an attempt to save face in front of the local community? Where was the older son? Did he ever get over his resentment and reluctance to accept his brother back or did he stay forever out in the garden, unwilling to join the party? And what did the mother think, and did it really matter? What work needed to be done to build on this apparent reconciliation to turn it into a new beginning or did the dysfunctional family remain just that, a work in progress?
Reconciliation is what brings us to the Eucharistic table where we realize the reconciliation between humanity and God wrought by the action of the second Person of the Trinity Christ, fulfilling his relationship with God. Christ’s action was relational, bringing into being the forgiving action of God. The cross and the Eucharist are not Christ’s work but God’s. At no time do they become ours for no action of ours will reconcile us with God.
God through Christ reconciles the world to himself, even though it often feels like there are a lot of loose ends. And there are. God likes it like that.