Reconciling the World

A Lenten talk given to members of the Litchfield churches on March 22, 2011 by Christopher L. Webber.

Our theme for this Lent is “reconciliation” and that’s a subject big enough for a number of Lents.  It’s not a common word in the Bible  – it occurs about 14 times in the New Testament – but it means “to change thoroughly” and it has an unlimited agenda for that change.

Take, for example, this text: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
2 Corinthians 5:18-20

“Reconciling the world.”  Another text says “reconciling all things.”  God was in Christ  reconciling the world, the cosmos, all things, to himself; changing everything to bring us – the whole world – into relationship with God.

And that’s not a passive thing so that you can sit back and say, “Thank you.”  The Bible tells us that God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, gave us “the ministry of reconciliation.”   So think about that for a minute.  This is not a warm and cuddly personal thing: God loves me and everything’s fine  It’s a challenge that makes demands. Where in the world would you even start?  If we have a ministry of reconciliation to the world, there’s a lot of world out there that’s not very reconciled.  How about Afghanistan?  How about Al Qaeda? How about Wisconsin?  How about Litchfield?  Is everybody reconciled about the yellow ribbons on the trees on the green?

I think we can follow all that on the evening news as somebody else’s problem and not much connected to our faith and maybe that’s where the problem begins.  We can act as if there’s my faith over here and the world over there; but “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Our task as Christians is as big as the world and exactly those areas where the conflict is greatest are those where the need is greatest.  And, you know,  what concerns me about our world  – our unreconciled world – is that so many Christians seem to feel  their faith is over here and the world is over there and we can pray and sing hymns about Jesus and go out and vote and act  as if it made no difference, as if I can act out there  purely for myself and leave my faith behind.  Christianity for all too many people is just a personal thing: “Me and Jesus.”  But that is not the Biblical agenda.  That goes nowhere in terms of reconciling the world to God, changing thoroughly the way we live.

The tragedy is that this personal, heretical, form of Christianity is so prevalent that lots of people dismiss Christianity as irrelevant for themselves and for the world.  And it is.

We hear about evangelical preachers  whose message is “Jesus wants you to be rich.”  Have they read the Bible? Do they remember how hard Jesus said it would be for the rich to enter the kingdom. Now, maybe we know perfectly well  that that’s not the gospel but we still vote with our pocketbooks and our wallets when it comes to taxes, when it comes to government spending for others. We have politicians whose whole message is “lower taxes” and lots of so-called Christian people vote for them without asking the consequences for those who depend on government assistance, the unemployed, the elderly,  school children.

I’m as much for lower taxes as anyone but it can’t be my first priority.  As a Christian charged with a ministry of reconciliation, with thoroughly changing the world my convenience, my comfort, can’t be my first concern.  Nor can I be out there denouncing those who disagree with me as unAmerican or unChristian.

The increasing polarization of American politics amazes me because the vast majority of Americans claim to be Christians but don’t seem to act like Christians when it might cost them something.  Do you remember in the Bible how it tells us that in the early days people said,  “Behold how these Christian love one another?”  Would they say that today?  Where is the spirit of reconciliation in our politics?  Where is the willingness to reason together, to listen to each other, to find ways to work together to thoroughly change the world so that the hungry and poor and stranger in our midst are our first concern? Why is there so much hostility, so much anger in a Christian country?

I’ve seen stories about a church in Oklahoma that offers gun training for its members and I wondered about that familiar question:  What would Jesus do?  Can you picture Jesus running gun classes for the apostles, teaching them wealth management?  But there are so-called Christian churches that do that.

I read a book some years ago called  “The American Religion” by Harold Bloom, a distinguished professor at Yale and a non-practicing Jew, someone well qualified to look impartially at Christian behavior.  I remember one thing about it: that Bloom summed up American religion as being “gnostic.”  That’s an ancient heresy, that looked at salvation as an individual matter.  Bloom said, and I think he’s right, that American Christianity tends strongly in that direction.  Bloom said American religion also is about the individual where authentic Christianity is about  being incorporated into Christ, into the church as Christ’s body.  St Paul talks about Christians being members of a body.  Bloom pointed to the familiar hymn “I come to the garden alone”  and said that’s not the gospel, and I have to agree.  That’s worlds apart from reconciling the world to God.

“You are the body of Christ,”  said St Paul, “and members one of another and one cannot say to another  I have no need of you.”  One can’t come to the garden alone.

These Lenten programs are about many things,  and surely one of them is about our need to come together in a common cause,  about getting to know each other,  about offering our prayers for all the needs around us, and also, I think, about remembering some of the challenges of being a Christian in today’s world, about what it really means to be reconciling the world to God, thoroughly changing a world  all too far away from a knowledge of God’s love.

Let me tell you a story:  it’s one of those  St Peter at the pearly gates stories and it goes this way.  A man shows up at the door and Peter gives him the big Hello: “Good to see you, glad you’re here, come on in, welcome, welcome, you’ve come a long way, you must be tired and hungry. Can I get you something to eat?”  And the man says, “Well, gee, I am hungry, so that would be really nice.”  And Peter trundles off leaving him standing there by the gate, and he looks down, and way down below he sees a big crowd and they’re having a great time.  The flames are leaping up and all that but they’re having a feast, grilling their steaks, throwing another shrimp on the barbie. It looks like a great party.  So finally Peter comes back – and he’s got a peanut butter sandwich. And the man says, “What’s all this?  Down below they’ve got steaks on the grill and shrimp on the barbie and here I get a peanut butter sandwich!”  And Peter says, “Well, I’m sorry but you know how hard it is to cook for one.”

But, you know, it’s not going to happen.  We won’t any of us get there alone.  You can’t be a Christian alone. We are the body of Christ; we need each other; and the world needs us; and we need to be about the business of reconciliation:  coming together to clarify the work we have to do and to find common ground and to make a start on the ministry God has given us

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