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God has called us to the ministry of reconciliation, of inviting others into a renewed friendship with God and each other.

The Ministry of Reconciliation
2 Corinthians 5:16-21

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The Nigerian Massacre

Last Friday morning, on the last day of the doctoral seminar I was in at Fuller Seminary, Dr. David Augsburger commented as the class began, “This is a sad and difficult day.”

He then read an email he had received from a former colleague of his in Nigeria.  Early in the week we had heard of the horrific violence perpetrated against Christians by Muslims in Nigeria.  But the email confirmed the worst fears many had.

The writer, whom I will not identify for his own safety, reported that rumor of an impending attack near the village of Jos last Saturday night circulated through the area.

The acting president of Nigeria had requested that the Muslim minister of security send Nigerian security forces to the area to protect the Christian population.

Some time after midnight the Muslim tribesmen attacked.  They fired rifles and as the Christian villagers tried to escape, those running for their lives were trapped by giant nets that had been erected by the attackers around the village.

Trapped with no place to run, the villagers were then hacked to death by their attackers.  The death toll ranges from 150 to over 500, depending on whose count you accept.

The email message said that mass burials had taken place which included the bodies of women, children, and even babies.  Despair was heavy in the area, he said.

Yesterday, Christian women dressed in black dresses carrying tree branches marched together to express their profound disappointment at the Nigerian security forces response.

The acting president, according to the email, had telephoned the minister of security, a Muslim, asking that security forces be sent.  The attack occurred after midnight, and lasted for two hours.  The security forces arrived an hour after all the attackers had left.  Many felt their arrival was timed to allow the attackers ample time to kill and escape.

We live in a world where individuals, groups, tribes, and nations are in desperate need of reconciliation.  Paul has some encouragement for us today, from his letter to the church in Corinth.

What Do We Think of Others?

Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians that he used to think of every one from a worldly point of view.  He even thought of Jesus the Christ in this same way.

And what does that mean?  To understand what Paul means, you have to remember who Paul was.  First, Paul is a Roman citizen, a member of a family of probable wealth, privilege, and education.

But Paul is also a Jew.  As a matter of fact, he calls himself “a Pharisee of the Pharisees.”  The Pharisees get a bad rap today, but if we lived in the first century we would see the Pharisees as the religious conservatives, the equivalent of our Moral Majority or Religious Right, to use the terms the media uses.

The Pharisees took Scripture and obedience to the Law, The Torah, very seriously.  And, they were always on the lookout for those who did not.  Jesus fell into that group, and after his death and resurrection, so did the apostles and members of the early church.

You remember that Paul was present, probably as a young participant somehow, in the death of Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith.  The book of Acts tells us that Paul, called Saul then, held the coats of the men who stoned Stephen to death.

In Acts chapter 9, when Jesus encounters Paul on the road to Damascus, the writer of Acts reminds us that Paul was

“…still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”  -Acts 9:1-2

So, when Paul tells us that he used to regard everyone, even Christ, from a worldly point of view, he meant that he thought he was right.  That he, Paul, had all the answers.  That his religion was the only true religion.  That his citizenship allowed him privileges he used to persecute what the Romans thought was just an off-shoot of Judaism, but which Paul saw as a threat to the true way to worship God.

To think of someone from a worldly point of view is to fail to consider what God is doing, what God’s purpose in this world is.  Paul thought he was doing all the right things — defending his faith, persecuting the heretics, keeping Judaism pure and strong, stamping out the threats to their way of life.  That’s what Paul means when he says he viewed everyone from a worldly point of view.

What Changed in Paul’s Life?

What changed in Paul’s life?  He met Jesus.  Face-to-face, in person, on the Damascus Road.  Jesus in all his radiant glory.  Jesus, the one whom Paul had opposed.

And, do you know what Jesus said to Paul?  Listen to this —

3As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5″Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6″Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
After the light flashes and temporarily blinds him, Paul falls to the ground and Jesus speaks.  “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Suddenly, Paul no longer thinks of Jesus as that trouble-making Jew with his subversive band of followers.  Immediately Paul recognizes that he has been wrong about Jesus.  He has totally missed who Jesus is.  Now he gets it.  He no longer sees Jesus from a worldly viewpoint.

When Our View of Jesus Changes, So Does Our View of Others

But it’s not just Jesus whom Paul sees differently.  All of a sudden, Paul sees the apostles differently.  He sees Ananias differently, the one who will pray for the Holy Spirit to fill Paul’s life.  He sees the followers of Jesus differently, too.

But that’s not all. Paul sees that he was wrong about the Romans, he sees them differently.  He was wrong about the Jews, he sees them differently.  When Paul has a clear picture of who Jesus is, he sees everyone differently.

That’s why he says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  A new person, a new individual.  New, not the same.  Different than before.  And now Paul sees it.

When we see Jesus, we see others differently.

We not only see God, but we see God at work in others.  Sojourners is a Christian organization engaged in helping others and working for peace and social justice.

Among other things, they operate soup kitchens, and at one soup kitchen, this prayer was posted — “Lord, we know you’re going to come through this line today.  Help us to be kind to you.”  Seeing others differently.

God Changes Our Eyesight

Paul says, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  Not counting our sins against us.  In other words, God sees us differently through Jesus, too.

Humanity, seen through the eyes of Jesus, looks different to God.  No longer does God see us as standing in His debt, owing God what we can never repay.  When God looks at us, He sees His Son, Jesus, and God sees that mankind’s sins have been paid for, the debt cancelled, and the grave empty.

God changes our eyesight because God’s own view of us has changed, too.  We have been reconciled to God.  Made right, brought home, welcomed into the family, seated at the table, loved by our Father.

But, Paul goes on to say that “And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

We are Christ’s ambassadors, his representatives, sent out into the world to say, “Be reconciled to God.”

Now, this is not a command, it’s an invitation.  We are God’s hosts and hostesses inviting everyone to the party.  We are the prodigal sons, inviting the friends we met at the hog trough to come home to our Father’s house, to sit at our Father’s table, to feast on our Father’s love.

We are inviting all who are on the other side of God’s fence, or who think they are, to be reconciled to God.

Do you know what “reconciled means?”  It means “to restore to friendship or harmony” according to the Merriam Webster dictionary.

So, to be reconciled to God is to have our friendship with God restored, our relationship with God made right, our peace, our harmony, with God restored.

David Augsburger also told us this story of a friend of his who had the opportunity a few years ago to sit with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

He asked Nelson Mandela, “When you were released from Robben Island prison in 1990, you greeted the crowd with the raised fist of the African National Congress.  But a moment later, you bowed your head before you spoke.  What were you thinking?”

He said Nelson Mandela replied, “When I first saw the crowds waiting for me, I raised my right arm with the clenched fist of the ANC, because I was reminded of all the struggle we had been through.

But then I realized that things could not be like that.  I remembered the Bible study group I had joined at the prison, and I heard the voice of Jesus telling me to speak for peace.”

Mandela could have called the black South Africans to rise up against their white oppressors, but instead he called them to peace, and said that he had fought against both white and black domination.

Mandela would ask Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The commission would spend two years listening to stories of how each side — white and black — had committed murder, kidnapping, engaged in torture, terrorism, and fear.

The stories are too graphic and too disturbing for me to repeat to you this morning.  But if you want to read the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, read Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness.

Unlike some countries, often including our own, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission understood that faith, religion, had a healing role to play in bringing the nation of South Africa together.

And so at each hearing, Desmond Tutu or some other religious leader would open the meeting with prayer.  Prayer bathed the proceedings, and prayer often concluded the day’s testimony.

But what happened was amazing.  Both white and black sat before the Commission and told either what they had done, or what had been done to them by others.  Again, the stories are too disturbing, but your imagination cannot go so wild as to over-estimate the inhumanity and suffering.

Although it was not a requirement, and often without being asked to, those who perpetrated acts of violence and hatred would often ask for forgiveness, often directly from those they had tortured who were sitting in the same room.

More than once, South African newspapers carried photographs of former white security force officers being hugged by the persons they had tortured.  The nation grieved for its almost-lost soul, but held out reconciliation as hope for God’s forgiveness, and a new day for South Africa.

God Does The Reconciling, We Issue the Invitation

But, let us make no mistake about this:  God does the reconciling. Here’s what Paul says God is doing to restore our friendship and peace with Him:

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;
The old has gone, the new has come!
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.
God has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors,
God were makes his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
God made Christ who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

So, this is God’s work, God’s call to come back to Him, God’s invitation to restore the friendship and peace between God and man.

Reconciliation In Real Life

At this point I was going to tell the story of Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch Gospel, and founded Koinonia Farms down near Americus, Georgia.  Clarence sought to reconcile white people and black people, and so his farm was a working experiment in agriculture and racial reconciliation.  But I’ll save that story for later.

I could also tell you the story of John Perkins of Mississippi, an African-American whose brother bled to death in his arms because the local white hospital in Mississippi wouldn’t treat him after he was shot by some white men.  John left Mississippi for California, until God called him back home to invite white Mississippians and black Mississippians to be reconciled to God and to each other.  Perkins started the Christian Community Development movement, and suffered bravely and repeatedly for it.  But I’ll save that story for later, too.

Friday night, as I was working on these thoughts on reconciliation, CNN’s Anderson Cooper ran a story about a company in Los Angeles, pretty close to where I was in Pasadena.

Father Greg Boyle started Homeboy Industries to help LA gang members find their way out of the despair of the sprawling LA area.  In LA, as in many other cities, Danville, Virginia included, street gangs give boys and young men an identity and a place to belong.

Father Boyle says that in LA, there is a “lethal absence of hope” among young men and women in that urban metropolis.  Father Boyle’s calling, his mission, is to reconcile these gang members and former gang members with God, their community, and themselves.

Anderson Cooper was struck with the selflessness of what Greg Boyle is doing.  He asked him, “Do you ever get taken advantage of?”

Father Boyle replied, “I give our advantage away.”  Nobody takes it.

Martin Sheen is doing the voice-over for a documentary about Homeboy Industries.  Clips showed heavily tattooed former gang members, young women and young men, washing cars, doing dishes, preparing food, mopping floors, and doing it with enthusiasm and for little money.

Homeboy Industries even has a gang-tattoo removal ministry so that former gang members can have removed from their faces, necks, shaved heads, arms, chests, and legs the marks of their bondage to the gang life.

One young man, whose 4 children he cannot see because of his long criminal history, said, “I hope I live long enough to see my kids.”  He works everyday washing cars and collecting scrap metal to make a living and create a new life.

Recently a popular TV and radio commentator told his listeners to leave their church if it  used the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on its website.  He likened those churches to either Communists or Nazis, both of whom he said with great conviction and out of great ignorance, joined forces to overthrow democracy.

I’m not calling his name because these political poseurs say what they say to stimulate controversy, not debate.  But I do want to push back on what he said.

The Bible is full of calls to justice, righteousness, and reconciliation.  For those whose stock-and-trade is division, they have to contend with the Biblical witness from the Old Testament prophets.  The prophet Amos said,

24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.  That’s what our church did when we hosted the Boys and Girls Club here in our church.  That’s what we did when we hosted the Martin Luther King Day service.  That’s what we are doing as we gather our community for joint lenten services.  That’s what we are doing as we invite the children of our community here to our building to learn music together.  And when you come to their recitals you see little white children, and black children, and Asian children whose love for music bridges the divides of their culture and our heritage.

God has called us to reconciliation — to be reconciled to God through Christ, and in turn to be reconciled to each other because we are no longer seeing one another from the world’s viewpoint.

In another letter, Paul tells us how this works out. He said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to the promise.”

God has called us to the ministry of reconciliation.  “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”