The life, death and resurrection of Jesus made such a radical difference to life on this planet that St Paul could not find just a single word that conveyed the enormity of the saving grace that poured outward from this one life and engulfed the whole world. So Paul uses a number of terms to speak of the life giving effect of the life and death of Jesus. Words we are familiar with such as atonement, redemption, and in this week’s RCL text from Ephesians 2:11-22 the concept of reconciliation. We sometimes use these words interchangeably but although they have related meanings each word focuses in on a different aspect of the love and work of Jesus the Christ for us and among us.
In common parlance we say that the account books have been reconciled and we mean that books are balanced, things add up to what they are meant to. We say that the parties in an industrial dispute have been sent to arbitration in order to be reconciled; that is to be assisted to reach a compromise all parties can live with. In families we talk of reconciliation as the process of compromise and forgiveness until there can be sufficient if not complete agreement so that there can be some harmony between members and we are all talking to one another again or more lovingly. All of these understandings shed some light on what Paul is pointing toward but he is saying something a lot more powerful than that if we all compromise a bit more the world would be a happier more peaceful place, true though that may be!
The Greek word katallage translated as reconciliation means to change or exchange, to change from a state of enmity and fragmentation to a state of harmony and peace, or maybe most simply to make peace. In this letter to the Ephesians Paul is reminding them that not only has peace been made between humanity and divinity through the life and death of Jesus but that peace between people’s has also been made. Peace between people who were once utterly separate, who were enemies – the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the chosen ones and the gentiles – are now one. Not one group taken over by the other but a new creation that includes both.
When we look around our world today we can see endless places in which reconciliation is needed: between nations, between religions, within religions as different interpretations of the same religion competes for orthodoxy, and in our families and social groups where conflict and competition holds us apart. We can see lots of places where we would want the gentle dew of God’s love and peace to be dropped down and blanket the situation. And very occasionally that seems to happen.
But if we are honest most of us want a peace that flows out of someone else’s recognition of their wrongness or error and for them to come around to our way of thinking and seeing things and feeling. And even when we acknowledge that we need to move a bit we find it difficult to let go of the issue or perspective that contributed to the enmity in the first place.
Reconciliation requires that we experience change, that we give up our concern for winning arguments, for having others make our priorities theirs. Reconciliation involves entering into a process where winning is not even the issue, where being right is not as important as being in right relationship, where being in relationship is about a new state of respect and care that lets go of whatever previous stumbling blocks there may have been. This is of course easier said than done. On small issues we can be magnanimous and let the other “win” knowing all the while that they have only won because we let them. But reconciliation, making peace between us, is not about being right. It is about being connected, about being part of the oneness of God and that is a completely different way of viewing what’s important. Because in Jesus the Christ, the universal human, the one in whom coincides human and divine natures, we are held together in his one flesh.
This sounds quite poetic and lovely but when we apply it to the particular conflicts and struggles we have it is not always a comforting thought to find that we are bound in the common body with the ones we differ with. Often in our conflict and enmity we are much more aware of our differences. Indeed the solution at first often seems to be to emphasise our difference by arguing with ourselves or others the exact nature of our differences. But as Einstein is credited as having said “Problems cannot be solved with the mindset that created them.”
When I was quite young I learnt the art of debate and practiced it with my father. We must have driven the rest of the family mad as we debated every topic under the sun at most meal times. There was a certain level of enjoyment in the to and fro of the debate. But sadly it also meant we were always trying to demonstrate that the other one was wrong and so we listened to one another in order to find the other’s weakness. Debate is not conversation and will always tend to lead to the emphasis of difference rather than connection. Winning, being right – intellectually or morally – is not always the same as success in relationships. And it has been a lifelong learning edge for me to look to relationship rather than being right. It doesn’t help that so many of our public institutions are based on adversarial models of conversation – government, court rooms, community group committees and many a family kitchen table.
Now there are real differences between us – in taste, belief and practice and self interest. Sometimes there are safety reasons – physical and psychological – which we cannot ignore. Occasionally it may not be safe to seek a relationship with one we are in difference with. However it can still be important to remember that we belong to the same body in Christ as the one from whom we are estranged. What we cannot contain in our selves Christ can contain within him. Sometimes when I am not at peace with someone and I can manage no more then I remember them in the presence of God in my prayers reminding myself that they too are a beloved son or daughter of God.
It is also important to remember that there is a reason for our being reconciled in one flesh other than just family peace between peoples although that is important enough. Paul also uses the language of growth and building for we as individuals, as families, as church, as nations cannot be who we most fully are meant to be when we are not at peace with others. As followers of Christ we need to be part of the new creation, the body that holds us together with those who were once our enemies. And this is a process that requires our participation in change from fragmentation and enmity to that of fellowship. Not all of the work can be done by others, including even God.
So let us in our prayers and daily life remember those with whom we struggle in our difference as well as those we easily love and care for; let us continue to practice conversations and behaviours that are about seeking meeting places not winning high moral ground; and let us remember that we are part of the one flesh.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come gather us up in your embrace.