Sermon for my ordination service as Commissioned Pastor in the role of Editor of the Banner, at Fellowship CRC, Nov 27, 2016.
Texts: 2 Corinthians 5:17-20; Ephesians 2:13-16; Colossians 1:19-20
In St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in Dublin, Ireland, there is a door hanging on display called the “door of reconciliation”. Legend has it that in 1492, two Irish families (the Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Kildare) were involved in a bitter feud over which family should hold the position of Lord Deputy. This feud became violent with bloodshed between the two families.
When the violence got out of control, the Butlers took refuge in the Chapter House of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The FitzGeralds followed them into the Cathedral and asked them to come out and make peace. Afraid they would be slaughtered, the Butlers refused.
As a gesture of good faith, the head of the Kildare family, Gerald FitzGerald, ordered that a hole be cut in the door. He then thrust his arm through the door and offered his hand in peace to those on the other side. Of course, that was a huge risk. Because the Butlers could have chosen to cut his arm off. But instead, they shook hands through the hole. The Butlers emerged from the Chapter House and the two families made peace.
Apparently, this is where the British phrase “to chance your arm” gets its meaning: to chance your arm means to take a risk. And that door through which the two families shook hands and made peace is that door of reconciliation on display in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to this day.
Well, we live in 2016, not in 1492. But I think we live in a world that is in as much need of reconciliation as ever. We live in a deeply divided and polarized world. Even though we interact with different people more than ever – from rubbing shoulders with people who are different at school or at work to interacting with people from across the planet on the internet and social media – so, despite that, we are actually increasingly divided into ideological tribes. People don’t seem to know how to disagree civilly on social media. It’s either you are my friend for agreeing with me, or you are an idiot for disagreeing and I will make sure you know that you are an idiot!
And in terms of the news media, we have developed what we call echo chambers, where people tend to read or watch news from sources that they agree with or that they like on Facebook, and increasingly fail to read, either by choice or by default, news and information from dissenting voices. Conservatives only read news and information from a conservative slant or bias that only reinforce their beliefs, and the same goes for liberals. When information about different views or dissenting views is presented, it is often framed negatively to show how wrong or even stupid those different opinions or viewpoints are. These information echo chambers feed into our ideological polarization and our tribal mentality. They further divide us. Increasingly, different groups of people almost seem to inhabit different worlds from each other, and people talking past each other rather than talking to each other. Sadly, this reality is also true in the church, and in the CRC (Christian Reformed Church) denomination.
Into this polarized and divided world and church, God enters with his message of reconciliation. And God entrusts us, his people, with this ministry of reconciliation. And it is my hope, and my vision, that the Banner becomes a publication that equips its readers into ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation in today’s polarized world. As a denominational magazine that potentially reaches every CRC member, we have the potential to break through those echo chambers. The Banner has the potential to present different viewpoints to both sides of the divide, even to present mediating viewpoints. We can provide a forum for respectful and civil, and hopefully productive, dialogue for the CRC. To equip ambassadors of reconciliation requires not only content and teaching but also leading by example. That will be my challenge as the editor to try and steer us into that direction. And I ask for your prayers for God’s wisdom for me in that role.
What will guide me is scripture, especially these passages we read tonight. We learn from these passages that Christ’s reconciliation is in 3-D, as I call it, it’s three-dimensional. It is not a narrow, one-dimensional form of reconciliation but is more robust and holistic. And we also learn certain qualities of the ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation. How do we become an ambassador of Christ’s reconciliation? So, let me just unpack those two main lessons for you.
Christ’s Reconciliation is in 3-D
So, why do I say that Christ’s reconciliation is in 3-D? Well, each of the three bible passages we read tonight highlights or emphasizes a particular dimension of Christ’s reconciling work. In 2 Cor. 5, we see an emphasis on Christ’s work of reconciling us back to God. It says in verse 19 and 20 “that 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. 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.”
The second dimension of Christ’s reconciling work is that he reconciles us with each other. Our Ephesians 2 passage highlights this dimension for us (verse 14 onwards): “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups [i.e. Jews and Gentiles], made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace”. So, we see here that even as Christ unites us to God, he is simultaneously uniting us with each other. The centuries old hostility between Jews and Gentiles were broken down even as Christ breaks down the alienation between God and humanity.
Finally, our Colossians passage emphasizes for us that Christ’s reconciling work extends even further to include reconciling “all things,” whether things on earth or things in heaven, through his redemptive work on the cross (Col. 1:19-20). What does all this mean for us as Christians who are entrusted with this ministry of reconciliation?
If Christ’s ministry of reconciliation is three-dimensional, that means our work as his ambassadors of reconciliation is equally three-dimensional. We are not only called to persuade people to be reconciled to God, but we are also called to reconcile people who are divided among themselves. Furthermore, we are also to find ways to reconcile our areas of work, or vocation, our institutions, our learning. We need to reconcile those areas too, as part of the “all things” that Christ is reconciling, to recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The school janitor who sweeps the hallways is equally Christ’s ambassador, and equally playing a role in God’s mission, as the pastor or the professor. Our ministry as ambassadors is full-orbed and holistic.
Ambassadors of Christ’s Reconciliation
So far, we have looked at what we can learn from these bible passages about the three-dimensional nature of that ministry of reconciliation. Now, let’s briefly take a look at how we become ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation. Who are these ambassadors? What are their qualities? How do they behave or live?
Well, there are many things I can say that Christ’s ambassadors need to have and do. Among some of my favorite virtues are wisdom and humility, and justice and grace. I believe all ambassadors of Christ need to have those. But, for tonight, I will focus on those qualities or characteristics I see suggested or implied in our scripture passages.
So, for starters, ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation are first of all reconciled sinners in community together. Before we are entrusted with this ministry, we are first of all beneficiaries or recipients of this ministry. We ourselves need to be reconciled to God. We need to see our sins forgiven in order for us know how to reconcile others. And we need to experience this reality in a community of reconcilers. We don’t act as solo ambassadors. We act together as a community of ambassadors.
I recently read a tweet from @LesslieNewbigin on Twitter. Not sure if it is a genuine quote from Newbigin, but it is a good one.
It says: “A gospel of reconciliation can only be communicated by a reconciled community.” I believe that is very true.
Secondly, ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation are new creatures in Christ. Once we are reconciled to God, we are a new creation. The old has gone, the new is here! As newly reconciled creatures, we have a new identity. We are no longer citizens of this world but citizens of God’s kingdom. We march to the beat of a different drum. We see the world and we see people with different eyes. We may start seeing injustice and sin where we use to see things as going well and fine. We may start seeing our enemies differently, and see them not from a worldly point of view, but from a gracious point of view, seeing them as people made in the image of God. Where we use to pride ourselves in our national identities, which tend to divide us, we now ground our identities in our new humanity in Christ Jesus.
Thirdly, ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation are peace making wall breakers. We emphasize God’s shalom – God’s peace – where everyone belongs, where everyone can flourish and live in harmony with each other and with God, and with God’s creation. And we seek to do this, not by building walls but by breaking them. We do not build walls to divide people, but we break down dividing walls of hostility, as our Savior did. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God!” (Matt. 5:9)
And finally, ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation do not bring peace by the sword. They destroy walls of hostility not by using force or hostility themselves, but by being vulnerable cross bearers. We do not force peace on people through violence or intimidation. Rather, we willingly bear the cross. We are willing to sacrifice our own interests for the sake of the common good. We are willing to be vulnerable – to chance our arms – for the sake of God’s peace. We are willing to suffer pain and hardships, maybe even temporary injustice, even to turn the other cheek, in order to further God’s kingdom. Because we know that God’s kingdom cannot be established through violence, or division, or hatred, or lies, or misinformation, or fear mongering, or stereotyping, or human coercive power over others. Any so-called victory we gain from such human, sinful means, can never justify the end. Because we are given a ministry of reconciliation, not a ministry of winning at all cost.
Jesus: A Vulnerable Reconciler
But above all else, we are vulnerable cross bearers because our Lord Jesus Christ is a vulnerable reconciler. Jesus chanced more than simply his arm in his efforts to break through the wall of sin that divides us from God. Jesus risked his whole life, Jesus risked his whole body, in order to reconcile us and give us peace. Jesus, the Son of God, who did not need to be vulnerable, was vulnerable, to the point of death. And it is through his steadfast obedience and faithfulness to love and peace, and his refusal to coerce people, that God gave him the victory over sin and death.
This is the kind of ambassadors of reconciliation that I hope the Banner can equip our readers to become. This is the type of ministry of reconciliation in 3-D that I hope to inspire our readers to join. And we can do this because we have a great Lord and Savior who has reconciled us to God, reconciled us to each other, and is reconciling all things to God! Thanks be to God! Let us pray.
Dear triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – thank you for your relentless efforts to reconcile us and to reconcile all things to yourself through the blood of Jesus on the cross. Empower us, inspire us, and equip us to be your ambassadors of reconciliation, in the name of Christ our Lord, amen.