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“The Hope of Reconciliation”
Sermon for World Communion Sunday
2 Cor. 5:16-20; Genesis 32:3-8, 33:1-11
When Paul tells the Corinthian Christians they have been reconciled to God through Christ, he is letting them know that they have been released from the grip of something that was twisting and stunting their lives. Now that they are in Christ, they are part of an utterly new reality. They are people who have been made right with God, and now they have the means to make things right with each other, too. They no longer have to justify themselves or pass judgment on each other the way they did before, because now they can see themselves and each other in the light of God’s reconciling love. It is a beautiful and powerful vision of what God intends for the whole world through Jesus Christ.
Reconciliation: even the word is beautiful, and how beautiful and yet impossible it sometimes seems. We know from personal experience how hard reconciliation can be: where there is hurt and anger, finding a way forward through the painful feelings can be excruciating. And beyond our own families and personal networks, we find ourselves surrounded by stories and images of disunity, of conflict, distrust, and resentment. Our cities are roiled by anger over shootings of unarmed black men, and the shootings keep happening. In our national life, the partisan divide seems more entrenched than ever. The last presidential election was the most contentious I have ever seen, and the next one is shaping up to be at least as painful. Where in all this turmoil can we find the seeds of reconciliation?
Paul says the reason we have such a hard time being reconciled with those we perceive as our adversaries is that we see things from a “human point of view.” What this means is that we see other people not as who they really are but through the lens of our own interests and points of view. If we believe our interests or perspectives are threatened by another person or group, we have a much harder time seeing the Christ in them.
Reconciliation and forgiveness are not the same thing, but they are related. A few years ago some of the surviving members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston stunned the world by publicly announcing their forgiveness of Dylann Roof, the murderous racist who gunned down nine people at a Bible study. How were they able to do that? According to Jennifer Berry Hawes, who tells their story in a new book called Grace Will Lead Us Home, their faith mobilized them to be “avatars of God’s loving grace.” Such forgiveness seems superhuman, even divine, and could only be brought about by the Holy Spirit acting in those tragedy-stricken church members’ souls. But this forgiveness is problematic, too, as Hawes acknowledges: “To forgive Roof is to extend an act of kindness to [a racist] culture and its beneficiaries.”[i] True reconciliation, in this instance, would require Roof to accept the gift of forgiveness and make a move of repentance on his side, whatever that might look like: some expression of grief and sorrow over the grief he had caused, and a conversion of his thinking. The members of Emanuel AME Church showed the face of Christ to him as clearly as any humans can, but he seems not to have recognized it.
Just a few days ago on the evening news there was the courtroom embrace between Dallas police officer Amber Guyger and Botham Jean’s younger brother, Brandt. Guyger, who is white, was sentenced to ten years in prison for fatally shooting Botham Jean, who is black, in what she mistakenly thought was her apartment but which turned out be his. In the courtroom where she was sentenced, Botham’s younger brother, who had every reason to hate Amber Guyger, asked the judge if he could give her a hug and then moved across the courtroom to enfold her in an embrace, as she wept and hugged him back. In a victim impact statement, Brandt said that he loved her as he would any other person and that he did not even want her to go to prison; he only hoped she would give her life to Christ. After Brandt’s embrace of Guyger, Judge Tammy Kemp came down from her bench, spoke with Jean’s family members and hugged them, and then she and Guyger also embraced. Brandt Jean’s gesture set in motion a cascade of mercy. To watch this on TV was like seeing the face of God. But we might still ask: is this a satisfying conclusion? Is there genuine reconciliation here? Brandt Jean’s forgiveness may be problematic in the same way Jennifer Hawes described, since Guyger has something of a mixed record on racial attitudes. Was Brandt Jean letting white racism off the hook by reaching out to Guyger? Maybe – I think some members of his family felt that way. But it seems that genuine reconciliation has to start with risky moves like Brandt Jean’s. In order for reconciliation to happen, somebody has to take a chance that mercy will overcome hatred and prejudice.
The brothers Esau and Jacob were both taking a big risk when they prepared to meet each other after years of estrangement. Jacob knew that Esau had every reason to hate him and even do him harm; in fact, Esau had vowed years earlier to kill Jacob. Jacob had tricked him out of his father’s deathbed blessing, usurping the benefits that would have come to Esau as the older brother. As Jacob approaches Esau, he is prepared to appease him with gifts of his flocks and herds. But like the forgiving father in Jesus’s story of the prodigal son, Esau runs to meet him, falls upon his neck and kisses him, and the two embrace and weep together. Esau first refuses Jacob’s gift, saying he has enough, but Jacob insists, because “to see [his brother’s] face is like seeing the face of God.” For Jacob, to know Esau’s forgiveness is to experience God’s forgiveness. Reconciliation is the opportunity for us to see each other “no longer from a human point of view,” but to see the face of Christ in each other.
World Communion Sunday is the day on which Christians, regardless of their nationality or denomination, are urged to put their historical differences aside and come to the Lord’s Table together. It is a day in which we recognize and celebrate our common bond in Jesus Christ, and resolve not to see each other from a purely “human point of view,” but a divine one. It is a small step, repeated each year in churches all over the world, toward unity, that vision of all of us being one.
But the differences that are tearing our world apart right now are not differences among Christians, as painful as these divisions can be. So why not use this World Communion Sunday to think about ways in which we might break down barriers both within and outside the walls of our churches?
As long as we look at each other from a “human point of view,” in terms of our own fears and interests, reconciliation will be difficult if not impossible. But we have before us the example of Jesus, who consistently showed love and concern for the people everyone else distrusted or condemned. As a result, he was distrusted and condemned himself. Eventually, he was chased out of human society altogether, allotted a place with the criminals on Calvary Hill, where he completed the work of reconciliation he had come to do.
In the name and Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Reconciler of the world, as we come to the table today let us come as Christ’s ambassadors for peace in our world.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
October 6, 2019
[i]Chris Lebron, “Just Mercy,” a review of Jennifer Berry Hawes, Grace Will Lead Us Home (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), in The New York Times Book Review, July 21, 2019.