2 Corinthians 5:17–21

Dear Friends of Jesus:

Happy Spring! Today!

We are given today, by the lords of the lectionary, a great treasure of treasures from the Scriptures: the wholeness of the Holy Gospel itself, in just a few potent phrases. In fact, it’s all wrapped up in just one precious word.

It is Saint Paul’s ultimate, mystical, dynamic-action word that punctuates his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians. And we have just heard that word today!

“God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. God was in Christ, reconciling the world … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

There it is: That rolling, flowing, cascading, six-syllable word: REC-ON-CIL-I-A-TION.

A decade ago, I was invited to speak to an all-European church conference over in Hungary: a conference that celebrated the reunion over in Hungary: a conference that celebrated the reunion of East and West at the end of the Cold War, which had so bitterly divided the countries of Europe. In opening remarks, over there in formerly communist Hungary, an Italian theologian, Paolo Ricca, dared to suggest that the whole Bible should have a sub-title: “The Book of Reconciliation.” That was a joyful, and very appropriate word, at that time, and in that place.

So what does this wondrous word “reconciliation” really mean? Yes, it means knowing that the very heart of God is love-in-action: that God will care for us in spite of all our sin and stumbling—and in the midst of all our sufferings and sorrows. Yes, it involves something like conflict resolution: the overcoming of enmity and oppression—something to do with peacemaking—something this world needs right now, in so many ways, in so many places—even in Washington, D.C.—not least, between Republicans and Democrats!

Perhaps it helps to think of the various “graces of reconciliation.“ We might count at least four of those graces: empathy, forgiveness, repentance, justice. These are our human initiatives that, working together, help make God’s reconciliation possible.

But preceding all of these is the pervasive fact of human conflicts: conflicts with other persons and groups and institutions and nations. To be sure, some of these are constructive and beneficial conflicts, like the separation of powers that we deliberately structure into our governmental and even our religious institutions to guard them against tyranny—because we know that the price of freedom is permission for controversy. And then, not least, these conflicts, those struggles to which we are called if the injustice of our world are to be overcome.

Whenever we hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome,” we echo the redemptive strategy of my old Boston University schoolmate of long ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. In his marvelous 1963 Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, Martin wrote that “the purpose of direct action is to create a crisis that will open the door to negotiation.” Dr. King know that a redemptive conflict like surgery—while it may be painful for a while—can be the way to healing, to ultimate reconciliation.

We may not like to remember that Jesus promised his own disciples a whole life of conflict for the sake of the Gospel—conflict even within their own families. And controversy that could mean being dragged before governing authorities—which, of course, was the climactic story of Jesus’ own life—and death.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the young German pastor engaged in the anti-Hitler resistance: a deadly conflict that led to his own execution at the age of 39. Yet a decade earlier, at the age of only 29, he wrote his classic little book, The Cost of Discipleship, which in so many ways, echoes Jesus’ hard words about conflict and discipleship. We need to remember what Bonhoeffer meant by “cheap grace”—that grace which is not really grace at all because it does not involve us in any conflict and doesn’t really cost us anything. “Cheap grace,” he said, is “forgiveness without repentance” and “grace without the Cross.”

A Christian leader out in Minnesota, Curtiss DeYoung, has seized on this passage from Bonhoeffer to contrast what he calls “cheap reconciliation” with “costly reconciliation.” DeYoung says “cheap reconciliation.” DeYoung says “cheap reconciliation” is not only forgiveness without repentance: it is “equal treatment without restitution, harmony without liberation, conflict resolution without relational healing, peace without God.”

Back in the 1960s, “reconciliation” had become a bad word to some folks in this country. By itself, it begged the question: Reconciliation? On whose terms? Black folks capitulating to the terms imposed upon them by white folks? To some African-Americans and others, it had, in effect, become “cheap reconciliation.” It was reconciliation without restitution, without justice.

After the collapse of South Africa’s racist, apartheid regime, and then the miraculous rebirth of that nation President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African leaders held a National Service of Thanksgiving on May 8, 1994 (ten years ago already). That day, Desmond Tutu (a very special friend of this Washington Cathedral) led a litany of reconciliation. And this is what those worshipers said in 1994:

We struggled against one another: now we are reconciled to struggle for one another.
We believed it was right to withstand one another: now we are reconciled to understand one another.
We endured the power of violence: now we are reconciled to the power of tolerance.
We built irreconcilable barriers between us: now we seek to build a society of reconciliation.
We suffered a separateness that did not work: now we are reconciled to make togetherness work.
We believed we alone held the truth: now we are reconciled in the knowledge that truth holds us.
(South African national service of Thanksgiving).

Now a white South African, Professor John DeGruchy of the University of Cape Town, has just published a powerful new book, the very title of which testifies to the truth about the costs of grace: Reconciliation Restoring Justice. John DeGruchy says we must avoid the “theological travesty” of trying to confine reconciliation to “the realm of personal piety”—because reconciliation is really about “the restoration of justice, whether that has to do with out justification by God, or the transformation of society.”

DeGruchy insists his basic concern is the relationship between “the Christian doctrine of reconciliation” and “the politics of reconciliation.” that is, reconciliation really involves more than inner attitudes: it requires “a fundamental shift in personal and power relations.”

Now, as it happens, John DeGruchy is also one of the world’s leading scholars of the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—and so DeGruchy brings us right back to Bonhoeffer—s own efforts to discover the depths of what reconciliation really means. He recalls one of Bonhoeffer’s letters from his Nazi prison cell in Berlin—a letter revealing his own wonder and mystification about it all. He wrote:

Reconciliation and redemption, … cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship—all these things are so difficult…[But] we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary [in that word reconciliation]…though we cannot as yet grasp or express it.

What a stunning thought that is to come from one of Adolf Hitler’s prison cells!

Forty years ago this summer, on my own first visit to that same city Berlin—and before the ugly Berlin Wall came tumbling down—I saw an absolutely extraordinary place in Bernauer Strasse where that wall sliced right through the front of a churchyard, of all places. the church itself was over on the East side, in the Soviet zone, but facing West. On each side of the church were fixed the gun positions of east German (Communist) guards high up in abandoned tenement buildings. A number of would-be escapes had been shot and killed right there—in front of that church. There were memorial wreaths there. High above the church door still stood a figure of the Christ, hand raised in blessing. But the church itself had been closed by the Communists some years before. Yet the name of that church remained what it had been, for generations before the Wall: “The Church of the Reconciliation.” Of all names! In such a bloody, fearful place as that!

Oh, but what a holy blessed symbol of costly grace, of the costly work of reconciliation: to see the face of Christ over there, on the other side of every dividing wall of hostility—to keep reminding us that no nation, no group, no person is an absolute enemy—and that there are redemptive forces at work in any and every community of God’s creatures, and there are bonds of common humanity among all peoples.

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has warned that reconciliation can be a very bland word, a “seductively comfortable word.” That is, a word that fails to empower us for action for justice and the restoration of truly human relationships.

So, rightly understood, reconciliation is a summons to political responsibility as a high calling of our Christian discipleship.

This weekend, millions of people in America, Europe, and Asia have taken to the streets to protest against U.S. war policies. Whatever your own opinion, we American Christians must ponder very deeply right now over our nation’s fractured relationships with even our closest allies, and with much of the rest of the world, and with the leadership, major policies, and programs of the United Nations. Just last Tuesday, this estrangement was documented by the Pew Research Center’s latest opinion poll that disclosed the lowest-ever American public support for the United Nations.

Dear Sisters and Brothers of Jesus: Saint Paul has nominated us all to powerful, high ranking positions—for in that same passage from 2 Corinthians, we are called to be “ambassadors, ambassadors for Christ,” with this powerful ministry, the ministry of reconciliation: wonderful word, precious word—and costly word.

Now, Friends, a timely announcement. This coming week will welcome a new nationwide initiative for justice and peace. Under the name “Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation” (here’s that word again!), this initiative is aimed at helping to overcome the extreme poverty of the world’s poorest countries. It builds on the United Nations’ official Millennium Development Goals:

  • Adequate food and nutrition for all peoples
  • Gender equality
  • Maternal health care everywhere
  • Universal primary education
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Global partnership for economic development

And then, for Christians in particular, commitment to a shared discipleship of prayer, political advocacy, and the giving of seven tenths of one percent of our individual incomes, and our parish incomes, and diocesan incomes in support of economic development in the poorest countries.

So: Next Saturday, March 27, on these Cathedral grounds, beginning at 5 pm, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation will hold a “launch event”— with an orientation and a simple meal at Saint Alban’s Church next door—and then a musical production, “Seven Words for the 21st Century,” here in the Cathedral. Those “Seven Words” echo Christ’s words on the cross and are directed to the pain of our broken world: a world so utterly in need of reconciliation, in so many ways.

You don’t have to be an Episcopalian to come on Saturday or to share in the commitments of this new initiative! (I myself am only a mere Methodist!)

And let us also remember that today is the birthday of perhaps the greatest of all musicians: the 319th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. So I invite you to think happy birthday thoughts throughout this day. But also to keep singing the very last verse of today’s eucharistic hymn, to the music of Bach. Just moments ago, we sang these lyrics:

“Sins forgiven, wrong forgiving, we go forth,
alert and living, in your Spirit, strong and free,
Partners in your new creation,
seeking peace in every nation,
May we faithful followers be.”

Dear Friends: All this in the name of our Empowering Lord, the Prince of Peace, even Jesus Christ, our Reconciler and our Redeemer. Amen.