Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Gospel of Reconciliation, Part 1

In Corinthians 5:14–21 Paul presents a totally nonviolent God who has acted in Christ to reconcile the world. God acts in Christ to bears the violence of the world without returning the violence.

Paul says in verse 19 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.” Jesus, as God’s mediator and agent of reconciliation, bears the hate and animosity of the world, absorbing it—exposing it, yes, but also absorbing it through an act of preemptive forgiveness—refusing to retaliate and return the violence. Our world knows about preemptive military strikes, but very little, if anything at all, about preemptive forgiveness. 

In verse 21 Paul declares that God made him “who knew no sin” (who was blameless of any of the charges brought against him by the religious and political powers) “to be sin,” that is, to become and bear the sin of the world—the hate, bigotry, cruelty, viciousness, and maliciousness of the worldly powers (powers that we are all complicit in, by the way). God made Jesus who was blameless to bear and become the hate and cruelty of the world (Jesus bears the judgment of the world, not the judgment of God), so that in him (Christ) we might become the righteousness of God, so that in Christ we might become what is good, right, just, whole, loving, gracious, and forgiving.

That’s radical enough, but then Paul calls the church to become ambassadors of this radical message. To the church, the body of Christ, has been committed the message of reconciliation (5:19–20). This means that we who are disciples/followers of Jesus must be willing to bear the hate of the world, too. This means that we, like Jesus, must be willing to absorb the world’s animosity in our own souls and bodies through preemptive acts of forgiveness in order to exhaust it, so that cycles of hate and violence can be broken. Jesus became a scapegoat to put an end to all scapegoating, and he calls us to do likewise.  

If I had clearly understood the implications of the gospel of reconciliation when I first heard a call to ministry, I probably would have run like Jonah. There are days I wish I didn’t believe this. There are moments I wish I still preached a dualistic gospel. It was so easy and simple then, so clear cut, so black and white. I felt no real obligation to forgive or love the person most offensive to me. I spent most of my time in those days praying and preaching that people would become just like me so they wouldn’t go to hell.

But thankfully there are more days now when I take seriously the gospel of reconciliation, when I realize that the person I dislike the most, no matter how offensive, is my sister or brother. There are more days now when I really do want to understand my own sin and failure, when I truly want to be more forgiving and compassionate, and more capable of bearing the world’s hostility without returning it. And all I can tell you is that in those moments I somehow come under the influence and power of the gospel of reconciliation.     

In Will Campbell’s autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will tells about a conversation he had with his friend P.D. East. P.D. had long since deserted and disavowed his upbringing in the Methodist Church of his foster parents,  had tried being a Unitarian, had taken instruction from the local rabbi and was considering declaring himself a Jew. He referred to the Church as “the Easter Chicken.”

Every time Will Campbell would see him, P.D. would say, “And what’s the state of the Easter Chicken, Preacher Will?” He was trying to goad Will into an argument. Will figured he would wait him out. One day, P.D. decided to let him have it.

“You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.”

Will interrupted, noting that white was the liturgical color for Easter, but P.D. ignored him. P.D went on, “That Easter chicken served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one heck of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.

Will said, “I think I see what you’re driving at P.D.” P.D. retorted, “No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.” P.D raved on.

“Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like heck. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t let it get on the roost with them.

And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man it would fight back, peck the heck out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time.

Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”

Will knew P.D. wanted to argue, so Will said, “Well, P.D. the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?” That’s what P.D. wanted him to say. P.D. said, “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that?  And the Rotary club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs” (Continuum, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Ed., 218–20).

We may not want to admit it, but P.D and his Easter chicken are hard to argue with aren’t they? If we take this gospel that Paul preached seriously, this gospel of reconciliation, we will not only be different from most of society, we will also be different from most Christians, too. 

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