By Dorsey McConnell
Sometimes I wonder if St. Paul has lost his mind, and I have to say that this entire passage in his second letter to the Church in Corinth is one of those occasions. He is declaring, unequivocally, that anything we think stands in the way between us and God, and anything that has ever come between us and another — any crime, any offense, any abuse, any betrayal, anything, has been paid for — not merely overlooked, but set right, wiped off the books because of some satisfactory offering on the part of every offender for all time, an offering that has both brought about justice and restored peace, and not by anything we have done, but by a third party, by someone completely innocent, this Jesus, God’s Son, who has done this on our behalf. And the result of this is that we have been reconciled, brought back together, with God and with one another. And, Paul concludes, the purpose of human life lies in our waking up to this reality and living as if we knew it to be true, becoming “ambassadors” to the world, on behalf of the Reconciler himself.
This is, of course, completely insane. In the first place, if I came alongside you and said it’s time you forgave your ex because I have forgiven him or her, you’d be right in telling me where to go. It’s one thing to pay someone else’s parking fine. But a broken marriage, or a broken friendship, could only be healed by reconciliation between the parties, and that can’t possibly happen by someone outside claiming magically to have paid for all the pain two people can cause each other over the years. Besides, that is simply not the way the world works. Ever since Cain killed Abel the tide of human affairs has flowed constantly between wrath and expiation, offense and judgment: the endlessly repeated blood sacrifices of those whom we consider other, in order to justify and maintain our own power. Whether it is the death of 700,000 men over 12 months at the Battle of Verdun 100 years ago, in the name of a God invoked by all combatants, or the moment in the shaving mirror this morning when I decided the evil I did yesterday was somebody else’s fault, not my own, it all springs from the same bitter root. There may be moments of forgiveness, glimpses of grace, enough to fill a few stories we tell our children, but not enough to change the world they will inherit.
Unless, of course, what Paul is saying is true. Because what Paul is talking about is more than atonement, more than the transactional solution accountants talk about when they use the word reconciliation, more than God’s riches at Christ’s expense. What Paul is talking about, what he is urging on the church in Corinth, and what is later fleshed out in letters to the churches in Colossae and Ephesus, is an utter transformation of heart, mind, and spirit, that they, that we, not only might be reconciled on paper — objectively ransomed, restored, and forgiven— but that we can further be healed of the effects of our former state, healed of our rage and bitterness, our hurt and loss, our shame and our fear, that these things could be lifted from us, taken away, removed as far as the west is from the east, so that in their place God might supply love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, as the apostle puts it in Galatians. Paul seems to be saying that all this is not only possible, in an aspirational sense, but that all this is already in place: if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed away: behold the new has come! It is an astonishing claim, especially from someone who, in his letters, shows frequent bursts of pride, irritation, and self-pity, to name just a few of his shortcomings, but who is nonetheless insistent that everything — everything — has been changed through the Cross and Resurrection of this Son of God, this Jesus, in whom the worlds are reconciled.
When I look more deeply into Paul’s words, I discover that what he has in mind is a reconciliation brought about by God’s decision to enter the depths of human despair and wrong and to take us with him. That is his act of faithfulness, and all he needs is a yes, a word of faith from us. What the word of faith sets in motion is the process by which we become this new creation, which sounds great— especially the part about God not counting our trespasses against us. But then we realize becoming this new creation means going through everything Christ has gone through — the Cross, the tomb, the Resurrection, and Ascension — in some kind of strange, mystical union with him.
It’s the first two parts (the Cross and the tomb) we hate, of course. We won’t go there if we can possibly avoid it. We are like shipwrecked passengers trying to stay afloat in icy waters while waiting for a lifeboat. Instead, what we get in Jesus is a God who comes alongside us and says, I am not your lifeboat, but I am your life. He then grabs us by the hand, and in the next breath says, come on: we’re going diving. God in Christ takes our nature upon him, in the theological phrase. God enfolds us in himself and then heads straight for the dark, cold, airless ocean floor of human experience; he opens every last door to every last sunken cabin of our worst selves, moves without shrinking into every worst nightmare, embraces every ghost, bears every lash, every fist, every insult in the whole sorry catalog of human oppression and revenge, and stays there until the fullness of our darkness has been transferred into him, into his heart.
This is no mere transaction. This is a mysterious and utter merging of our identities as individuals and as a collective into the life of God through our union with the second person of the Trinity, by means of which the Father’s eternal love, and the Holy Spirit’s life and power, flow in us and through us, moment to moment, renewing, praying, interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. This whole reality is what Paul means by God having reconciled us to himself. We die with him, in order to be reconciled to him. And what we discover is that we are brought out of all this death fully alive for the first time.
It is hard for us to accept that a lot of death has to happen in us for us to get to this life, but it has to happen nonetheless, and you’ll know it when you actually see all that death in you. Here is a short catalog: the claim that we are good, dead. Our belief we can get through life without constant repentance, dead. Our self-will, dead. Our reliance on anything but the grace of Christ, on the mercy won in his Cross, and on the life bestowed in his resurrection, dead, dead, dead as a doornail. Without this death, there is no life, but in its wake comes true life: abundant life, the real fruits of the Spirit, all of them, a list worth repeating — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control: as Paul says, all of this is from God. For most of us, most of the time, so much of this fruit lies dormant, but it is there, nonetheless; God doesn’t lie about his gifts. And Paul, irascible, difficult Paul, surely knows he is preaching to himself when he says this is all a done deal, the gifts are ours, if we will only wake up to them, and stay awake, and if we ask, How does that awakening happen?, Paul answers not once but twice: you will experience the fruit of reconciliation as you exercise the ministry of reconciliation, proclaiming by your life and actions the message of reconciliation, out of the power and knowledge of the one who has reconciled us to himself. So just as God has dived into our darkness and taken all of it upon himself, so now we must take the same journey into the darkness of others, and especially on those who may think of themselves as our enemies, to love them even though they hate us, to have compassion on them even though they are utterly undeserving, to bear their scorn, pray for and with them, walking with them and loving them down to the roots of their sin, where perhaps we may find what our own forgiveness looks like.
I have got to tell you, I hate this whole idea. When I realized this was where this text was leaving me, I walked away, and was in a foul mood for the rest of the day. But the love of the Most High only springs alive in us as we start to move in humble compassion toward the sin and darkness of another, and so become ambassadors of Christ and ministers of his reconciliation. And what God is asking is small, in comparison to what God has done for us, making him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God. And once you have eyes for this, it is pretty hard to ignore the fact that we are surrounded by Christians who are actually acting out this reconciliation with all the power God supplies and changing their world as a result.
I will call her Julia. I don’t know her real name, but I know the cop who became a priest, who knew her, knew her son, and knew her son’s friend, the friend who in a moment of passion shot her son dead. It was one of those awful summer nights, a young man’s street gang thing, one more dead child of color in a poor neighborhood, one more world fallen apart, beyond repair, you would think. The young man who pulled the trigger had been going to church, hearing the Word, was encountering the grace of God, was finding a new way; so this night, when he fled the scene, he went to that church and turned himself in to the priest, the former cop who now took him, not to the police station, but to his victim’s mother’s house. She had heard the news and she was reeling. The young man sat opposite her, confessed it all. There was a lot of silence, a lot of tears. After a long time, the mother said, I know he is with Jesus. And then she said to the murderer in front of her, You are my son, now. You will do for me all that he would have done for me, and I will do for you all I would have done for him. And so it was. During his years in prison, Julia visited her new son every chance she was allowed. When he was discharged, he moved in with her. He got a job and helped support her. When she was sick, he took care of her until she died. He often spoke of the new life he had received through the reconciliation that God had wrought.
All this is from God, you see: it could not be otherwise. All this is just waiting for us to take seriously enough, so that the Lord can use us. It always takes me half of Lent to get the point again, but now I think I am ready, once again, to try to learn this lesson, asking for the grace of God to act on it, to seek the kind of reconciliation with others that God has won for me, so that I might truly live for him who for my sake died and was raised, to whom be all honor and glory, now and forever.
The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell was the VIII Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.