16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
How many of you have forgiven someone? How many of you have been forgiven by someone? Forgiveness is a big and difficult issue. Forgiveness is complicated and fascinating. The media focuses intense attention on celebrity apologies: General Stanley McChrystal; Tiger Woods; Mark Sanford; Eliot Spitzer; Pete Rose; Logan Paul; Megyn Kelly; and many more celebrities and politicians – who somehow managed to apologize without really apologizing.
A modern classic on the complexity and difficulty we have with forgiveness is the book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. The author, Simon Wiesenthal, was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp where Jews were being put to death. One day, camp authorities took him to the bedside of a dying S.S. guard. The man was a lapsed Catholic, and as he lay dying, he was haunted by the terrible things he had done, the appalling evil in which he had been an enthusiastic participant. Now, near death, he wanted to confess his crimes, and he wanted to confess to a Jew, who, he reasoned, was the only one who could offer forgiveness.
The two men talked for several hours. The German soldier told Wiesenthal his life story, and at the end, he asked for forgiveness. Wiesenthal thought quietly for a long time. He writes, “At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room” (p. 55).
But it didn’t end there. Wiesenthal survived, but he couldn’t stop thinking about his decision. So he wrote an essay and told the story and invited fifty-three distinguished men and women (academics, politicians, religious leaders) to comment and to tell what they would have done.
The responses vary, of course. Presbyterian theologian Robert MacAfee Brown, a WWII Navy chaplain, sympathized with Wiesenthal’s dilemma and said essentially that he couldn’t forgive either: it was too much to ask of any human being. Brown said he would have told the man to take it all to God.
Father Theodore Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame, wrote the shortest response in the book:
“My whole instinct,” Father Hesburgh wrote, “is to forgive. I am in the forgiving business. . . . I think of God as the great forgiver. . . . Of course the sin here is monumental—God’s mercy is infinite. . . . I would forgive because God would forgive.”
Jesus told stories about forgiveness. Jesus told a harsh story about a servant who was forgiven his debt by his master and turned around and refused to forgive his debtor and who ended up being punished severely for not forgiving. He told an unforgettable story about an ungrateful son who took his share of his father’s money left home, spent it all, ended up living with pigs, and came home to apologize, and before the son could get the words out, his father was running down the road, opening his arms and embracing him. It’s an amazing idea about a God who extends forgiveness even before people get around to asking or confessing; an amazing idea that we are forgiven not by working off our guilt, not by being shamed, shunned, punished publicly, but by opening our hearts to the gift of God: forgiveness. Someone called it, memorably, amazing grace.
It is so radical that St. Paul called it a whole brand-new reality: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away: see everything has become new.”
The result of this cosmic reconciliation is that we now look at everything differently. We look at everything and everyone through the lens of reconciliation. We are ambassadors of reconciliation as we call others to believe in Jesus and so find themselves in a good relationship with God. But it’s not just about the vertical dimension between God and us. Being caught up in God’s salvation changes everything on this human, horizontal plane, too.
“Once upon a time,” Paul writes, “we regarded Jesus only from a human point of view and when we did, we didn’t think much of him. But now we see Jesus and everyone in a divine perspective and it changes everything.” In the Greek Paul talks about regarding Jesus and each other kata sarx, which literally means “according to the flesh.” If we look at Jesus as no more than just another flesh-and-blood human being among the billions of other flesh-and-blood people who populate this globe, then there’s nothing remarkable about Jesus. If Jesus is only human, then to worship him is idolatry. But Jesus is also the Son of God, so we are right to worship him. You cannot look at Jesus only according to his human side.
But Paul makes a parallel between looking at Jesus in a complete way and looking at each other in a complete way. But none of us is divine, so what is the parallel here? Well, the parallel, according to Paul, is that because we are all “in Christ,” we are more than just human, too–there is more to us than meets the eye!
We are the bearers of God’s saving grace with the Holy Spirit living inside us. Of course we don’t treat each other like pieces of meat! Of course we do not ever think that broken relationships are no big deal. No! We are caught up in the grip of God’s cosmic reconciliation in Christ. Jesus died so that fractured relationships, dysfunctional families, lost friendships, and ruptured social circles could be restored.
From a purely human point of view it’s easy to see alienation among people and chalk it up to just the way life goes. Things like that happen, we might conclude. One friend says the wrong thing to another and that’s it. Romances break up, friends drift apart. In congregations, as in corporations, people come, people go. Some people like each other, some people can’t stand each other. The person to whom you were once close is now the one you cross the street just to avoid. Happens all the time. It’s the same all over.
But the gospel screams God’s thunderous “No!” to that kind of casual dismissal of alienation. Paul knew that in his own lifetime he had gone from being God’s number one enemy to God’s beloved apostle. There was a time in his life when if someone mentioned the name “Jesus” in Paul’s presence, Paul (who was then called Saul) turned purple and began to sputter profane vindictives about that name Jesus–a name he was intent on wiping from the face of the earth. Even years later Paul no doubt sometimes awoke in the dead of night, cold sweat running down his forehead, because of the nightmares in which he remembered the Christians he had run through with a sword, the dear women he had dragged away by their hair, that look on Stephen’s face just before the last stone hit his forehead and took his life. Paul knew from his own experience that reconciling former enemies is the main reason Jesus died. He was a living example of that!
A contemporary theologian who has done a tremendous amount of thinking about reconciliation is Miroslav Volf. He once wrote that in God’s heavenly kingdom, it cannot be just impersonal forces of evil that are done away with. It cannot be just the entire creation, broadly conceived, which gets reconciled with its God. No, Volf says, it has to get more specific than that. Before we can all dwell happily together in the shalom of God’s kingdom there needs to be real reconciliation between earthly enemies. Perpetrators and victims must embrace. Those who have lived in conflict need to have that conflict put away if there is to be shalom. It’s not just the lion and the lamb that need to learn to curl up next to one another but all of us who have lived as the human equivalents of lambs and lions in how we have treated each other. There can be no peace in God’s kingdom so long as there is anyone there who would just as soon cross over to the other side of a golden street in order to avoid you.
To be reunited with former friends is our hope. Of course, we also hope for other things, like a day when sickness and cancer will be no more. But even as for now we are not done with tumors, so for now we may also never be fully reconciled with everyone. There are many reasons for that. Sometimes it’s sinful stubbornness which blocks the fixing of things. Other times there is nothing we can do as there is too much hurt such that our efforts to be kind are rebuffed or just make matters worse. Still other times the kind of hurt and psychological damage we have sustained is too intense to overcome. In short, there are times when there is not a blessed thing we can do to repair what’s broken in life.
As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, in the Lord’s Supper the minister holds up a whole loaf of bread as a reminder of the whole, perfect presence of God among his people. But then that loaf is shattered, broken, torn, and the crumbs fall onto the table. It is a reminder that our perfect wholeness, that peace for which we yearn and pine, is not behind us but up ahead yet. Wholeness is coming, but the broken loaf reminds us that it is coming not through what we’ll do but through what Jesus already did. His brokenness is what will one day put our lives back together whole and complete, relationships and all.
Such was Paul’s message of hope to the Corinthians from the midst of that messy, hurtful situation. Such is God’s message to us from the midst of the messes of our own lives. There is a reconciliation, a wholeness, and a peace which endures. It’s a peace we need to remember and hold onto, even (or maybe especially) from the squalor of our lives.
Commentary provided by David E. Fredrickson, Scott Hoezee, Rev. Dr. Anne Bain Epling, Holly Hearon, John Buchanan & NT Wright.