A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
January 22, 2015
Last week I invited us to begin the New Year by hearing anew the call of the Gospel to repent. This week, as we remember the life and witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us consider another Gospel call, one that he mightily proclaimed: Reconcile!
Scripture tells many reconciliation stories, each deeply moving. They are often rich with detail, reflecting the complexity and arduousness of reconciliation. Consider, for example, Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau (Genesis 32-33), Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers (Genesis 42-45), and David’s reconciliation with Saul (1 Samuel 24-26) – in each case reconciliation is an extended, even excruciating process, with imperfect results. It is much easier to be divided than to be united.
Reconciliation between the white majority and the black children of slavery in America has taken generations, and the struggle is far from over. How long, O Lord, how long? Some real strides have been made on the legal front in my lifetime, yet we are far from being the reconciled community envisioned by Dr. King. We cannot flag in our persistence to work for full racial reconciliation, even though the pathway there is still fraught with difficulty.
Whether between tribes, races, religions, churches, or family members, enmities are stubbornly resistant to reconciliation. The problem runs as deep as sin itself. Jesus’ victory over sin is cast in many ways: redemption, regeneration, liberation, atonement, expiation, and reconciliation. What makes reconciliation distinctive is that the healing of our relationship with God is worked out in the theater of our relationships with each other. The inseparability of the two is framed classically in 1 John 4:7-21, concluding with this epigram: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Reconciliation, like repentance, involves us doing something, rather than having something simply handed to us. To be sure, just as our capacity to repent is itself a gift from God, the possibility of our being reconciled to each other flows from our Lord’s reconciliation of sinful humanity to God. Paul declares that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” But that is just the beginning of reconciliation; Paul continues that at the same time God was also “entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Reconciliation with God is accomplished; now it’s on us to realize it in our relationships with each other.
Back before computerized banking, I worked hard to reconcile my checkbook to agree perfectly with the bank’s monthly statement. This goal of achieving perfect agreement is also part of being reconciled to each other, something evident when Jesus repeatedly prays that we would be one as he and the Father are one (John 17). They are in perfect agreement, even though the stories of Jesus’ final days disclose that his perfect unity with the Father is tested in Gethsemane, where Jesus confesses that he wants something other than the Father’s will, even as he submits to it (Luke 22:42). If perfect agreement was hard for him, surely it will be so for us.
We also speak of reconciliation in another sense – as committed engagement across lines of difference. Reconciliation is a process, as well as a goal. It is South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” challenging South Africans who had long been separated to begin walking together. Whitewashing over what had long divided them was not an option; they had to grapple with their divisions in all their dreadful detail. Their process of reconciliation is a long way from complete, but thirty years after dismantling apartheid, they continue their difficult journey forward together, no matter the pain.
Last week I offered the modest challenge to sit with folk who see things from a perspective different from our own, in order to enlarge our capacity for repentance. This week I extend that challenge to invite us to refrain from listening to things, saying things, or doing things that deepen divisions among us. The ministry of reconciliation begins with saying No! to further division. Reconciliation in the sense of reaching perfect agreement may seem impossibly remote; yet might we not at least refrain from further division, deep as our differences may be? This is not an invitation simply to stay put in our current family or church, but a call to shun the divisive words and behaviors we so readily indulge long before we part ways formally.
In a world shattered by sin, leaving others is sometimes a tragic necessity. Victims of abuse must leave their abusers – let that be utterly clear. But such exceptions only underscore the rule that God calls us to a very different way. Because of Jesus’ reconciling work between holy God and sinful humanity, amid all our brokenness we too may work for reconciliation. Indeed, we must.
Yours in the labor for reconciliation,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
Click here for the directory of archived letters.