Reconciliation

Dear friends in Christ,

In the heated dialog of the current political arena, it appears to me that there is a need to find a way to bridge the political divide. This divide has infiltrated into all aspects of our modern life. There are heated loud political arguments at our dinner tables, in conversations with our siblings and offspring, in our restaurants and civic clubs, and pipe and cigar stores and bars (I have only seen those at the former). Unfortunately, it can even be seen in our local churches and presbytery. In fact, I believe that it has been manifested in all our controversial issues in our denomination for the last 20 years. The problem has not been that we have different opinions and views. The problem has been how our different opinions and views have escalated into a sort of “scorched earth” approach in many of our debates. We have placed a premium on winning as opposed to finding a way to live together and find a way into the will of God. What I think we need is reconciliation.  Reconciliation is a process of re-establishing a right relationship with someone. In our modern world it has the following meanings:

reconcile 1. To re-establish friendship between.  2. To settle or resolve, as a dispute.  3. To bring to acquiescence:  reconcile oneself to defeat. 4. To make compatible or consistent.  Often used with to or with:  reconcile my way of thinking with yours.  [Middle English recompensen, from Old French reconcilier, from Latin reconciliare : re-, again + conciliare, to CONCILIATE.]

As can be seen by this definition, there are a variety of nuances to this word in the English language. The one common denominator of these shades of meaning is that of change and movement. Reconciliation is not static it is dynamic.

An informed biblical concept of reconciliation adds some unique flavoring to our understanding of reconciliation. In the biblical witness (in English translation) there are a variety of passages that use some form of the English word ‘reconcile.’ The New Revised Standard has used some form of this word in the following passages: 1 Samuel 29: 4, Matthew 5: 24, Acts 7: 26, Acts 12: 20-23, Romans 5: 10-11, Romans 11:15, 1 Corinthians 7: 11, 2 Corinthians 5: 18-20, Ephesians 2: 16, and Colossians 1: 20-22.

The Greek witnesses of these passages use some form of three different words. In the Septuagint’s translation of 1 Kings 29: 4 (1 Samuel 29:4) a form of one of these Greek words is used for a Hebrew word which means to give pleasure. This word is used three different times in Scripture to refer to ‘making someone happy with the purpose of solving a dispute.’ In other passages the Greek used deals with the re-establishment of relationship with God. These words differ in that one appears to be used in describing reconciliation between humans and the other appears to be used to describe reconciliation between humans and God. The third Greek word presents reconciliation as one bringing a dispute to acquiescence (Acts 12: 20-23). Here, you have the masses begging for peace (reconciliation) from the king.

It is clear from this simple and short excursion into the Greek that the biblical witness and probably the pre-modern mind set had a variety of understandings in relationship to reconciliation. There seems to be at least three different levels of reconciliation represented; (1) person to person, (2) humans to God, and (3) people to ruler. These three different levels of reconciliation could be understood as (1) re-establishing a friendship by making someone happy or by resolving a dispute, (2) being made compatible or consistent with God, and (3) capitulation to the government or those in power.

The biblical witness seems to embrace a concept of reconciliation as a process of change. It also recognizes different levels of change. The person who goes about initiating the reconciliation is presented as a better person or as a heroic person. In the passage from 1 Samuel 29: 4, the man who would have been reconciled to his lord would have done so by having been a hero on the battle field.  In the passage from Ephesians 2: 16, we see that God is the person who initiates the change (reconciliation) and that God is being presented as being honored by it. The motif of God or of Jesus being the initiator of reconciliation is carried out in several other passages: Colossians 1: 20-22, Romans 5: 10-11, and 2 Corinthians 5: 18-20. In these passages the initiator is not presented as the one who gains the most from the reconciliation. Hence, the driving force behind reconciliation is love of the other person.

The biblical witness seems to be very clear in its representation of the importance of reconciliation between people. In the passage from Acts 7: 26, we see the presentation of a story about Moses that seems to show the innate need for people (even murderers) to help reconcile people with one another. In the passage from 1 Corinthians 7: 11, we see that the need for reconciliation between people exceeds the privileges that are given to them under the law. In the passage from Matthew 5: 24, we are told that before we can be reconciled to God we must first be reconciled to our fellow humans. In other words, reconciliation on the highest level can not happen unless it has taken place on the lowest levels first.

When I turned in Musser and Price’s A New Handbook of Christian Theology, I found that reconciliation was delegated to the short article under atonement. There I found that atonement was a sixteenth-century term for the reconciliation of sinners with God through the cross of Jesus Christ as witnessed to through the gospel, and communicated by the sacraments of the church.   When I turned to the scriptural witness, I found a vast array of Greek and Hebrew words and phrases used for atonement. Even a brief word study of these references extends well beyond the scope of this article. The obvious thing that can easily be gathered from looking through these passages is that while atonement and reconciliation are related in meaning they are not synonyms.  Atonement refers more to the ritual purity and legal justification while reconciliation has more to do with right relationships.

My Conclusions

What was done on the cross by Jesus is clearly portrayed in the biblical witness as pivotal to reconciling us (and all creation) to God.  It was in this expression of love for us that Jesus reconciled us to God and in so doing opened for us a way in which we could be reconciled to one another (Colossians 1: 20-22 and Ephesians 2: 16).  Reconciliation, while being initiated by God, is something that manifests itself in our everyday relationships.  Let us pray that it will be manifested in all arenas of our life and especially that of the political discourse in our nation.

Yours in Christ,

Earnest C. Walls

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