Reconciliation: Part One
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them. So Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:19. This is an amazing insight, and a central truth to the story we find ourselves in. It would be good if all Christians took this notion, and planted it firmly in their minds, memorized it, reflected on it, and began to see the world in this light.
All of this opens up, however, the whole mystery of the meaning of Jesus’ death. It raises large theological debates. And various theories are suggested, like substitutionary atonement theory, and ransom theory, and Christus victor theory, and moral influence theory. And there are others. And just about here eyes glaze over as this most sacred and mysterious of events is reduced to arcane scholarly argument.
For many centuries many churches have taught something like this: Jesus died the death it was ours to die. We were supposed to hang on that cross. Our sins outrage God. They dishonor him. They are a shameful offence against his perfect holiness. Somehow he must be appeased. In medieval terms, we have offended our liege Lord, and now his honor must be upheld. But we cannot do this. We are not good enough. We are vile and unworthy (our hymns tells us this when we forget). And so God sends his Son—his perfect Son—to die in our place. This was a view that made perfect sense in the Middle Ages, and for many centuries this is what many churches have taught.
Never mind the way it pictures God as a outraged medieval monarch or the way it pictures us as wretches; the truth is that no one view of the Cross fully comprehends its mystery. Any one way of looking at Jesus’ death is a bit like landing in the Denver airport and thinking you’ve seen the Rockies, or going down to Long Island Sound here in Stamford and thinking you’ve seen the ocean. Even Scripture takes many, many views of what happened at the cross. All these views and more can be found in Scripture. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:3; also 1 John 4:10). Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example (1 Peter 2:21). Jesus destroyed the devil’s work (1 John 3:8). Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). By his death Jesus destroyed him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). His blood cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death (Hebrews 9:14). His blood redeems us from our empty way of life (1 Peter 1:18-19). Jesus did away with sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:26). He bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). By his blood we are saved from God’s wrath (Romans 5:8-10). Jesus canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14). And Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:15).
So there are many, many ways to understand the death of Jesus. But in one sense, it’s as simple as this: At the cross God’s agony is made visible—the agony he feels for us because loves us, the pain he feels when we go wrong. Do you remember, for instance, what it feels like to be betrayed? To have your trust broken? To be let down by someone you counted on? To be wronged by someone you trusted? How cheap you feel, and violated. How your whole world feels empty, and your stomach knots up, and your breathing turns shallow, and your brain turns to chaos. The cross makes God’s agony visible. Forgiveness is hard. Absorbing the betrayal and choosing not to strike back is hard. Risking that your heart will be broken again is hard. And there are no words for this. It has to be embodied, taken into one’s body, and nails and thorns and tears and sweat and blood are the only language that works.
So God offers himself to be ravaged by evil in its most horrific form, and in a way that makes sense best on the heart level, turns evil back on itself. And in so doing he absorbs the anger of the world. He demonstrates his own self-sacrificing love so when we really see this, and are finally touched by it, we will stop our own self-centered ways. He comes to us in his goodness and kindness, in his purity and vulnerability, and lets the men of power and violence kill him. By accepting suffering from everyone, Jews and Romans alike, rather than inflicting suffering on everyone, Jesus illuminates the loving heart of God who wants finally forgiveness for everyone and not vengeance. He shows us that finally God’s kingdom, God’s revolution, is about sacrifice, not violence. It’s about taking suffering and transforming it into reconciliation, not retribution. And so the Cross shows God’s ultimate rejection of our violence, our insistence on violence and fear to control and have our way with others. So God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them, our text says.
Mystery remains, but one thing that is clear from our text is who really needs to be reconciled to whom. Consider this closely now. It is God who does the reconciling. It’s all God: “All this is from God” (2 Corinthians 5:18). It is we who must be reconciled. I used to think that God was by his very nature angry, that he had a hair-trigger temper, and that somehow I must convince him to like me. I was raised to think this way. Maybe if I did enough things right he’d like me. Maybe if I didn’t do certain things (and there was a whole long list) he’d like me. There were apparently so many ways to displease God, and it seemed like it didn’t take all that much to do it. And there were a whole lot of things about me that I hoped God would somehow never notice, and that I certainly wasn’t going to bring up to him. Better that I just not look at them myself, just not deal with them. Maybe they’d go away.
Now the really sad thing is I still often think this way; the conditioning of the church of my childhood is that strong. And it leaves me weakened, disempowered, spiritually paralyzed, and sometimes a lot less happy than a child of God ought to be. And Paul is saying that it was bad thinking anyway. My problem, you see, is not an angry God who must somehow be convinced to like me. No, my problem is that I’m by nature angry and must somehow be convinced to trust God.
Behind so much that is said about church and church matters, behind so many of our groundless fears, behind our haunting sense of unworthiness, down beneath the knot in our gut, is this notion of an angry vengeful God, given to fierce rage, and despising us in our sinfulness and stupidity. But Paul is saying that God did not erect the barriers between him and us. We have, and they’re largely in our minds. We’ve made them up. Paul states this even more clearly in Colossians 1:21: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” But the alienation, the “disconnect”, was all “in your mind.” You act like a spiritual jerk, in ways you hate yourself for, in ways you know are wrong, in ways you know are irresponsible, and you imagine God must hate you, and now, feeling completely disconnected from him, you keep acting like a spiritual jerk. Until you’ve lost all power to do otherwise.
— Dale Pauls
Part Two (of two) next week
1 Indebted to Brian D. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In, 106-107.