And still the mark of Cain can be seen in the human family, as Tsutsi’s and Hutus, Irish Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus, Arabs and Jews, Bosnians and Serbs murder each other each day. In our own land great rifts remain between blacks and whites, hostility to aliens grows daily and guns seem to be the problem–solving method of choice for many.
We are increasingly a tribal culture: each of us preferring the enclaves of those who share our ideas, our class, our skin color, our ethnic heritage, our prejudices. In the business community, downsizing produces a culture of survivors, a bunker mentality that fractures community, creativity and innovation. In politics the infighting and rhetoric of abuse so dominates that the final victor is unable to govern effectively. Even in the church we are a fractured people, separated by walls of our own making, walls of race and sex, of creed and ideology. We meet in our small caucuses and interests groups and label those unlike ourselves, building ever higher and more complex walls to keep us apart from each other.
The biblical word for all this is sin, which means separation from God and one another. It would seem that from a human point of view there is no reconciliation. Yet it is into this broken and estranged world that the Word of God breaks forth with the message of reconciliation. “Hear the good news!” God declares. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us!” What we cannot do for ourselves God has done for us.
The Christian story is a story of reconciliation and its very center is the cross of Christ, where God’s reconciling work is accomplished. In fact, the Greek word we translate as reconciliation also means atonement, at-one-ment, the bringing together of that which was separated. The biblical story is quite clear that the basic rift is between God and us and that our inhumanity to each other is a symptom rather than a cause. That rift is not something we can overcome by ourselves, but God could and did. On Calvary all the hatred and enmity of the world were nailed to the bloody cross with Jesus, and in that saving event Jesus represented us to God and represented God to us in a freely chosen act of obedience which is an atonement for the sins of the whole world. As John the Baptist said of Jesus at his baptism, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
The Easter faith we profess is that God has come among us in Jesus Christ, and has died and been raised for us so that we may now live a new kind of life. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “there is a new creation: everything old has past away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. Not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This reconciliation was no abstraction for the church in the first century. A church comprised of Jews and Gentiles struggled to be reconciled against the weight of hundreds of years of custom and tradition reinforced by numerous religious laws. The potential for division was enormous and we can see the working out of it throughout the New Testament where the issues get joined. Must Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised? Do they have to observe the dietary laws of Judaism? We see the separation of rich and poor in 1st Corinthians, where the rich come and eat the supper for the communion before the poor can arrive.
Which is to say that it has never been easy to be the church, the community of reconciliation.. Reconciliation means hanging in there with those you would just as soon write off, but can’t because they belong to Christ as you belong to Christ and so they are your brothers and sisters in Christ. The church is to model for the rest of the world the reconciliation that God intends for the whole world. That is why it is such a scandal when the church itself is divided.
I believe our own United Church of Christ is in for a very difficult struggle for the next generation. We are no longer a homogeneous church but exhibit a dizzying variety of folks, many who come from other religious traditions. The United Church of Christ means many different things to different people. There are many issues in contention among us at this time, including such core questions as what theology is appropriate for our church and what language shall we use to express our faith in liturgy and hymnody. Feelings about these issues are very strong. There seems little room for compromise between the opponents. Who will be the winners and the losers? A friend of mine who is a historian at Harvard tells me that the German Reformed Church, one of the predecessor bodies in the United Church of Christ, endured fierce debate over their liturgy in the 19th century, but somehow they stayed together. Can we stay together in covenant?
From a human point of view, it seems doubtful. And yet, how can we be a voice and witness to reconciliation in our society, to schools and businesses, to our decaying cities and streets of wrath, to marriages and families in turmoil and children at risk if we cannot live among ourselves? How are we to be ambassadors of reconciliation if our own household is at enmity?
The challenge before us for the days ahead and for a long time to come is to be the church, to live in such a way that we are a living witness to the message of reconciliation that has been given to us. This means tolerating a fairly high level of conflict for a long time. It will test our faith. We will need the gifts that God’s Spirit sends to the faithful. It will require that we tell the truth in love. It will require soul–searching and the capacity to give and accept forgiveness. In other words, it will mean being the church, which was never easy and isn’t easy now.
Formerly we may have regarded some people as our enemies and opponents, and perhaps they are as the world sees it. But from now on we are to regard no one from a human point of view, because if we believe our own gospel then “by God” there is a new creation, the old has passed away, behold the new has come. So we entreat you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, by the power God gives you “be reconciled to God” and be the church, the community of the reconciled. And be the church as hard as that is and as long as it takes, which may be a long long time. Which is perhaps why, before Jesus left the disciples, he promised to be with us even to the end of the age. Amen.
(A sermon to the Berkshire Association, United Church of Christ, Annual Meeting on April 21, 1996, meeting at First Church of Christ (UCC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I was, at the time, the Pastor.)