What's so Christian about reconciliation?
In recent years Canadians have heard much in the media and elsewhere about the need for reconciliation between Aboriginal Peoples and non-aboriginals, anglophones and francophones, and between families, spouses and communities. Given the variety of ideas people have about reconciliation, what aspects of reconciliation fit with a specifically Christian approach? Christians have always emphasized the need for reconciliation between God and humans. But we have not always been clear about how this biblical concept of “vertical reconciliation” relates to “horizontal reconciliation” between humans. The overlap may seem obvious, but let’s think carefully, starting with the undisputed champion of biblical texts on reconciliation: 2 Corinthians 5:15-21. We need to note at least three things from this text as we seek a biblical understanding of reconciliation.
First, Paul insists that reconciliation is a completed and ongoing work of God. Paul speaks of it as having been already accomplished (“reconciled” in verse 18) and yet of God continuing to accomplish it right up to the present (“reconciling” in verse 19). Not only that, but God’s reconciliatory work is directed to both “us” humans and “the world.”
Second, reconciliation is accomplished in and through Jesus Christ. Reconciliation to God is possible “through Christ” (verse 18), the one mediator between God and humanity. It’s also possible only “in Christ” (verse 19), in the Lord of Creation and Head of His Body, the Church. Consequently, Christians must always point to Jesus. We dare not try to take His place as “mediators” but must fulfil God’s work as His “ambassadors” (verse 20).
Third, reconciliation is to God the Father. Thus the Bible teaches it is only as “the world” is brought back into proper relationship to God the Father that reconciliation is ultimately fulfilled. So while our “ministry of reconciliation” (verse 18) necessarily includes working toward mending human relationships, such relationships can only be fully healed by God the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit.
The spiritual ministry of helping human enemies become friends (which is the core meaning of “reconciliation” and “peacemaking”) is important, but it is not the final end. Rather, it is a means to the ultimate end of God befriending humans through Christ’s death for sin on our behalf (verses 14-15, 21).
This framework can remind us that any talk about human reconciliation, while always having the potential to be used by God for His purposes, can never quite capture the fullness of biblical reconciliation. For the Bible speaks of God’s coming kingdom of peace not only as the absence of all human conflict but also as new and transformed heavens and Earth. There, redeemed humans will dwell together in communion with God by the merits of the Lamb (Revelation 13:8)! In this light we thank God wherever humans reconcile but we also acknowledge that human reconciliation is a secondary “sign” of God’s primary work of reconciling all things to Himself (Colossians 1:20). In faith, we acknowledge that God’s kingdom is coming whenever we see reconciliation take place, however imperfectly accomplished.
The relationship of vertical and horizontal kinds of reconciliation can be visually illustrated by paying attention to the cross-shaped nature of the Gospel. We can picture Jesus Christ at the very centre of the cross, where vertical and horizontal beams intersect. For it is through Jesus that God the Father reaches vertically down to redeem the world, yet it is also through Christ that God enables us to reach out horizontally as “co-workers” (2 Corinthians 6:1) in fulfilling God’s purposes in the world. Thus we need to keep our eyes fixed on Him who endured the cross, both for the sake of God’s glory and for our salvation (see Hebrews 12:1-2).
A visual image of the cross can also remind us that the vertical beam is the one upon which the horizontal beam is hung. Consequently, as much as Christians should be the first to applaud efforts to reconcile alienated human parties, we must remember that human efforts at reconciliation are ultimately for naught if we fail to implore people, as Paul demands, to be reconciled to God (verse 20). In other words, reconciliation among neighbours is an integral part of a “cross-shaped” Gospel; but there is no cross and no true reconciliation if the vertical beam of reconciliation is somehow ignored or forgotten. The horizontal beam cannot hang in mid-air, unsupported by the vertical!