Sermon: A Ministry of Reconciliation

A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, March 27th 2022

2 Corinthians 5:16-21


At this morning’s service we listened to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or alternatively, the Parable of the Welcoming Father. We reflected that the father in the parable behaves in unfatherly, or perhaps more motherlike ways, at least as we have tended to view fathers and mothers. Talk of God as ‘Father’ should not mislead us into thinking of “him” as a stereotypical male. Instead, we might think of a mother/father God, with all the richness and complexity that that offers.

The good news from the parable was about God’s motherly/fatherly, loving parental concern for all of us who are lost in life – and we are all lost in various ways, even if we don’t recognise it. That concern, that love, is expressed in a welcoming embrace and a celebration when we are reconciled with God.

We explored the ‘vertical’ aspect of reconciliation i.e. humankind being reconciled in our relationship with God. We did not address the older brother in the parable; angered by the parent’s lavish treatment of the one who has erred. There’s an invitation for the older son/brother to join the party, but we’re not told that he went into the feast.

That’s how so many damaged human relationships feel – unresolved and unresolvable. This is true on the personal level, as all too many of us will be aware, through experience, or observing quarrels that carry on through generations in family life. And it’s true at a wider level as well. Just try to imagine resolving the bitterness between nations such as Russia and the Ukraine, or within nations, such as Syria.

In the face of friendships gone wrong or family life gone sour, confronted by national and international conflicts, it’s understandable if you just want to give up. What can you or I do about all of that? The answer we might be tempted to give is, “nothing.”

But we are not allowed to do that. The Apostle Paul won’t allow us to give up, because, for him, we now see every situation from the perspective of knowing Jesus Christ. Paul even references creation itself: ‘From now on … we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So, if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.’ (16-17) We regard nothing simply from a human point of view because now we see everything in the light of knowing Jesus Christ.

That sounds good, but what does it mean in practice? Why should some people’s knowing Christ lead to more peace and reconciliation in the world? Well, Paul says it starts with what we see in Jesus’s parable: reconciliation between ourselves and God, brought about through God’s love: ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.’ (19) Then comes the bit that matters for our relationships with each other: ‘God, who reconciled us to himself in Christ .. has given us the ministry of reconciliation.’ (18)

We are not let off the hook of caring for others. We must be concerned about peace and reconciliation with others, as much as we are concerned about being reconciled with God. In fact, our concern to be reconciled with others flows from our being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. As Paul puts it, ‘we are ambassadors for Christ since God is making his appeal through us … to be reconciled to God.’ (20) We can only be ambassadors to other people. We can only share the good news of God’s reconciliation with the world through practising what we preach about peace and reconciliation.

If we are to practise such this ‘ministry of reconciliation’ what is needed for human beings being at peace and reconciled with each other.  Pretty well everyone agrees that for there to be peace and reconciliation there has to be regret and repentance: an acknowledgement of something said or done that was wrong. So, for example, in the last few days, on a visit to Jamaica, Prince William came close to expressing regret for significant aspects of the past relationship between this country and Jamaica: “I strongly agree with my father, the Prince of Wales, who said in Barbados last year that the appalling atrocity of slavery forever stains our history.’

Then, there’s a widespread recognition that when there is repentance and regret from one side there needs to be forgiveness from the other side. But be careful not to jump straight to expression of regret and then from there to an expectation of forgiveness. There are two other aspects of the process of peace and reconciliation that need to be addressed: truth and justice.

Prince William’s remarks, his expression of regret, though welcomed to some extent, did not receive whole hearted affirmation and forgiveness from the population of Jamaica. And in terms of achieving peace and reconciliation I think that’s because questions about truth and justice were not included in his remarks. I’m not criticising Prince William here. Whatever his feelings about the history of slavery which is a stain on the history of this nation, there are limits to what he can say or do about that on one royal visit.

But consider the question of truth. Yes, as Prince William said, involvement in slavery in the Caribbean is a stain on the history of this country. But a much fuller account of that is required then a couple of sentences in order to acknowledge why our two countries are not at peace or reconciled about this matter. That would have to include that Britain got into the slave trade because our monarchy, in the person of Elizabeth I, gave ships to John Hawkins in order to get it underway. If we don’t tell the truth about what happened we can’t say sorry for it.

Then, as well as truth there is the question of justice. Slavery casts a very long shadow. The relative wealth of Britain and Jamaica reflects in part at least huge wealth brought to these lands off the backs of people who were kidnapped, enslaved, and unpaid. Also, slavery and slaveholding helped to set attitudes to BAME people held by white people like me, which has impacted on the social, educational and economic prospects of others. This gives rise to questions about justice; a discussion about economic reparations to address the imbalances intrinsic to a system from which I and others benefit.

So, to take this one example, achieving peace and reconciliation does include expression of regret or repentance, leading to forgiveness, but trying to achieve that without careful acknowledgement of truth, or addressing questions of justice is likely to fail. Truth, regret, justice, and then forgiveness; these are all required in a ministry of reconciliation. That’s the case whether we’re talking about the legacies of slavery, relationships between nations, community disagreements, or even family feuds.

What then can we do in the face of all of that? We get a helpful hint of it in a hymn by the URC minister, Brian Wren. We’re not going to sing it. I’m going to read it, and I invite you to listen, and ponder the words:

This we can do for justice and for peace:
we can pray,
and work to answer prayers that other people say.
This we can do in faith,
and see it through—
for Jesus is alive today.

This we can do for justice and for peace:
we can give
till everyone can take life in their hands, and live.
This we can do in love
and see it through—
for Jesus is alive today.

This we can do for justice and for peace:
we can see
and help our neighbours see—what is, and what could be.
This we can do with truth
and see it through—
for Jesus is alive today.

This we can do for justice and for peace:
bring to light
whatever hurts and tramples down, or hides from sight.
This we can do with strength
and see it through—
for Jesus is alive today.

This we can do for justice and for peace:
we can hope
and, hoping, stride along our way while others grope.
This we can do till God
makes all things new—
for Jesus is alive today.

Brian Wren (1936- ) © Oxford University Press

And may God grant us, as Jesus Christ’s ambassadors, the strength to carry out the ministry of reconciliation which is entrusted to us. Amen.

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