Monday, August 20, 2012

Reconciled for Reconciling: How we become ambassadors for Christ

So, I've been thinking about 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2 a bit lately. Here's the text (NIV):

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.” z
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

You know, if you look at these you’ll notice that the word "reconcile" (in some form) appears five times in those verses. And, if we were in a Bible Study 101 class it would be fairly easy to conclude what this passage is all about. Shout it out…reconciliation! Yes, this is a text about reconciliation! Let me ask you a question: how many of you love stories of reunion and reconciliation? I love them. I think I love them partly because they are so rich in emotion and I think we all love them predominantly because they appeal to a deep-seated longing to be at one with other human beings and with God. 
The theme of reconciliation is treated in a number of ways by the narratives of the Bible. The most famous biblical reconciliation scenes occur in two family reunions that light up the book of Genesis. The first, you might remember, is the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33, who were reunited after twenty years of separation. In that story Jacob is the guilt-haunted supplicant, humorously overprepared for the meeting, while Esau is generous and impulsive in his forgiveness.

In the second great reconciliation story you might remember Joseph in Egypt, disclosing his identity to his brothers and forgiving them after their terrible treacherous selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen 46:1–47:12).

Tracking through the Hebrew Bible we note that the theme of reconciliation underlies the book of Hosea, where the prophet obeys God’s command to be reunited with his faithless wife, Gomer.

In the Song of Songs moments of separation between the two lovers in that story are resolved in scenes of splendid reunion. A similar motif underlies the New Testament, for example, in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, and it becomes the dominant thread in the story of Jesus’ restoration of Peter (Jn 21:15–19).

Of course, I am not being exhaustive, but what I am suggesting is that the motif of reconciliation and restoration receives a distinct and emphatic treatment in the Bible—meaning of course that this is something to really pay attention to as students of God’s word. And what we find, particularly as we read scripture as Christians, is that this reconciliation is built on the foundation of God’s unbelievably gracious forgiveness of sinners because of the great work of Jesus Christ. It’s quite lavish, God’s grace, in the work of reconciliation—and if anyone is prodigal—a word which simply means “wasteful”—if anyone is prodigal in the Bible—it’s not the Son from the famous parable—the truly prodigal one is God, who lavishly “wastes” his grace upon a sinful world. A thank God for that!

Another thing we find as we read scripture is this grammar or language in the Bible that expresses desire for reconciliation with God—and this becomes a model for us today as we reach out and expend ourselves seeking after God. The really classic case of desire for reconciliation comes from Psalm 51. In fact, it’s such a beautiful exhortation for reconciliation, I want to read the whole thing. David writes…

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Now, the only reason that the psalmist can pen such a beautiful song of exhortation for reconciliation with YHWH is because he realizes, what? That God is a…reconciler. God is a reconciler. This characteristic is fundamentally a part of who God is…

Which brings me to 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2 and a little problem that Paul was dealing with. You see, there was a fundamentally important and abundantly exciting new reality in the world as Paul was writing this letter—and I describe that reality like this: God Christ Jesus…reconciling all things to Himself. That was the new reality. God is…in Christ Jesus…reconciling all things to Himself.

And that’s wonderful, right? But there was a problem. The problem was that the Corinthians, among whom Paul was ministering, were really kind of missing it because they hadn’t processed this new reality. And missing this new reality of what God was doing in the world because of the work Jesus Christ, was keeping the Corinthians from seeing the world with the new eyes of the gospel.

The result of the Corinthian’s anemic gospel view of the world was that they expected everything, particularly Paul’s own style of apostleship, to conform to the fashions and customs of the world they were used to. And the world that they were used to was an old world—a ‘merely human’ world. A world where things were assessed as Paul describes it: ‘according to the flesh.’

So Paul’s challenges the Corinthians to recognize that God is doing something entirely new. A new world has come about, through the death of Jesus in the ‘flesh’ and the resurrection of Jesus in a new body, which is gloriously physical but not corruptible. The challenge of the gospel is to live coherently in that new world, and this is where the Corinthians are missing it. They are living according to the standards of an old world. And Paul is quite troubled by this because he knows that [and listen this very carefully] the role of the church is to be the place in the world where the work of Christ in reconciling humans to God should be realized in practice. The task of the church, he suggests, is to be a sacrament of the world’s possibility. The task of the church, Paul knows, is to be a sacrament of the world’s possibility. As he writes in Ephesians 3:10, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And so Paul begins describing in 2 Cor. 5, in sweeping terms, the view from where he now is. He is on the threshold of the new creation itself, and everything looks different because everything is different.

And for Paul this new reality has an ethical purchase on him. He writes in verse 16, 16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” In other words, when Paul looks at other people, other Christians…himself…anyone…he sees them in a new way from how he did before.

When he looks at the Messiah, he sees him, too, in a new way; there was a time when all his dreams of a Messiah were concentrated on ‘purely human’, that is, ‘fleshly’, ideal—a Messiah who would conquer the enemies of God, build the Temple of God, establish a ‘purely human’ kingdom. But for Paul, in light of the new reality of the gospel, he realizes all such dreams must come to dust; that’s what the Messiah’s death and resurrection have taught him. The way to the true kingdom of God is through death, and out the other side into God’s new world.

So: putting together what he’s learned about other people and what he’s learned about the Messiah, he writes in verse 17—take a look at it there in your bible—he writes one of his great summaries of what Christianity is all about. In the Greek language he was using, he said it even more briefly: ‘If anyone in Messiah, new creation!’ It sounds like gospel HAIKU doesn’t it? ‘If anyone in Messiah, new creation!’ In other words, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation!” And of course the ‘new creation’ in question refers both to the person concerned and to the world which they enter, the world which has now been reconciled to the creator.

And so Paul says in the next verses (18 and 19) something quite profound about reconciliation. He writes, 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” OK, what does Paul say? He says (or rather he emphasizes) that what has happened in and through the Messiah is not a matter of God claiming a world that didn’t belong to him, or making a new one out of nothing, but of God reconciling to himself his own world, his beautiful and beloved creation, after the long years of corruption and decay. And this, once more, explains what Paul is up to. If God was doing all this in the Messiah, that work now needed to be put into effect, to be implemented. And disciples had (and still have today!) a part to play in this great work of God!

The great New Testament scholar, NT Wright, describes it in this way: [listen to this, I love it]: He writes, “the great symphony of reconciliation composed on Calvary needed to be copied out into orchestral parts for all the world to play.” And that’s where Paul and the other Apostles come in. ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah, and entrusting us with the message of reconciliation.’ He says it twice in verses 20 and 21, in very similar words, to rub the message home. Something new has happened; something new must now happen.

Of course, the world had never before seen a ministry of reconciliation; it had never before heard a message of reconciliation. No wonder the Corinthians found Paul’s work hard to fathom. It didn’t fit any preconceived ideas they may have had. He was behaving like someone … who lived in a whole new world.

And this new reality of God had a really, really fun result for Paul (and for us too): This new world has a new king, and importantly for us…the king has ambassadors. Paul at that time was the chief of these ambassadors, though not the only one. So Paul was going into all the world with a message from the world’s newly enthroned sovereign, a message inviting anyone and everyone to be reconciled to the God who made them, loves them, and had provided the means of reconciliation for them to come back to know and love him in return. And so when Paul writes in verses 20 and 21 [take a look at it there], 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. He is saying, in effect, ‘This is what I do! I’m a reconciler!’

And this can be your confession too if you are in Christ! “This is what I do! I’m a reconciler!”

Why is this the case? Because of what Paul comments upon in verse 21. Paul writes, 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

How is this possible? How is it possible to be reconciled to God? And how is it then possible to be the conduit for a message of reconciliation? The answer is—time and again—because of Christ Jesus. The answer is in the cross, on which God made the sinless Messiah to ‘be sin’ on our behalf.

All our sins, our failings, our inadequacies, were dealt with there, so that we—and those in Paul’s time—the apostles, and really all who are called to be ‘ministers of reconciliation’—could embody in our own lives the faithfulness of God. No wonder the Corinthians found it difficult to grasp what Paul was up to, why his ministry took the shape it did. Nothing like this had ever been thought of in the world before!

But on this basis of this great work of Christ—and the ministry of reconciliation committed unto them—he turns to them in the first two verses of chapter 6 with a direct appeal, which comes to us as much as to them:

As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.” z
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

In other words: You’ve accepted God’s grace; don’t let it go for nothing! Make the most of it! The new creation is already here. God is saying ‘Yes!’ to all the prophecies and promises of God. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:20-21: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

And what I want to suggest to you this morning is that God is saying the same thing right now: This is the day of salvation. This is the right time. Don’t forsake the time of God’s favor; make the most of it.

And so I leave you with these humble suggestions for “making the most of it”:

1) Respond to the great urge in your hearts for reconciliation with God and with others. Don’t fight that.

2) Second, realize that God has commandeered us to act in accord with our blessed status as reconciled ones right now. Don’t be like the Corinthians might have been—acting in accord with an old reality that was not consistent with the fact that God was reconciling all things to himself. IN other words, don’t begrudge others. Don’t hold back your love for others, as if, like Scrooge, you might store it away for yourself. Let your love flow liberally and freely in the world, consistent with the reality that you are reconciled to God.

3) Third, remember the great and sobering point that as Christians ‘we believe in life before death and as Christians we believe in life after death’, and that is important. So often you will hear Christians speak of “Heaven over yonder up there” as of that is where the real game will begin so it keeps them from really flourishing as Christians in this life. But I tell you that ‘Salvation’ is not just ‘going to heaven up yonder over there’, but it is ‘being raised to new life in God’s new heaven and new earth’. In other words, we can enjoy ‘salvation’ here and now (always partially, of course, since we all still have to die), but we can genuinely anticipate in the present what is to come in the future—and this is part of our “ministry of reconciliation.” ‘We were saved’, says Paul in Romans 8:24, ‘in hope.’ And we should live like a people with hope.

4) Fourth, remember that God’s reconciliation through the death of Christ constitutes an enduring relationship between the living Christ and the reconciled so that we as believers can be certain of being saved in the final judgement and can exult in the hope of divine glory that is to be theirs. There is no need for existential doubt…God can be trusted in all things.

5) Which of course brings me to my next point. God of course is the sole agent of reconciliation, which is the demonstration of God’s love to the wicked, the sinners and his enemies. From before the foundation of the world, God freely and apart from outside influence determined to save sinners in order to eternally display the glory of His grace. And we know that God Himself is an eager reconciler, as Paul wrote to the Romans:
Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Rom. 5:9–11).