Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity many Calvin Seminary students have experienced. That was to participate in Professor Mary Vandenberg’s Systematic Theology II class period on the limits of forgiveness. This discussion revolved around forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation, and justice. Reflecting on the class, I found myself confronted with shifting notions regarding said topics. And although each of these individual topics are deep and interesting, this class launched me into thinking more specifically about our intuitions regarding what we call “reconciliation.” So what does Scripture have to say?
Reconciliation has become quite a buzzword as of late. A quick google search definition will tell you that reconciliation is the restoration of friendly relations, putting differences aside, or healing a relationship after wrongdoing. You can even get a degree in it at some institutions. More recently, reconciliation as a concept has been employed on the topic of ethnic or racial relations and public policy. Reconciliation, in this light, is a sort of civil peace-making agreement. Now, there is nothing wrong with the common use of this word. However, let us not be too quick to stretch its meaning and therefore cheapen the idea of biblical reconciliation.
When the Bible talks about reconciliation, it uses the Greek verb katallassō (katallagē as a noun) to explain not what we do, but what God does for humanity. Take 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 from the NIV as an example (emphasis added).
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. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 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. 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. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Notice how central God’s reconciliation is to this passage. Reconciliation finds its source in God. That is because the few times Scripture talks about reconciliation, it is inherently soteriological. It is not soteriological in a manner of merely our souls being saved, but because it has to do with the redeeming work of Jesus to restore fallen creation.
Likewise, Michael Horton, reflecting on this passage, says the following. “‘Reconciliation’ is not a general work of improving the world for which the church has volunteered, but is ‘strictly derivable from the content of the church’s proclamation of salvation.’ This ministry of reconciliation is described as speech, ‘the message of reconciliation,’ of which we are ‘ambassadors.’ It is announcing the policy of Christ’s regime, not using the name of Christ for whatever ‘reconciling’ activities the church might find useful or important in the world.” In other words, we shouldn’t be quick to call any (good) peace-making work “Christ-like reconciliation” at risk of minimizing the reality of God’s gift.
One of the ways the church receives this gift is at the table of the Eucharist. James K. A. Smith picks up this thought. “We don’t accomplish perfect horizontal reconciliation at the table. But that’s not the point. The point of the Eucharist is that Christ is offering his reconciling body to the church regardless of what they bring to the table. Furthermore, the table is training our hearts to love neighbors and enemies which means forgiving them even when there isn’t ‘full’ reconciliation.” I think Smith is right on with this. In addition, the Eucharist is not reconciling because we share a meal, but because it is our receiving of benefits from the death of Christ.
Rather than putting aside our differences, reconciliation is a destroying of our differences in the cross and being glued together in Christ. The cross is the place where what kills us dies if we take Paul seriously who says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” That is the voice of someone who understands the depth of true reconciliation.
My hope is that this would provide wisdom for future thinking about reconciliation–whether familial, criminal, racial, or otherwise. Reconciliation is a freely given gift to us and the binding reality of the church. If we want meaningful reconciliation, we must be trained to look to the cross and participate in the body of the one who unites heaven and earth. All we have to do is join the family that has taken this message to heart, the church.