~ 2 Corinthians 5:16-20/Isaiah 58:9b-12 ~
We probably all know that one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s go-to preaching points was the “beloved community.” He hoped to foster and create a “beloved community” in America, a completely integrated society of love and justice. This meant a deep sense of solidarity with racially and economically marginalized fellow citizens, what he called the “inescapable network of mutuality.” This idea undergirded all of his efforts.
The “beloved community” was King’s way of talking about the reality Jesus called the Kingdom of God. This agenda got him in heaps of trouble. As he sat in an Alabama jail in 1963 where he penned his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he noted that he was simply following the footsteps of the apostle Paul.
Now, I know many of us have issues with the apostle Paul. I know I have. Few of us would make the connection Martin does as a compatriot in the work of racial justice and equality. But in my later years I’ve come to have a new appreciation for Paul. Indeed, I’ve come to realize that Paul was fundamentally concerned with issues of racial and economic justice. His entire mission strategy of establishing small church gatherings throughout the Roman empire was that they were to model an alternative society liberated from the hierarchical, economic disparity, and racial hostility that characterized the Roman hegemony. He called on Jews and Gentiles alike to divest themselves of whatever entitlements and privilege they had previously enjoyed to be a part of these communities of resistance. It was in such communities that Paul believed Christ had called into being a “new creation” in which “everything old has passed away and everything has become new.”
Paul says we no longer view people from a human point of view. Literally, Paul says “according to the flesh.” But he is not talking about our bodies or sexual passions, even though that is how this has been regarded in our individualistic Christian heritage. No, he is talking about the deeply rooted, socially conditioned worldview we inherit from our upbringing. It is the sum total of personal and political constructs that define what it means to be a member of a given culture. Paul’s view was that this “flesh” was in opposition to Christ’s work. As participants in the Kingdom of God, we no longer see people from this perspective. Instead, we are a “new creation, everything old is past away. See, everything has become new.”
Note that this new creation is not an individual spiritual thing, although that is certainly part of it. No, the new creation is the community of Christ, characterized by inclusivity and equality, that stands in opposition to the status quo of Rome. Conversion is not only an inner change of heart, or a private spiritual experience, but a reassessment or “revaluation” of everything. What Paul has in mind is the work of “restoring” the world through the great work of reconciliation. As such, Paul calls everyone in these communities “ambassadors of reconciliation.” This is at the core of Paul’s theological vision of the church. Paul says because we have been reconciled to God, we have been given – entrusted – with the message of reconciliation. This is our purpose.
Ambassadors of reconciliation – quite a calling. As I have probably mentioned before, my New Zealand friend, Roy, was the ambassador to the U.S. As ambassador he didn’t just participate in public relations events. No, he was the legal representative of his government to the U.S. “Ambassador” is a political title. This was true in Paul’s day. The term in Latin is legatus. The legatus represented the imperial interests of Rome. But here Paul asserts that regular people can be ambassadors. The community of the church can act to restore an economic and political equity that cuts against the interests of the Roman system.
Likewise, the word “reconcile” was primarily an economic term. We still speak of reconciling a bank statement. So Paul’s use was not just a sentimental can’t-we-all-get-along notion. No, for Paul “reconciliation” meant the restoration of justice. In opposition to Rome’s idea of justice which was “retribution,” Paul’s use means “redistribution.” In cases of disparity between groups he means the restoration of equity. As he puts it later in this letter, “your present surplus should help their need…in order that there may be equality.” For Paul, the work of reconciliation meant defection from the status quo and significant reconstruction to bring about kingdom justice, a justice that restores equality.
Unfortunately, over the centuries we, the church, have tended to “cheapen” the real meaning of reconciliation. In recent years, segments of the church, including our own denomination, have begun to engage in conversations of what reconciliation might look like, particularly in addressing longstanding issues of white-Black and settler-Indigenous tensions in North America. It could be said that these efforts are due to the influence of the South African Truth and Reconciliation process following the dismantling of apartheid. But too often we have presumed to resolve centuries of oppression and systemic racism with ritual apologies. However, because we participate in a system and not just an event, our efforts require systemic transformation, not just words of contrition. We must embrace Paul’s deeper meaning of reconciliation which means the ‘restoration’ justice. It just might call for redistribution of resources. Not to embrace practices of restorative justice is to be guilty of, as Paul puts it in the chapter following our text today, receiving God’s grace “in vain.” To just give lip service to reconciliation without the practice of equal justice is to “receive God’s grace in vain.”
Our West Bay project of dismantling structural racism is called the “Grace and Restoration Project.” Are reconciliation and restoration the same thing? Well, in our current rhetoric of reconciliation probably not. I’m afraid we are too prone to claim innocence of participation in structural racism merely because we are willing to talk about it. But if we embrace Paul’s rich and deep understanding of reconciliation as the redistribution of justice against the status quo, be it Rome or the U.S., we can truly be called “ambassadors of reconciliation.” Or, maybe we could be called ambassadors of restoration.
Paul’s invitation to become “ambassadors of reconciliation” was beautifully embodied in an event that took place in 1947. Called the “Journey of Reconciliation” it was a precursor to King’s civil rights movement. The day before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, eight white and eight black travelers took a two-week bus and train trip from Washington, D.C., to Louisville, KY. It was sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality.
Using the strategy of whites sitting in the back seats, blacks in the front seats and both side-by-side, they aimed to force the Southern states to implement an earlier Supreme Court decision barring segregation on interstate public transportation. Along the way they endured numerous arrests and were attacked by angry cab drivers in Chapel Hill, NC. Four of the riders were arrested, convicted, and served thirty days on a chain gang. Interestingly, the co-leaders of the trip were George Houser, a white Methodist minister, and Bayard Rustin, a gay black man. This journey was a direct inspiration for the later Civil Rights Freedom Rides in the 1960s.
Indeed, being an ambassador of reconciliation/restoration is not easy stuff. But if we dare we just might also include on our resume, to echo the prophet Isaiah, rebuilders of ancient ruins, they who raise up the foundations, repairers of the breach, and restorers of streets to live in. Amen.