Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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The Vertical: “Be Reconciled to God” A Sermon to the 222nd General Assembly

God reconciles. Not the Church, not us, not ever.

From now on, therefore, 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! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For, he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! II Cor. 5:16–6:3, NRSV

In the second chapter of his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of first coming to them by travelling from Troas to Macedonia and, though troubled, “God has led a triumphal procession.” They had been saved by his preaching, comparing it all to “the fragrance” or “the aroma,” he says, “of the knowledge of Christ.” By this, Paul is recommending himself to them. He needs to. Some disconnect had divided them from him.

Was it their jaw-dropping defiance of common decency—a man sleeping with his father’s wife and the church elders bragging on it as evidence of the new freedom in Christ? Even the pagans haven’t thought of that one yet, Paul scolds. Was it their sharing communion by doing everything but sharing or communing? Are the rich actually humiliating the poor at the common table, Paul asks out aloud. I can’t believe it, he says. Was it the total disregard of the promise of the resurrection or the believing and teaching of it to be anything but the resurrection? Or was it the acknowledged harshness with which the Apostle had addressed them in the Letter?

From that second chapter passing through our chapter to the seventh, Paul defends his ministry among them. That is a tough assignment. How do you tell folks God has sent you to them and that you are, flaws included, really good for them? In what could be the unofficial GA motto, when the Apostle finishes this argument, he reminds them that when they were together he “had no rest” was “harassed at every turn”—“conflicts on the outside, fears within.”

But the apostle has hope. In the midst of this alienation, Titus showed up and spoke of affection—genuine affection. Titus, here the messenger, like Paul the messenger, is so identified with the message, that to receive one with gladness is to receive the other. This is not merely listening earnestly to one another and speaking humbly to each other, though it is not ever less than that. (Frankly, you should do that in every meeting of any kind—meetings of NPR or the NRA, probably not both). No, what Titus brought, Paul recalls with a smile, is news of genuine comfort, sustained concern, sincere longing, profound joy.

When he finishes all his arguments, Paul will, in the next chapters, with great skill, immediately put it all into the employ of … of all things … a fundraising appeal. Really. Brilliant. I plan to do the same this fall with a capital campaign. You can send your checks to First Presbyterian Church of San Diego.

But now I get to the point: at the very heart of these matters of the heart—the hope of Paul to again persuade them to continue with him in Gospel ministry—a hope not uncommon at this or any General Assembly—is the passage just now read from the fifth chapter—the passage that forms the theological core of this letter.

Calvin says of this passage and only of this passage: “est hic insignis locus, si quis alius est in toto Paulo,” which translates, “Here is a significant passage, if ever there is one in the whole of Paul.”1

Let’s cease the old way of thinking about one another and Christ, says the Apostle. Perhaps the old way sounds something like this—me an old Jew, you a bunch of barely baptized barbarians; Christ, a good teacher, fabulous miracle worker, very inspiring religious leader … only. Instead, think anew of each other and of Christ. The two are bound together.

The old way of thinking? Predictable thus prejudicial. The new way of thinking? As different as the new creation is from the old—the old gone, the new come. This is probably less a reference to the individual becoming a new thing—though it is also that—and more an acknowledgement of the new creation of all things.

The Creator of which is God. “God,” and God alone, is the subject of the long run-on sentence that now follows. Bad, remarkably bad, theology comes from rearranging this sentence so that God is the indirect, or, worse yet, the direct object of the verb.

God reconciles. Not the Church, not us, not ever. Reconciliation is the work of God—the work of God in Christ. In Christ, God reconciled us to God. In Christ, God is reconciling the world to God.

Note: no one, yet, is being reconciled to each other. We have been reconciled by God to God, that is, we have been reconciled to God “in Christ.” It is important to notice that it says “in Christ,” not merely “by” Christ.

It is the difference between a Moderator and a Mediator. The Moderator, rightly our highest office(s) in the church, brings together for reconciliation two parties, neither of which is he or she a member. This was beautifully done by the American and Christian Jimmy Carter, bringing together the Israeli-Jew Menachem Begin and the Egyptian-Muslim Anwar Sadat. I confess to still being proud of being both American and Christian because of the events that day in the Rose Garden.

But Carter was a Moderator, not Mediator, as we retell the story. Begin and Sadat will make the sacrifices that day, and later with their political careers and, in the case of Sadat, with his life, and they, not Carter, will rightly share the Nobel Peace Prize.

The biblical presentation of the Mediator—very differently—is not of one disconnected from both parties, but one who, in his person, is both parties. God and humanity—each fully in Christ—each reconciled fully in Christ.

In Christ, we have been reconciled to God. Our trespasses no longer counting against us, we are righted with God. Remember: we are not free people; we are a freed people. The people of God who desire to be always a grateful people remember this.

The passage leading us to this one proclaims the saving action of Christ’s death and the resurrection. That’s the deed: reconciliation. And this is the word about the deed. We have been entrusted with the announcement of this reconciliation. That’s grace. All grace.

Paul will never get over this amazing grace. To the young Timothy he writes that he, Paul, the untrustworthy one, once thought God to be so untrustworthy that he, Paul, had to do God’s work for God—namely persecuting Christians. But now! Isn’t this amazing? The Only Trustworthy One, God, has entrusted the Gospel to me, Paul, the untrustworthy one. Paul will never get over this.

We now have this trust—the Gospel—which proclaims the reconciliation of God in Christ. Thus, we (in this passage, Paul and his team) are ambassadors for Christ. The Greek word for “ambassadors” is “presbeuomen,” which is a root word for Presbyterian—another proof Paul was a Presbyterian. This is a verb— “ambassadoring.” We “ambassador” for Christ. God is making God’s appeal through us.

Remember: Paul is recommending himself to them, now by connecting his message, not only with himself the messenger, but with God the Author of the message who, like an Emperor, has sent out his Imperial Legate to proclaim imperial tidings—Paul with the Divine message of reconciliation. An angelic herald singing peace on earth, good will towards all.

Please note: Neither Paul, nor we, are announcing a reconciled world, nor, of course, are we announcing our reconciliation to the world (actually, I think, we should work to keep Christianity strange), and tempting as it may be in this violent world, neither Paul nor we are reconciling the world to itself. The world reconciled to itself, but unreconciled to God, is not a new creation, it is merely the old Babel, on its way to becoming another monstrous Babylon.

And here, surprisingly, is where the apostle, like an evangelical preacher at a GA, slips it in—“Be reconciled to God.”

Note the Vertical: “… to God.” The command is not to “get along with each other,” though that is good advice. The command is not to “work for peace,” found easily enough elsewhere in Scripture.

The command here is to be righted to God, like one reconciles accounts, or like one brings into harmony that which is discordant. A command it is. Perhaps surprisingly.

After convincing us that this whole project is an act of God, which act we announce, not enact, the Apostle, in the imperative (and only here, mind you), tells us to do it. Be assured Paul has read his Calvin.

This is the language of evangelism. It is more suitable to the preaching of the Gospel outside the church, one would think. But here the Apostle invites us, us! “Be reconciled to God.” The language of evangelism is also the internal language of the church—a church that wants to be reminded of God’s grace and thus remain a grateful church.

Clearly this is all about Jesus. God made righteous Jesus to be sin that we, sinful as we are, might become the righteousness of God. A transaction has taken place. Deal with it. And, yes, this is the language of justification and of exchange, and the language of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

This is high rhetoric. This is the language that Calvin calls the most profound in all of Paul. All this is the Gospel Paul preaches and teaches.

The previous passage explicating the cross and resurrection now has its ending frame: “he who died for all, died that we might live; in his dying we all died, in his rising we all rise.”

Once a sinner and nothing but a sinner. But now become the righteousness of God. God in Christ reconciled us to God. God with us announces that reconciliation.

We are co-workers, Paul says. Co-workers with God, Paul dares to say. That’s how Calvin reads it and Hodge too, who can out Calvin Calvin.

We are being told in the most certain of terms that reconciliation is God’s work—alone. So … do it. And we are being told that announcing that reconciliation is our work—which God is doing.

This is not confusion. This is grace. It is a great grace in itself. The one that will haunt Paul all his ministry, namely, that God entrusts me with God’s own work.

So Paul pleads: Do not accept this grace in vain— rejecting me, my message, and my Savior who gave me this message.

Just as Paul a moment ago entreated the church to “Be reconciled to God,” he urges them now to do it now— Now!

Did not God say that there is an acceptable time for this? That time is now. That day has come. Can’t you see it? “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

Again, this is probably less about the conversion of the individual, though it must also include that. It is more about entering that new creation spoken of at the beginning of the passage.

Salvation is very personal, but never private. The Gospel is profoundly intimate, and always public. What goes deepest to the human heart goes widest to the world.

Corinthians—Now! Presbyterians—Now! How about Friday, June 24, 2016, before noon? How about while we sing “Just as I Am”? Jesus may come back before lunch—for which many of you are now hoping—I mean, Jesus coming back, not lunch.

Remember where we started: alienation and affection. It is in all of Paul’s letters. To the Galatians, of whom he is more critical than the Corinthians, Paul writes: “My little children,” as he also whispers, “with whom I am again in travail.” To the Thessalonians, he writes: “Like a nurse who cherishes her little charges, we yearn for you, and we wanted to give you not only the Gospel but even our lives.

In the verses that will soon follow the theological burst of our passage, the Apostle will take a breath and lower his tone: “I have let my tongue get away with me, Corinthians, and opened wide my heart to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.

The heart opened wide by the wide open heart of our reconciling God, who in Christ now reconciles not only us but the world to God—that heart is invited, indeed commanded, now in response, to open wide to God and, as a fair exchange, to each other.

Well, what have I done here? I have argued that the Church has a Faith without which she cannot live faithfully. That Faith declares that a loving God sent a crucified and risen Savior, in whom God reconciled us to God and is now reconciling the world.

That truth is announcement before it is agenda. The vertical orients the horizontal. This truth, I have attempted to persuade you, is the truth on which the reconciliation of, and within, the Church is founded.

This is the Faith that we are invited to reaffirm: God reconciled us through Christ. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. Past tense, notably— the best tense for the announcement of the Gospel. God “has” provided for our salvation. See what God “has” done in Christ.

And this is the faithfulness which it invites: Entreating each other to be reconciled to God. Urging each other to do so now.

We are the first generation of Presbyterian officers not to have in our ordination questions a sentence with both words, truth and unity, such as, “Will you maintain the truth for the sake of the unity of the Church?”

The Faith tends toward faithfulness, Truth toward unity. This is Paul’s message. Allow me a further word. It belongs to Augustine who, commenting on being drawn to God, with a heart wide open to God, and once having been alienated from God, yet desiring God with great affection, knowingly writes: “Give me a man who has been in love, he will feel what I now say. Give me someone who yearns. Give me one who is travelling in this wilderness, thirsting and panting after the springs of the eternal home. Give me such, I say, and they will know what I am saying.”2

Be reconciled to God. Now.

Let us pray. Lord, remind me of the grace of being reconciled to you, in Christ, by his death and resurrection. Haunt me with the grace of being your coworker in the announcement of You reconciling the world to Yourself. Now. Just as I am, I come. Amen. _________________________________

The Reverend Jerry Andrews, Ph.D., is Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, San Diego, California

1 Calvin, Calvini Opera 50. My translation. Compare Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, eds. David Torrance and Thomas Torrance (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd: 1959–72), II Cor. 5:18, trans. T.A. Smail, 77.

2 Augustine, Tractatus in Joannis evangelium, 26.4 in Patrologiae Cursus Completus Latina, 35, column 1379. Translation mine. Commenting on Jn. 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” Augustine responds to the Pelagians who declare that Augustine teaches we are drawn against our will. The quote calls them the “cold men” for never having known a passion for God, or for anything else.


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