Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
“For our sake he made him be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” ~ 2 Corinthians 5:21
There are some weeks when I look at the readings set out by the lectionary and wonder about how the Gospel speaks into our context. But then there are weeks like this one where it seems that the Spirit inspired the Scripture’s authors or the compilers of the lectionary to address what is going on in the world.
As I prepared to write this sermon, Russia continued to escalate its assault on Ukraine and its people. Maternity and children’s hospitals, theatres housing women and children, and apartment buildings were all indiscriminately bombed, causing untold terror, suffering and death. All the while Russian leaders claim that each one of them was a legitimate military target.
My thoughts and words concerning Russia and its leaders have been strong. I nod along and join in when they are called monsters, war criminals, thugs and any name under the sun – seemingly nothing is off the table when it comes to describing the depravity and evil of their actions.
But then our reading from Corinthians comes along and hits me like a truck. Paul writes “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human or worldly point of view.” No one. Not the Russian soldiers carrying out atrocities in Ukrainian cities. Not the Russian Generals issuing the commands. Not even Vladimir Putin, the person solely responsible for the blood of thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians. Because as Paul writes two verses earlier “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all.”
A worldly or human point of view would perhaps re-write Paul’s words “We are convinced, that Christ died for some, and therefore some died. He died for some…” not the monsters or the tyrants, not the people who abuse and steal, and lie and cheat, but for the good upstanding ones, the ones who protect liberty, the ones ‘on the right side of history, the ones more often than not agree with us. But instead, Paul writes, “we are convinced that Christ has died for all.” Full stop. No equivocating, no justifying. Christ died for all.
On a theoretical level, it can be easy to understand the universal reach of Jesus’ salvation – in fact, one should truly hope that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus have a universal scope and will bring all people, at all times into the presence of God eternally in his everlasting Kingdom. As an idea divorced from reality it is something that most of us can get behind.
But when we as Christians are called to live out this promised new life, when we are called to apply this offer of grace and salvation as much to the monsters, the Vladimir Putins, of the world it can be a hard pill to swallow and an even harder life to live out. In practice, it is immensely difficult, nigh on impossible to treat ‘those people’ with the love, grace and mercy of God; it can cause us great pains and consternation to try and wrap our heads around the fact that Jesus did suffer and die for them. But that is part of the new life created within us when we embrace the grace and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus.
Through Christ’s unspeakable suffering, God reconciled himself to us. God graciously did all that by allowing the authorities to unjustly try, torture, humiliate and, finally, lynch God’s Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross. All people need to do to be reconciled to God is to faithfully accept the reconciliation God offers to “all.”
Paul writes that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.” While this might seem like wishful thinking, we must remember that this is rooted in the reconciliation that God enacted amidst the suffering and death of Jesus on the Cross. This is not merely a lovely platitude but the reality of Jesus, the one who knew no sin, bearing and even becoming the epitome of sin in Paul’s words, so that we might become the righteousness of God.
And it is out of this paradox – the paradox of the sinless Son of God, experiencing the God-forsakenness of the Cross – that new creation is possible, and expected from those who claim the grace of God extended to us in Jesus. God’s work in Christ changes the world. God transforms history, making all things new.
Those “things” include not just the whole creation and its creatures, but also Christians’ attitudes toward our neighbours. God doesn’t just long to be reconciled to people who naturally declare themselves to be God’s enemies. God also longs for people who by nature view our neighbours as our enemies to be reconciled to each other.
The divisions which drive us apart from one another are rarely on a global scale like Russia’s war in Ukraine but as Christians’ we are called to live out God’s reconciliation in our daily lives, as much as we are when it comes to geopolitical realities.
The church throughout history and recent times have had particular difficulty living out this reconciliation. Recent acrimonious divisions caused by issues such as Same-sex marriage, ordination of women, Medical Assistance in Dying, abortion, residential schools, racism and oppression all highlight our need for a kind of spiritual martyrdom – a bearing of one another’s sins just as Christ bore our sins on the Cross so that we might be reconciled to one another, even to those that we disagree with vehemently on matters that are important to us.
It can be easy in these situations to allow our positions and opinions to solidify, calcify and create enemies out of our neighbours whom Christ has called us to love.
I, for example, find it easy to pray for Ukraine, for its president Volodomir Zelenskyy and its people, but for all my exhortations, and for all I know I should, I still find it difficult to pray for Putin and the Russian aggressors. But the new life which Christ has made possible in each one of us compels us to pray for the perpetrators, not that they will succeed in destroying a nation and its people, but that they would be reconciled to God and through that reconciliation they might be reconciled to the victims of their aggression.
In our conflicts and divisions, the first step towards reconciliation is to pray for those who oppose us or with whom we disagree – asking that both we and them would first be reconciled to God and then out of that be reconciled to one another. After all, we must remember and we must live out the reality that Christ died for all. That the person or groups that we might consider enemies are as much loved by God; they too have been offered the same grace and mercy to amend their lives and be reconciled through the suffering and death of Jesus.
No one living or dead is eternally cut off from the reconciliation that God offers. But as theologian Doug Bratt writes, “Of course, God gives those God has reconciled to himself a prophetic role. So we don’t, get to just say, “You’ve been reconciled to God and your neighbour. Period.” We, instead, say, with Jesus, “You’re reconciled to God and your neighbour. Now go and sin no more against God or your neighbour.”
After all, reconciliation doesn’t remove the need for the hard work of responding to God’s work by acting toward each other like we’ve been reconciled. Nor does it erase the pain various perpetrators have caused. But God’s reconciling work on and in us does create the space in which we can own our pain, repent of our words and actions that have alienated our neighbours, and then move on to the hard work of reconciling to others.
Whether it is in Ukraine or in our conflicts within the Church or individual lives we are called to be ambassadors of Christ, we are called to be agents of reconciliation, to bear the sins and offences of our neighbours, of our brothers and sisters in Christ so that space might be made for the new life of Christ to continue to grow in our midst and our lives.
It will have starts and stops, some days the human perspective, the ways of the world will creep in and we will allow division and strife to reign in our hearts but that is why confession is an integral part of our Christian life, it provides us week-in and week-out the opportunity to remember God’s reconciliation, to remember that we too are part of the all that Christ died for.
Rooted in that truth, we can begin to catch a glimpse of the righteous Kingdom that God has prepared for everyone who accepts his grace and mercy, just don’t be surprised at the people who might be with you when it comes.
Let us pray.