In “The Princess Bride” the character Inigo Montoya, played brilliantly by Mandy Patinkin, famously criticizes the character Vizzini for misusing the word ‘inconceivable.’ Inigo says: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
It is one of those movie lines that has become a part of the popular culture and anytime I hear someone using (or misusing) a large word repeatedly, my mind instantly goes to Inigo Montoya.
The word “reconciliation” has been a hot (and overused) word in the Episcopal world for a while now. A couple years ago, I heard one seminary professor comment that he likes to use the word “reconciliation” in all his book titles because they are more likely to get published and will have better sales. For me, the word “reconciliation” ranks right up there with “missional” in terms of pure obnoxiousness due to overuse. Normally I try to just ignore such words and dismiss them as a desperate attempt to appear relevant (another word that nauseates), but maybe sometimes it is worthwhile to say with Inigo: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
This week, amidst many people calling for the church to seek to be reconcilers after the difficult and divisive U.S. election, an article was published by the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, questioning whether or not the church is necessarily called to the work or reconciliation, or whether we might be called to the work of resistance. My problem with the letter is not its intent, which seems to be a call to not overlook or excuse the very sinful realities of hatred that this campaign has brought to the surface, but rather my problem is with the very limited view of reconciliation that is offered.
When I hear people using the word “reconciliation,” I imagine that what they have in mind is the creation of peace: people putting aside their past differences, holding hands and being generally friendly again. While that may be how the word “reconciliation” is popularly used, I fear that for Christians it is far too narrow a definition for a word that has direct bearing on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Our epistle for this coming Sunday, which is the Feast of Christ the King, addresses the reconciling work of Christ:
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
-Colossians 1: 11-20
As a Christian, my supreme reconciler will always be Jesus Christ, and the supreme moment of reconciliation will always be the cross. That is the moment when our incarnate God looks at those who falsely accused him; looks at those who nailed him to a tree and says “Father forgive them.” He looks at the thief and says: “today, you will be with me in paradise.” I can’t imagine that there was much love and peace to be found during the world’s ultimate moment of reconciliation. I don’t see much unity at the foot of the cross. And yet, we believe that in that moment his blood was shed for both the sinner and the saint. Jesus didn’t die just to save the nice people. If we believe that reconciliation is about getting people to be nice to each other again, then the cross makes no sense. Jesus in his earthly life, never promises his followers peace in this world, and in fact he predicts quite the opposite: division.
If we think that reconciliation is about getting people to be nice to each other then we are doomed to failure. Jesus didn’t even accomplish that amongst his own followers. Instead, he showed us the power of reaching out in love to people that are still broken. He offers himself as a sacrifice to God; an offering on behalf of all sinful humanity. If the root of “reconciliation” means “to come back together,” then Christ reconciles us to God by bringing all of humanity together in one point in history and redeeming our sinful, broken nature through his death and resurrection. St. Paul goes on to write in Colossians:
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
Paul also writes in the letter to the Romans:
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
The ministry of reconciliation began while we were still enemies of the cross. That is the model that Christ has given us and that is the ministry that he has given us:
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore 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.
-2 Corinthians 5:18-21
I believe that as a Christian I am called to be someone who’s life is not only transformed by the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but who also actively seeks to live according to his teachings, so yes I am called to actively resist evil in this world in whatever form I find it: hatred, sexism, racism, homophobia. To be someone that seeks reconciliation does not mean that I have any intention of accepting or normalizing those behaviours. What it does mean is that I must always strive to see in every hater or sexist or racist or homophobe someone that Christ was satisfied to die for. That is the gospel that we are called to be servants of. Reconciliation isn’t about settling every dispute in the world, it is about realizing that in Christ God has offered us something bigger than all of our divisions.
The only reconciliation that will ever really matter already happened on the cross. My job, as someone given the ministry of reconciliation, is to keep pointing to that, because the moment that I begin to think that I have nothing in common with people that think differently than I do, look differently that I do, or vote differently than I do, I am reminded that the man on the cross begs to differ. Resist evil we can and must, but God forbid we should ever resist reconciliation.