In June of this year an ISIS jihadist converted to Christianity. His story goes that he was quite comfortable and willing and happy to be killing Christians and Muslims alike, until he began to have visions in his dreams of a man in a white robe telling the ISIS man that he was killing all of his children. Then, the next day, he was given a Bible from a Christian he was about to martyr, read it, and then, being disgusted by his actions, converted. This is exactly what St. Paul was doing, as he referenced himself in today’s epistle about Christ revealing himself. He was murdering and persecuting Christians, on behalf of Jewish leaders. He says that by the grace of God is he is what he is, and that grace working in him inspired him to work harder. St. Paul here was reconciled to Christ’s body through repentance and metanoia, a change of action, a change of mindset to bring about better behavior. We’ve talked a lot about forgiveness over the last few weeks, dealing with one another gently and always expecting best intentions, but today I want to talk about reconciliation. It’s different than forgiveness, because you can forgive someone, but you might never try to reconcile! And if St. Paul can do it, so can we! What do I mean by this?
Here are the relevant textbook definitions of ‘to reconcile’:
- restore friendly relations between
- cause to coexist in harmony
- settle (a disagreement)
So it’s not just forgiveness, but recognizing a rupture in the relationship that needs repairing, and also to restore that relationship to its intact state. There are ultimately two places of reconciliation for us Orthodox Christians, and that is between one another, and between God and ourselves.
In the Old Testament reconciliation meant a sacrifice. When the Israelites sinned, and God may or may not have subsequently allowed them to be punished, they were required to make a sacrifice to atone for the sin and restore their relationship with God the Father. This happens time and time again, it was part of the temple system. There was a lot of ritual and directions involved with this, there is a section of Leviticus of Moses making an offering, with complex instruction given to him by God. All of this we say is a foreshadowing of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us, to reconcile us to God. The writer of letter to the Hebrews in chapter 9, Verses 13-14 explain,
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
We see that Christ’s ultimate death is what reconciles us God. But God isn’t a tyrant; he doesn’t force reconciliation onto us. Christ’s death for us has cleared a path for us; it has allowed us to accept the gift that has been given! Now, sometimes we do things that have injured that relationship, something that has cluttered that path up, and it eats away at us. We might feel ashamed, or upset, or confused, and it gnaws at us when we come to services. You may decide you want to deny yourself communion, always an unwise decision to make on your own. But the Church, in her wisdom, has provided us tools to help us. And that is the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) and the Eucharist. These are both Biblical practices, actually.
John the Baptist, inspired by the Holy Spirit, required confession of sins for the baptism of repentance.
“Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Matthew 3:6
“And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and we all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. Mark 1:5
It was also the practice of the early Church “Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.” Acts 19:18
When you’re standing before the icons of the Church, with your priest by your side, your sins have been illuminated, no longer in the shadows. It lifts the weight of your sins off of your back, and gives you the assurance of forgiveness in your life. And if you struggle with a particular sin continually, confession is one of the best ways to stop. You, with your priest, standing before Christ, tell the devil that you reject his power and are turning away. And you’ll make mistakes and have to come back. This is a hospital, not a gentlemen’s club! It’s not a place where the elite dwell.
We also have the Eucharist, the central action in our Church that unites us to Christ. When we take the Eucharist we are participating in the mystical sacrifice of Christ, and as St. Paul says ‘makes us of one body because we all consume the Body of Christ’. It’s restorative and healing. When we nourish our body with the elements that have mystically become the body and blood of Christ, we’re also nourishing our own souls!
Having being reconciled to Christ in the Church, we also need to seek reconciliation in our lives. It’s not just enough for us to forgive a person, but to seek a restoration of the relationship. Jesus says that before a person goes to make his sacrifice to go be reconciled to the brother before offering the actual sacrifice. You can’t make a right sacrifice to God if you haven’t made your relationship right with your brother!
We have to do everything in our power to see this relationship change. This might require a seemingly insane amount of humility, seeking forgiveness from the person, and certainly more to seek forgiveness from someone who may be the one causing the problem. The situation is different but the point is the same: be reconciled. To humble yourself before someone is hard, incredibly so, but it’s what required of us. If a person has offended you and, in repentance, wants to reconcile we have to. What about the unrepentant abusive spouse, the bully, the many examples of people who are brash and hurtful without concern for others? You may ask: what do we do with them? Well, just like God can’t force us to reconcile to Him, neither can we force a person to reconcile to us. But just as in the example of Christ, we must not put up obstacles to the reconciliation to others.
What about people who have done grave offense but want to reconcile? By Christian duty we have to at least meet them somewhere, somehow, though maybe not immediately. But we are not the dispenser of justice, rather a vessel of love. You could be the only person who is Christ to that person! It’s hard, really hard. But Christianity isn’t easy; nobody said the Gospel is easy! The Gospel calls us to a radical way of life! But this is a somewhat advanced discipline; it’s not wrong to say you need time, and it’s certainly best done with the guidance of your priest.
Remember my words from the last weeks. If you think you’ve been offended remember Christ, perfect in every way, who was murdered and yet still forgave! The Grace that Christ gave freely to St. Paul, which allowed him to change and be reconciled is the same Grace that will help us reconcile to Christ and to one another. This Grace isn’t something secret or unattainable; it’s here for anyone who wants it, for anyone who seeks to grow in Christ and move further along the way towards salvation.