What is most important to you? Is it the title of your job or the esteem in which you’re held in the community? Is it the size of your salary or your retirement account? Is it the spaciousness and elegance of your home, or the beauty and horsepower of the vehicle you drive?
Or is it none of these things at all? Isn’t what is most important to you a network of relationships, family and friends, people who mean more to you than any thing in the world?
If life and events have not warped you beyond recognition as a human being, then relationships are most important to you. Those other things are nice, but remember what everyone says when a fire destroys their home and everyone escapes unharmed: “Things can be replaced. People can’t.”
I have said this before, and I don’t think I can say it too many times. From start to finish, the clear testimony of scripture is that life is all about relationship – and when things are said and done, relationship is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.
At the conclusion of his famous “Love Chapter” in First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says that in the end only three things endure. These are faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Friends, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, we continue to explore how the death of Christ saves us – what it saves us from, and what it saves us for. We’re following the outline of the book Savior by Magrey deVega. In all, we’ll look at six theories of atonement, six models, metaphors or analogies, six ways of explaining how we’re saved.
Today we’re focusing on reconciliation, the healing of relationships. I must admit from the start that of all models, this is my favorite. That’s because my theology is thoroughly relational. My thinking about God and creation starts and ends with relationship, and anything that cannot be explained in terms of relationship probably isn’t important.
God created all humans to live in relationship with God and others, but sin separates each of us from God and others. Sin is the state of separation in which we all live. Sins are those acts that create and perpetuate the separation – acts of unkindness, cruelty, hatred and violence.
Sin creates a vast divide between us and God, and others as well. This chasm is so deep and so wide that we cannot cross it on our own. We cannot repair all our broken relationships by our own efforts. We cannot repair all the damage that we’ve done. Only God can fix things, and God is eager to do it.
Here’s an illustration that states it plainly. Sin separates us from God. Christ bridges the divide and reconciles us with God. We’ll return to this illustration momentarily.
In the following scriptures, I invite you to listen for words about reconciliation, the overcoming of alienation, and the offering of forgiveness.
Colossians 1:20-22: Through Jesus, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”
Ephesians 2:1 & 5: “At one time you were like dead persons because of your sins and your offenses against God. … However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of our transgressions. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!”
“Christ is our peace,” Paul continues. We who once were far away from God have now been brought near by the blood of Christ. We were hostile to God, but God reconciles us through the cross. (Ephesians 2:13-16)
You will notice that nowhere is it said that God was ever our enemy, or that God was the one who created the gulf between us. No, we are the ones who moved away from God. We were enemies of God. It’s our hostility to God that put Jesus on the cross. It’s our hostility to God that is ended at the cross, through the sacrifice of Jesus.
The result is transformation. We who once were enemies of God are now allies of God. Indeed, Paul says, we become ambassadors for God. We become God’s representatives, sent out into the world to carry God’s message of reconciliation to others.
Here’s how Paul works it out in 2 Corinthians chapter 5:
“So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation.
In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, ‘Be reconciled to God!’ ” (2 Corinthians 5: 17-20)
Talk about a transformation! Paul maintains that Christ’s death not only changes our relationship with God, it changes us as well. We were created in God’s image, but sin has so distorted and smudged that image that we are poor reflections of God’s love to the world. When we come back to the Lord, Christ’s death renews us in the image of Christ, who is the spitting image of his heavenly Father. (Genesis 1:26-27, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 1:15)
God does this, Paul says, by causing one who knew no sin to become sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus so identifies with us that he becomes one with us in our sin, and through his identification with us and sacrifice for us, he bridges the gulf between us and God.
Reconciled with God, we are justified before God, returned to right relationship with God – in Paul’s words, made holy in God’s sight, “without blemish and free from accusation.” In fact, we represent God’s righteousness so well that we can be God’s envoys to the rest of the world that has not yet been reconciled with him.
How precisely Christ’s death accomplishes all this, Paul is not crystal clear, and maybe that’s just fine.
Some other models of how Jesus saves us involve a transaction. In the penal substitution model, we deserve to die but Jesus dies in our place. In the ransom model, Jesus’ death ransoms us from our sin.
No exchange is involved in the moral example model that we looked at last week, or the reconciliation model we’re looking at today. This model does not speculate about how Christ’s death accomplishes what it does. It simply states that God’s great power and God’s amazing grace make it happen. That may not be enough for the scholastics and academic theologians, but it’s good enough for me.
Let’s return to that illustration that I showed you earlier. It’s been around since Saint Augustine came up with it in the fourth century, though Augustine probably never drew it on a restaurant or airline napkin, as so many evangelicals are prone to do.
It states the case clearly. Sin separates us from God. Christ bridges the gap. The cross is the means. You can devise all manner of explanations for how Christ does this, but they’re not what’s most important. What’s most important is that Christ does it.
If you think that’s too simple, or not possible, let me ask you this. How does God work in your life? How has transformation occurred in your experience? It’s unlikely that you were just sitting there praying, and God zapped you into a new way of seeing things. Most likely, you saw the power of God working first in others, and then you came to realize that this same power was available to you, too.
In other words, it’s most likely that God transformed you through your relationships with others. That’s how God does most everything, isn’t it? That’s how God saves you, too, through your relationship with God and others. Transformation always occurs through relationship.
The basic Christian assertion is that God is your primary relationship, and you need to love God with every fiber of your being, and once this primary relationship is right, you are liberated to love others as God’s ambassadors to them.
Christianity is about a new way of living that starts with a new relationship with God that is so exciting that it’s contagious – so contagious it’s even more powerful than COVID-19, so contagious we just can’t help from spreading it, and in spreading it we create a new community whose powerful witness change the world.
Let me share something I read just a day or two ago in the daily blog of Richard Rohr, the Benedictine contemplative. Everything is connected, he says.
“What you do to another, you do to yourself. How you love yourself is how you love your neighbor. How you love God is how you love yourself. How you love yourself is how you love God. How you do anything is how you do everything.”
And if our lives are anchored in relationship with God, we are ambassadors of God’s love to all the world.
Let’s own this model of reconciliation by putting ourselves into these assertions.
Once I was alienated from God, but God, who is rich in mercy, has reconciled me and brought me close through the blood of Christ and made me alive together with him (Colossians 1:21, Ephesians 2:2, 4).
This message was presented March 14, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Mark 12:28-31.