God’s gift of reconciliation

This is an archived item that expired on 1 September 2016.

Karen Kemp explores God’s challenge for us to live at peace with one another and details her own struggle to forgive when her daughter was bullied at school.

Not long ago I heard theologian Miroslav Volf speak at Oxford University. He lamented that today’s students graduate ‘experts in means but almost entirely ignorant of the end or purpose of their work’. He suggested that learning needs to begin with ‘why’ questions, rather than ‘how’ questions. This got me thinking.

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As a theologian and teacher myself, I want my students to engage with the end purpose of their studies, not just the means for getting a job done. And I had to ask the question of myself: to what end do I teach and disciple those in my care? To what end do I engage in my local community? To what end do we do anything as followers of Christ and members of his Body? Or are we just going through the motions without any real idea of why.

This ‘why’ of what we do and how we live is clear in Scripture. In 2 Corinthians the Apostle Paul says, ‘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’. And in that great hymn in Colossians 1: through Christ ‘God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’. Reconciliation with God through Christ is the grand narrative of the Bible: it is the integrating idea; it is the purpose or end of ministry, mission, social action, and the care of creation. This is the big ‘why’ of all we do.

If reconciliation with God is the overarching end of all we do, what does it look like? Reconciliation only happens where both parties accept each other and commit themselves to a new relationship. It never means going back to the way things were. A reconciled relationship is not so much restored as renewed. It is a genesis act – two people working together to create something new. Ultimately, it is a gift of God, and those seeking reconciliation are ‘workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs’, to use the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Reconciliation begins with lament. Jesus dying on the cross cried ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing!’ The amount of energy we bring to this costly journey is proportional to the depth of our lament over the brokenness we see and experience.

I really ‘got’ this a few years ago when one of my daughters was bullied at school. The pain I experienced as a parent spurred me on as I engaged first with her teacher and then with the school principal and Board over a two year period. Together as a community, we emerged with a deeper understanding of the needs of the children – both bully and bullied – an experience of healthier relationships, and a school disciplinary policy rewritten around restorative practices.  For me the process began with lament over my daughter’s plight. It was embodied in a commitment to the way of peace Jesus calls me to. It ended with the whole school opening itself to new ways of being and relating.

Along the way I discovered that reconciliation has to be an act of the imagination. It is embodied in the passionate cry that ‘things do not have to be this way’ and in the ability to live into what could be with resolute hope.1 The early months were the most difficult when encounters with the other parents and children tested my commitment to forgive and dented my hope for renewed relationships and healthier structures.

Nevertheless, I drew strength from the recognition that ultimately, reconciliation is God’s idea. In the Beatitudes Jesus says that people will recognise his disciples as children of the reconciling God (‘chips off the old block’) when Jesus’ disciples themselves make peace. In Matthew 18 Jesus promises to be present whenever we work towards reconciliation. My experience in that school opened up countless conversations with teachers and parents about forgiveness, reconciliation and my faith. I found words and wisdom I didn’t know I had, and I experienced the joy of participating in Christ’s ongoing ministry of reconciliation in this conflicted world. There is no greater privilege than this.

Yesterday, a man was murdered in my town, and six youths have been arrested. The dead man is a father and well known in the community. Today, there is pain, disbelief and anger rippling through our community. I am challenged again by God’s call for us to be peacemakers and reconcilers in our broken world, and to recover the ministry of reconciliation at the heart of our identity and calling as the Body of Christ.

And right here is the biggest challenge. If those of us who say we follow a reconciling God fail to be reconciled with one another when things go wrong in our own families and churches, then what hope can we offer to the broken world looking on? I believe we need to recapture a vision of God’s reconciling work in Christ not only for the world, but for ourselves and our churches. We need to rediscover the spiritual disciplines that will sustain a commitment to walking in the difficult and pain-filled way of peace. And we need to embrace the conflicts we face in our own families and churches as invitations to train for and experience in ourselves the ministry of reconciliation God calls us to in the wider world.

Karen Kemp

1 Katongole, E. and C. Rice (2008). Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing. Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP.
Karen brings over 20 years’ ministry experience and a passion to see the Church recover our calling to be ministers of reconciliation. She is an adjunct lecturer at Redcliffe College and the West of England Ministry Training Course in Gloucester.