The Ministry of Reconciliation

Scripture  |  Ephesians 4:1-3, 31-32  |  2 Corinthians 5:16-21

This week Ellen and I went to see the CATCO production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” It’s a play about three middle-aged siblings who get together and reflect – and lament - about their lives. One of my favorite scenes is when Vanya goes on this hysterical rant about ‘kids these days’ and the way things were when he was growing up. I started feeling nostalgic - it felt like he was describing my life! 

No laptops or tablets, just typewriters and carbon copies. No cell phones or texting or social media, just telephones without answering machines. No team sports till high school – just tossing a football around, or pick up games of baseball. No video games, just Monopoly and Scrabble and Risk. No Netflix or satellite TV, just 3 channels everybody in the country watched, everyone sharing the same entertainment, all carefully screened by censors. Those were the days of Ed Sullivan and Walter Cronkite, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and Leave It to Beaver. What Vanya described was a time of luxurious innocence. That was my childhood in the 60’s.

But then I found myself remembering a lot of things he didn’t mention. 

  • Like the Cuban missile crisis, and the duck-and-cover drills we did at school, sitting under our desks pretending they would protect us if the Soviets fired off a nuclear missile. 
  • I remembered the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy – and how anxious everyone was, like the world was coming apart.  
  • And the Civil Rights movement, and the marches, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and the feeling that our country was coming apart. 
  • And the Vietnam War and the protests and sit-ins, and my newly radicalized college-age brother arguing with my very conservative father – and how I was scared my family was coming apart. 
  • I thought of the riots, all the riots, Watts, Detroit, Chicago… wondering if anywhere was safe?

Bob Dylan sang, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and they were – the rise of Rock and Roll, the new hippie culture and the sexual revolution and the drugs, the Summer of Love and Woodstock, and the tag line “Question Authority” – some adults seemed scared and angry, and others were exhilarated by the freedom.  As a child, it was all so confusing. Innocence was just an illusion. 

Oddly enough, I was thinking about the ‘60’s even before I saw the play this week. A friend and I had been emailing about the strange presidential race we’re witnessing. He said, “I think our beloved country is coming apart… And I think there are going to be riots and hate and discontent this summer like we haven’t seen since the ‘60’s.” 

His words tapped into my memory of those feelings… 
the fear, the anxiety, and anger… 

  • Then it was the Civil Rights movement - now it’s Black Lives Matter.
  • Then it was the War on Poverty - now it’s the movement for a living wage.
  • Then it was the Sexual Revolution - now it’s LGBT rights.
  • Then it was DDT and Silent Spring - now it’s climate change and global warming.
  • Then it the Democratic Convention - now it’s the Republican, where authority and power are being questioned. 

Then, as now, Christians wonder if the church has anything to say about all this, or if it should. How does our faith lead us through times like these? Where is God in all this? Where is our hope? 

In the 1960s the Presbyterian Church found a word to say about hope, and it took the form of the Confession of 1967 – a statement of faith that formed my own faith in deep and lasting ways. It helped me see my faith as a source of strength and courage when so much seemed to be coming apart. 

The Confession started simply enough; in 1958 two branches of the Presbyterian Church came together to form the United Presbyterian Church. Someone suggested writing a new statement of faith for the occasion, something contemporary, since everyone was still using the old Westminster Catechism from the 1600s. It took eight years to write, and during that time all hell broke loose. It seemed important to speak faith to the chaos and fear. 

The Confession of ’67 spoke of reconciliation – our reconciliation through Jesus Christ, and the church’s call to continue Christ’s reconciling work. The whole statement was based on Paul’s words we heard this morning from 2 Corinthians, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self.” We live in a broken world, and we cannot fix it through our own efforts and good will. But in God’s mercy, Christ came into the world to heal the brokenness. 

  • In his life Jesus welcomed outsiders, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and spoke of the kingdom of God. 
  • In his death, he who committed no sin “took on sin” for our sake, so we would be reconciled to God. 
  • And in his resurrection, Jesus overcame the power of sin and death that we cannot overcome, and gave us the promise and hope of new life. 
  • As the Confession proclaims, our “strength is in [our] confidence that God’s purpose rather than [human] schemes will finally prevail.” [C67 - 9.25]

As another preacher describes it, “The power is God’s, the initiative is God’s, the love is God’s, and the sacrifice is God’s.”  (Joanne Whitt,  “The Confession of 1967: Reconciling the World.” Sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, August 23, 2009.

Our response is to be reconciled to God and to each other, and our work is to carry this message of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us. The Confession doesn’t prescribe how to do this, or even what issues to address. But it does lift up examples – like racial discrimination, class conflict, nationalism, and brokenness in families. 

Not surprisingly, the Confession of ‘67 was controversial. Some Presbyterians believed the church should stay out of social issues entirely, and be a refuge from the tensions outside our doors, a place of safety where we can escape and find comfort. But as the Confession proclaims, “Life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage.” [C67 - 9.17] The Confession called us to be courageous. 

As a child, I saw my congregation embrace that call to courage. The Session decided to study the Confession, and then used it for our Confirmation classes; it’s how I learned the faith. Our church’s leaders decided it wasn’t enough to watch the Civil Rights Movement from the safety of the suburbs; they started a sister-church relationship with a Black church in the city, and had dinners and conversations together. They decided they couldn’t be indifferent to poverty, and began to engage in ministry in the city. They debated how activist to be, and sometimes those discussions got heated, but in that time of confusion and fear they felt called to bring their faith to the table. 

They believed that keeping the church going for its own sake wasn’t serving the purpose of Christ’s kingdom. Christ came to save the world, not the church.

Often I think about my own conservative father and how he handled the chaos fifty years ago. He was Clerk of Session when the Confession of ’67 came out, and he took up the charge and the challenge. He still thinks that Confession is one of the most important things the church has ever done; he still talks about it. The ministry of reconciliation is his life’s work, and he tries to live it every single day.

Fifty years ago the world seemed like a pretty crazy place; like families and cities and our country were coming apart. Sometimes it feels like that again. It makes me wonder if reconciliation is still our life’s work. Maybe it is still the church’s calling. Reaching across the walls that divide us. Seeking relationships with those who are different. Bridging the chasms that may even seem insurmountable. 

The Confession of ‘67 urges us to hold onto hope that it’s possible - not because we know more, or are better people, or live in a more advanced time - but because hope is the heart of the Gospel. 

The Confession ends with these words:

Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope… preparing the world to receive its… redemption. 

With an urgency born of this hope, the church… strives for a better world. 

It [doesn’t] identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. 

In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God. [C67 - 9.55]

‘Now to him who by the power within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’ [Ephesians 3:20-21; C67 - 9.56]

Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
Granville, OH