Whenever I go back home to where I grew up, I always carry with me a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, I’m happy to see old friends, teachers and, of course, my family again. But on the other hand, I’m usually reminded of the life I left behind, a life that holds some regrets that I have tried to let go of.
On one of my visits a few years ago, my youngest brother, Peter, reminded me of a story I had purged out of my memory.
We were kids. I was probably 14 and my brother would have been 9. We were driving all together with our family of 7 on our way home from church. It was a special occasion, perhaps our mother’s birthday, as we stopped by the store to get items for a celebratory meal. With five boys in our family, arguments were common and we all fought over what we wanted to get (I can remember having these kinds of arguments on more than one occasion). After arguing for some time, with our parents getting frustrated and upset, I turned to Peter and said:
“You’re the reason why this family sucks!”
My brothers and I have always gotten along pretty well, and like most brothers, we would bug each other, laugh together, play pranks, and wrestle. But when Peter told me this story, it really caught me off guard for a couple of reasons.
First of all, I was surprised that he remembered what I said. I had no memory of saying this, but it hurt him quite deeply that he remembered it to this day. As I think back, I wouldn’t have said this to just joke around but I probably wanted to hurt his feelings. I succeeded and it stuck with him for many years. It had an impact on his life.
Secondly, I was shocked to realize that I was kind of a jerk. I would never say that to Peter now. He is such an important part of our family. I would never want him to feel that way and it breaks my heart that those words were so memorable for him.
As I look back at my life, I can think of many things I have done to break relationships and hurt people. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people from my past (or even present) really do think of me as somewhat of a jerk. I can be stubborn and selfish and I haven’t always thought about how my actions affect the people around me. I have said things I wish I could take back. I have not done what I know I should have. That’s not how I want to live and I believe Jesus can work through any of us to transform us into a new creation. But that doesn’t take away the hurt I may have caused people.
Me being a jerk and my understanding of faith growing up blended together to ease my conscience into thinking everything was okay. Faith for me was all about my personal relationship with God. It was a very spiritual and selfish kind of belief. I didn’t have a deep understanding of how the love of God and the love of neighbour went hand in hand. And so, when I did feel like I crossed the line or failed to live like Jesus, the only one I thought I had to ask forgiveness from was God.
I knew God loved me. I knew God would forgive me, and so my wrongs, when put through the Jesus-forgiveness machine, would be wiped away. I didn’t realize that action and inaction have real lasting consequences for people and that my role as a Christian is not finished with "sorry." Sure, I could say something mean to my brother and then ask Jesus for forgiveness, but my brother is still hurt, and he will remember what I said for a long time. A little prayer may free me of temporary guilt but it doesn't take away my responsibility. Jesus intended for us to live a radical way.
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” - Matthew 5:23-24
Jesus seems to be pretty clear here. Our relationship and worship of Him is intrinsically linked to our relationships with others. We cannot simply ignore the wrong in one and pretend that everything is okay in the other. Our relationship with God is much more community oriented than we may realize.
Jesus speaks of forgiveness many times and Paul writes that because we have been reconciled to God, we too enter into the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). When we receive Christ’s forgiveness for us, we are reconciled with God. But it does not end there. We become ambassadors of reconciliation. We are invited to share the news that all of creation can be made new in Christ, and that reconciliation can truly take place.
The hope we have in the reconciliation story of God and creation is that things can actually be made right and whole. Grudges don’t need to last and hurts don’t need to be remembered. Guilt does not need to weigh us down because healing between people can take place as it has already taken place between humanity and God. We have that example, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Reconciliation takes action. It takes intentionality. It takes humility and vulnerability for us to admit when we have done wrong. It takes patience to endure when no hope seems present. It takes gentleness to walk with broken and hurting people. It takes selflessness to work for the benefit of the other and not to simply clear our own guilty conscience. And it takes grace when you get it wrong all over again.
It’s a beautiful thing to see relationships restored, hurts mended, and sins forgiven. It’s a blessings when people, communities, churches, organizations, or countries recognize their collective wrong and not only say “sorry,” but begin to work at reconciling corporate sin. It’s the work of God to see friends and enemies reunited because of their love for each other and for God.
Reconciliation is our ministry. It is our call. It is the centre of our work.