“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Corinthians 5:18-19 NRSV
Reconciliation is the resolution of tension between two things, after the tension has endured for a period of time. This resolution may consist of the two things both changing in order to eliminate the tension: when we hear a statement such as “the feuding siblings reconciled with one another,” it is implied that both siblings compromised in order to resolve their differences.
Resolution can also happen when one thing changes to become compatible with the other thing, which in contrast remains constant. For example, this past year, many of us might have said that we “reconciled” ourselves to wearing masks in class. There was a tension: we were required to wear masks in class, but we did not want to. The tension was resolved by a change in us to accept the mask requirement, while the mask requirement itself remained constant. Or, one might say “the scientist was able to reconcile the experimental results with the long-held theorem by accounting for human error in her measurements.” Here, there was a tension between the results and the theorem. The tension was resolved by a change in the results (as the scientist altered them to account for human error), while the theorem remained constant.
Today’s passage from 2 Corinthians speaks about the reconciliation of the world to God through Christ. This reconciliation falls into the second category of the two mentioned above: the tension between God and the world is resolved through a change enacted in the world by Christ, while God Himself – immutable and eternal by His very nature – remains constant. However, this reconciliation of the world to God differs from the two examples discussed above, and from most reconciliation we encounter on a daily basis, in one important respect. Here, the immutable and constant thing is the agent of the reconciliation.
When we reconcile ourselves to wearing masks, we are the agents, and also that which is changed: We change our own mindsets to accept that we must wear masks. When a scientist reconciles experimental results with a theorem, the scientist, acting as the agent, changes the results to match the theorem. God is the constant and also the agent, enacting the change in the world to resolve the tension between the world and Himself.
What is so special about this? Well, something being unchangeable while simultaneously effecting change doesn’t make much sense, if you think about it. In order to effect change, one must act. In order to act, one must transition from a state of inaction to one of action: one must change. Mysteriously, God somehow occupies the paradoxical role of being the immutable Creator of the world, while also being actively involved in effecting change in the world.
This seemingly paradoxical nature of God is just one of the many mysteries of the divine that humans may never fully comprehend. However, even without understanding, we may take comfort in the fact that God is the agent in our reconciliation to Him. Unlike a scientific theorem or mask mandate, God does not sit there, unchanging, waiting for us to change ourselves in order to become compatible with Him. No, rather He reaches out to us through Christ. He does the work, through Christ’s sacrifice, to transform us into “a new creation”, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
We see God’s reconciliation in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). The prodigal son did not do the work of reconciliation. He did not even seek to be reconciled to his father as his son, but rather would settle to become one of his father’s hired employees. The father is the one who did the work of reconciling his son to himself and restoring their father-son relationship. Without his son asking for it, the father ordered his son to be dressed in a robe, ring, and sandals. He had a calf killed and a celebration organized to honor his son’s return. Likewise, without our asking, God had his Son killed to reconcile us to Him. The everlasting and immutable Father did not sit aloof from the fickle and changing world, but reached out and inserted Himself into it so that he might change it for the better. What kind of incredible love is this?
Sarah Newbury is in her second year of studies at Harvard Law School.