11 December – Peace as reconciliation

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Advent 3

Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Luke 1:46b-55
Matthew 11:2-11

In a sentence:
The promise of God is not for our well-being alone but for peace in our midst, reconciliation across divided communities

Ringing through all this morning’s readings is the news of God’s approach to set right all that has gone awry in the world.

Jesus summarises this in his response to the Baptist’s question about who Jesus is:

‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’ (Matthew 11).

Such promises, and the declaration of their imminent fulfilment, are words gladly heard even by people like us, for whom life is a relatively ‘relaxed and comfortable’ reality. Yet, regardless of whether we imagine that the kingdom has largely come for us, or whether we still long for some missing healing or security or restoration in our lives, we can easily miss the point here. One mistake is to hear what is said about what God will do as a charge as to what we should be doing. Another error – and the one we’ll focus on today – is to imagine that the mere restoration of sight or hearing or social and economic rights will, in themselves, amount to a return to a full humanity.

The promises made through the prophets, and said to have been consummated in God’s work in Christ, can read as if they concern merely this or that thing which God might rectify. The blind will see, and the deaf will hear, which is surely good news. The poor will be lifted up, and the hungry will be fed – again, surely good news. Yet the point of these texts is not simply the removal of obstacles to fullness of life. Good health, by itself, is not the promise of the gospel. Well-being and economic fairness, by themselves, are not the promise of the gospel. Such healing and restoration are important, of course. Yet, we tend to think about them in quite closed and individualised terms. The point about the types of restoration the gospel points to is not only that bad things are fixed up, but that broken relationships are restored. This is a subtle qualification but an important one.

The restoration of relationships will require the opening of eyes and ears and the loosing of tongues, and so on. Yet, these miracles themselves are necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions for the healing of relationships; more is needed. Peace is not everyone having a job, or universal healthcare, although these must be part of it. By themselves, these are not enough because, if I can now see when once I could not, I may still choose not to look at you. If I can now hear, I may yet choose not to listen to you. If I am no longer imprisoned or enslaved or downtrodden, I may yet become your gaoler, enslaver, or oppressor. The justice of God is not simply a matter of cutting the ties which bind, a loosing of tangled wings and a healing of broken bodies and hearts. God does not simply heal and liberate but reconciles. Indeed, this reconciliation is between ourselves and God, but it is inseparable from social reconciliations between ourselves. We can’t state this too strongly. And, in connection to our readings, it also can’t be too strongly said that our natural tendency is to focus on what God promises to do in the ‘vertical’ between us and God, and to miss what is said about the ‘horizontal’ you-and-me dimension of reconciliation.

Each Sunday, we gather for what looks like a vertical engagement but is deeply horizontal. We meet around prayers and hymns of invocation, we listen for the word in scripture and preaching, we pray a prayer of confession, hear a declaration of forgiveness, sing a doxology or hymn, say a creed, gather around the table, pray prayers of intercession, and then are dismissed under a blessing. So far as reconciliation goes, the interesting part is that which follows the preaching in our usual order – the prayer of confession and the word of forgiveness. This is the moment at which, we might say, reconciliation is declared and enacted. Who is being declared to be reconciled to whom at this point? The easy answer is that we are, whether as individuals or as a whole, speaking here of reconciliation between ourselves and God. Perhaps you can verify for yourselves whether that is what you hear and experience at that point in our worship when it comes in a few minutes!

But there’s complicating thing which happens in the Eucharist. Holy Communion enacts a reconciliation or communing not only with God but with each other. In preparation for the Eucharistic liturgy, we ‘pass the peace’, which is not an act of greeting but a declaration to those around us that we constitute no threat to them; we are ourselves claiming to be reconciled and reconciling agents of peace. We move then to pray that, in taking the sacramental signs of Christ’s body and blood, we might ourselves together become the body of Christ.

An individualised God-and-me understanding of reconciliation obscures the bigger picture – that the salvation God brings is not just for us in our notions about where we need healing, but for others. And the ‘for others’ raises the possibility that salvation may actually cost us something. God comes not to heal ‘me’ as I am in this or that particular distress, but to heal us. The gospel promises not only the lifting up of the lowly, but the humbling of the mighty – maybe us. Not only are the captives set free, but presumably those who locked them up unjustly are chastised or corrected – maybe us. What takes place is a ‘setting right’ of disorder. Such a setting right requires the work of God not only because we can’t heal and set right all things ourselves, but because we have too much vested interest in things remaining much the way they are, or in others suffering for our gains. If we doubt this, consider only the rhetoric of election time with its shrill clash of conflicting desires and proposed futures.

We will hesitate at such a vision of the kingdom and its healing work because it will cost us too much. A healing and restoration to wholeness which is just our own is easier and costs us less than one which heals others at the same time. We often have an interest in others being a little less healed and restored than they might like. A bit of blindness and lameness and poverty about the place is convenient and comfortable for many. Being reconciled to God but not necessarily to each other is easier and allows us to keep the things of God merely ‘spiritual’ and disconnected from the ‘real’ world around us. The criticism of religion that it promises an other-worldly escape from each other is, then, shown to be wrong. Indeed the critique rebounds: there is nothing religious in the observation that our world trades on difference and oppression, so that any vision of reconciliation will be uncomfortable for us all. Of this the conversation around the indigenous Parliamentary Voice is just one proof. The vision of justice in the gospel exposes the religious and the unreligious with a harsh light.

In Advent, we focus on the desire for God’s justice and hear a whisper not of new religious possibilities for our relationship with God but of the possibility of a wholly different world. This new world comprises a setting-right which is a lifting up and a casting down, a gathering in and a sending away, and yet is also salvation for all – for those elevated and those humbled, for those made rich and those made poorer by the action of God.

The fulfilment of such a promise as this would be worth waiting for, and worth living towards, as painful as its realisation might be for many.

May God’s people take comfort not merely in God’s love for them but in that God’s love is for all, and carries a promised future in which all have a place, and a right relation both to God and to each other.

And may God’s people live ever more deeply in ways which model this promised future, here and now.