John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
There’s one small sentence of 23 words (in English) which is the heart of the gospel for me.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone's faults against them, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5. 19
However we understand the manner in which God was in Christ, Jesus is, as it were caught, in the middle between us and God. "He's just a man, another man, and I've had so many men before, he's only just one more" sings Mary Magdalen in Jesus Christ Superstar. Those quintessentially twentieth century words reflect a very common contemporary view of Jesus – though, of course, there have been people in every age, who have thought that way. But as Christians we don’t. God was in Christ, uniquely. Christ represents God to us, and us to God, for God became totally aligned to us in Jesus Christ. That baby whom we so easily sentimentalize at Christmas is God emptying Godself of all divine attributes in order to be as we are; instantiating God in human form.
Do we ever stop to look at the cross from God's perspective, and ask: what’s God up to? There’s two sides to it. God is making God no longer opposed to us, and us no longer opposed to God.
We nearly always see it the second way. It’s easy seeing ourselves as the objects of God's reconciliation. We can see why it’s needed. We can see Jesus caught in the middle, absorbing all our anger and hate and rage and rejection; and we can be amazed that in this display of love, God has reconciled us.
But we can also look at it the other way round. The stretched out the arms of love say God is no longer alienated from us, say God’s eyes are ever searching, hoping to catch our eye, God’s arms are ever open, like the arms of the prodigal’s father. God reaches out across our wilful waywardness.
When we say ‘I’ve become reconciled to that’, we’re also recognizing that being reconciled can be about acquiescing in something, possibly something unpleasant. On the cross, God in Christ-caught-in-the-middle reconciles Godself to reconciling us on the cross. And Jesus reconciles himself to being the agent of reconciliation on the cross.
Reconciliation’s also about restoring friendship, re-establishing good relations between two or more people. Looking at the cross this way we find that the overtones of revulsion, the feeling of horror at what the other has done, or of what you have done to the other, have gone. To become friends is hugely positive. As Gregory of Nyssa observed: ‘The only thing that is really worthwhile…is to become God’s Friend.’ Friendship is a very precious thing. We lose sight of it in our God-relationship if we become too obsessed with some of the categories that have so often been used of God: might or judge or kingly rule. On the cross God is calling out to be our friend, and for us to be God’s friends. As God and human beings meet in Jesus, so the estrangement is rolled back, the true relationship is re-established.
Reconciling settles quarrels. Quarrels are not all one way things. There's much in the Bible, especially in the prophets, which suggests that God has plenty of quarrels to pick with us – more, perhaps, than we have with God. In fact, we often tend to walk away from the quarrel with God, by pretending God's not there, or that God doesn't actually hope for certain things from us, or that friendship doesn't carry responsibilities with it. As God in human alignment, Jesus settles the quarrel, but only through the inevitability of being the one caught in the middle, the one on whom all the blows land. But this is God’s chosen way: God was in Christ reconciling.
When we reconcile we can also be bringing two apparently conflicting things together and making them compatible with each other.
Many people struggle to find any compatibility between the apparently senseless acts of our fellow human beings and the idea of a God of love.
But it's equally difficult when the things in conflict are God's beneficent purpose and lure for my life, and what I want or end up doing. There has to be a meeting point. And it's no use God imposing God’s will on me, for that is forced and false, no real meeting. It is only when I realise that I’m caught in the middle and have to respond to God in love that there is reconciliation, that I am made compatible with what God wants. And I can only lovingly respond – some Christians use the terminology of surrender here – when I see God’s love for me in Jesus’ blood flowing down the wood of the cross. "Prefer absolutely nothing to the love of Christ" says St Benedict; and that loving is made possible only because "there is no wood like the wood of the cross for lighting the fire of love in the soul".
The final upshot of God being in Christ reconciling the world to Godself is this, that God doesn’t holding anyone's faults against them. Sometimes I can’t get my head round that: why shouldn’t God hold my faults against me, faulty and unlovely as I am? It is the amazing message of reconciliation that God doesn't.
My song is love unknown
my Saviour's love for me,
love to the loveless shown,
that they might lovely be.
Oh who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?
It hurt Jesus to show that love to the loveless, to be caught in the middle of love and non-love. Sometimes it hurts us to be Christian, because we are entrusted with the message of reconciliation, and might also get caught in the middle, as we take the message to the world.
But we cannot be Christians without taking that risk, without being touched by the love of God, without being radically transformed by the reconciling love of God, nor without taking that love with us wherever we go.