14 December 2008, Eureka Congregation, ELCSA-COD, Elsies River
Text: Matthew 11. 2-10
Hans S A Engdahl
RECONCILIATION AT ALL COSTS
The church is called to a ministry of reconciliation and you as a member are a decisive part of this whole enterprise. Today’s gospel does not immediately speak about reconciliation. What one could say is that it speaks about the preconditions for reconciliation. There are basically two ways forward, the one of John the Baptist and the one of Jesus of Nazareth. In the end the first one is the forerunner of the latter, but in our text we will also see that over time some doubt had arisen in John’s mind as to who this Jesus in fact was. He might well have thought that the justice he portrayed somehow had been compromised by Jesus.
So one could say that the text in Matthew 11.2-10 lays the foundation of reconciliation in the fundamental sense: between God and humans and between us as humans regardless of creed, cultural background, looks, wealth etc. One should therefore always be aware that whatever Jesus says or does has a relevance and application on the whole world as created by God: all human beings but also animals, plants, water, soil, rocks and sand in the desert. Ultimately we could talk about God’s ecological concern where we as humans would be the central part.
Before going to the actual text I like to give a few examples of the church’s ministry of reconciliation. First I want to recall the state of affairs in Europe after the First World War as well as the Second World War. South Africa had its share in the latter war and many of those who returned had in this very war for the first time experienced both some kind of equality as well as dignity, something which was not be easily found at home.
In Europe nations were divided as never before and Christian stood against Christian. Britons and Germans could not see eye to eye and the victors had all reasons to look down upon the Germans who had allowed a person like Adolf Hitler to become their leader. He was even elected democratically into what later became a dictatorship. But blame could never be put on one part in any conflict and it is all too obvious that the British Empire allowed and initiated many violations and conflicts in their territories. All of this was only so much less conspicuous than the Nazi ravaging expeditions in Europe.
But the constraints between Great Britain and Germany had built up already in the First World War. Soon after the war the churches actually managed to stand up against the hatred and animosity that prevailed. In 1925 a world ecumenical meeting took place in Stockholm. Church leaders from all major countries at this time in Europe and beyond were invited by the Church of Sweden Archbishop Nathan Söderblom. This was a historic occasion as this perhaps was the first time in modern history that the churches lived up to their calling of being in the forefront of the ministry of reconciliation. Thanks to this meeting a healing process was taking place between churches and peoples. The same after the Second World War: the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948 was a secure proof of churches taking their ministry of reconciliation seriously.
Many of us thought that Europe as a Christian continent would never allow two world wars to happen. Now, Europe is no longer the Christian continent and the centre of gravity of the church has shifted to sub-Saharan Africa. We don’t know how this will influence Africa; all we might say is that Europe teaches us that no guarantees are available for peace and security just because the churches may dominate the scene.
Reconciliation could also be seen in a marriage situation. The partners become estranged from one another and they separate. For a long time the Christian church has resisted giving acknowledgement to the existence of divorcees (referring to Jesus words in Mark’s gospel) but it stands clear that there are cases where a marriage humanly speaking may seem irredeemable. Whatever the case may be, we could think of such a separated couple. In due time they realise that they indeed belong together and decide, perhaps with some help, to return and join together again. One could say that they now have become reconciled. The meaning of the word could be said to be just this: a change of relationship, a restoration of a relationship to what it once was or to something even better than it ever was. The main thing is that there once was a basic idea of togetherness and common understanding.
Let’s continue on the same line of thought. Imagine that a very rich man, maybe one of the black diamonds (not so few any longer), decides to marry a poor girl from one of the squatter camps in Cape Town. A number of questions would result, especially from the side of the rich family: is this really out of love, is she not trying to take advantage of the fact that he is rich, many would strongly discourage such a marriage and, make no mistake about it, there are very few such marriages around.
Such a marriage could however be seen as a model (or metaphor) of how South Africa, and the rest of the world, has to go about creating real conditions for a lasting reconciliation. As the gospel of today also will remind us, you first have to set the scene, prepare the way, and create equilibrium (balance) that makes it possible to talk about reconciliation. John the Baptist prepares part of the way, but Jesus must do the final work of reparation. No human would be able to do that, so distorted had we become from what we were or were meant to be.
Only if the rich could marry the poor, only if the rich could enter a partnership with the poor will there be a situation conducive to real change. This could be said to be South Africa’s problem in a nutshell and it could be said to the world’s problem in a nutshell.
We have talked about the churches in Europe during the two world wars and about marriage as a model of how reconciliation could be understood. Thirdly we could also reach out for individuals who in their ministry have been reconcilers. It is not easy or maybe not even advisable to do this with people who are still alive. Only in hindsight may we see clearly what a particular person stood for. Then in any case our sight is partial but I like to mention one person who for me has come across as a real reconciler, which is the late Pastor J A J Steenkamp. He is frequently referred to as being the origin of some jokes, two of which I heard being retold last Friday night. However to me he comes across as the reconciler. He was perhaps not very radical through the years but there was no doubt about it, he thought that South Africans were called and deemed to live together without distinction and favour. His preparedness to help in times of crisis is easy to exemplify and I think the secret behind his readiness was his perception of others: there were only other human beings, not human beings of special kinds or categories, and with this perception he just helped when he was needed.
So the calling to the ministry of reconciliation is there for us as individuals and as church in this world.
The dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus in Matthew 11.2-10
What we witness in this text is a kind of dialogue between the now imprisoned John the Baptist and Jesus who still walked about freely. John had ventured to criticise Herod for having seduced the wife of his brother at a visit in Rome. He had in fact publicly rebuked Herod, which he could not do unpunished. Soon enough he was thrown into the dungeons of the fortress of Machaerus in the mountains on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. As we know he would not survive that imprisonment.
We do not know what exactly was in his mind there in the dungeon. He was thus underground, probably perpetually held in darkness. Different things could have been on his mind. His famous and not so rhetorical question: are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?, could mean different things. Did he have his own disciples in mind, thinking that they now had to join Jesus, seeing that he himself was imprisoned? Was it an expression of impatience that made him ask the question? John might have had reason to expect Jesus to act much more drastically and decisively than he had done so far. Or was the question expressing faith and hope meaning that he assumed that Jesus was the one who was to come?
My own understanding of this text is as follows; the question is clearly expressing a sense of doubt. John does not really understand what is going on with Jesus. No clarity is given and he has lost his cause, his life is coming to a close. I think it is only reasonable that John the Baptist here is doubtful and Jesus does not blame him.
The answer however is very programmatic. It is not what Jesus has said that counts in the end but what he has been doing.
When reading this text again it strikes me how easily we pass over these words as if they were of no consequence. But they are very clear. John should just take into account what Jesus had been busy doing the last year or so and he would understand. So the dialogue goes on. Tell John, says Jesus to John’s disciples, what you hear and see. But in his answer it is more on what they could see than hear in fact: the blind get their eyesight, the lame can walk again, the lepers are cured and cleansed, the deaf can hear again.
The dead are raised, he says, was he talking about the son of the widow or about Lazarus? He also and finally mentions the poor and says that the good news is preached to them.
Without quite understanding it John the Baptist had been the one to prepare the ground for all this, he had now done his work and he had done it well. He had been the truth teller and it is of greatest significance that Jesus allowed himself to be surrounded by such uncomfortable people, such prophetic people, and yet John was more than a prophet.
It reminds me of the predicament the churches in Zimbabwe find themselves in at the moment. In the All African Conference of Churches General Assembly in Maputo, Mozambique in the past week, a young pastor of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, working in Zimbabwe, spoke to the crisis in his country and suggested that the assembly decide to adopt a resolution suggesting that President Mugabe be taken out of his country to face the International Court in the Hague. I thought, how brave, and does he know what will happen to him when he comes home? There will always be a strain of John the Baptist in and around the church, just because Jesus deemed it important to be equipped with truth tellers.
Jesus’ response however should be seen as a programmatic response also for the church. How clear and how wonderful! We have a programme of action. The first four examples are within what we could call the health sector and it is quite clear that our first calling must be to work towards a society where any illness of any person could be remedied and that the costs for this somehow must be carried by the common society. Anything less than that is unacceptable.
Secondly, this is a word to us about the ministry of the dying and the bereaved because somebody has died. The church is there but could do more. Not least could the church lift up the fact that Jesus boldly stated that death can and will be overcome. So let us make sure that we revive our ministry of the dying and the bereaved.
Thirdly Jesus makes clear that the poor must and will hear the good news that their poverty will come to an end and that God is with them. Again, at this very moment it is humanly possible to alleviate poverty from the surface of the earth, but human greed and selfishness seem to make it impossible.
We could expand a lot on this programmatic response of Jesus but must just conclude that this is more than enough for the own work as a church. What Jesus does is basically two things. First he states in different terms what John the Baptist already has done. It is a kind of truth telling about our conditions and our guilt as human beings as to why things are as they are. But instead of dwelling on some kind of retributive justice as was the case with John, he demonstrates that all the problems could be dealt with and solved, and that is probably why he even enumerates what has been happening. This action is restorative and gives some hope. It is not hopeless. And this is the same as to say that Jesus’ ministry, instead of just being a blame of us useless humans, is a ministry of healing.
What Jesus here is portraying is in fact the emergence of a new society where there is equilibrium, which is the same as saying that there is some sort of balance. Not one is supposed to be dirt poor or dirt rich, if you allow the expression, there is balance and the dignity of all is restored, no one should go hungry and even when confronting death there is a ministry.
What Jesus has created is a situation, perhaps the only situation, for real reconciliation.
Reconciliation at all costs
So the scene is set. We can now embark on our task, reconciliation. This is and remains the first and foremost task of the church. But it is a reconciliation built on truth and justice. Without these we will have some kind of cheap reconciliation that is not grounded and will not last.
However, the church’s task in reconciliation must not be mixed up with various political actions through parties etc. These have their role to play, but we are here talking about the church. The point of departure for the church is the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the encounter with him that makes the difference. And therefore we must exert an even more pronounced discipline in how we come back to him, that is to his Word and to the Word of God in general but also to the Sacraments, especially the sacrament of the altar. Only if we start there with the word and the bread that is broken in our worship, in our liturgy, will we be able to achieve what we are asked to do.
So, in order to become effective servants and disciples of Christ we must heighten our awareness of being church, the church of Christ. It is all about the whole world of God that has to be saved and it is all about how the church may not be able to change the whole world to the better at all, but rather that the church might be able to state examples of the balance that Jesus achieved in his ministry. If only we could demonstrate that the church is about healing and that health issues are at the heart of what we are doing, if only we could minister to people at the time of death, which is coming to all of us, if only we could state examples of how the haves could reach out to the have-nots, not in order to look nice but because justice requires it.
In this ministry we will not immediately achieve reconciliation, far from it. As the basic role of the church, and here we stand close to John the Baptist, is to speak prophetically about conditions and situation without fear or favour there will be conflict. In the short term it might even seem that the role of the church is divisive. And this will probably be the case as long as leaders but also common people as well as powers at large propagate lies, unrighteousness and violence, in truth we have nothing much better to expect. But things will change and we can be convinced that we are in the ministry of reconciliation on the way towards the heavenly harmony that only partially will be felt and experienced here on earth.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and will be for ever, world without end,Amen