The Cross, the Body, and the “Other”: What is Reconciliation?

Reconciliation is the act of restoring estranged people to the bond of friendship. The assumption of estrangement in this definition is significant because reconciliation takes place not in the context of convenient relationship but in the context of separation, segregation, alienation, indifference, and disharmony. The friendship that emerges from reconciliation is not a friendship of like seeking after like, but rather one which culminates from the counterintuitive pursuit of “the other,” the unlike. “But if you love only those who love you, what reward to you have?” Jesus asks.

In Jesus Christ, God does not reject the “otherness” of our human condition, but makes it his own. On the cross, the one “who knew no sin became sin” for us, exhibiting in an unspeakable manner God’s entering into the life of “the other.” In this supreme act of reconciliation, Jesus collapses the walls of hostility between all people and, rising from the dead, creates new space for them to enter without fear into each other’s lives. “Death the wall becomes death the door,” Willie Jennings says. Taking up our cross and following Jesus means entering into the lives of “the other”, in order to be with them, for them, and perhaps most importantly, allowing them to be for us. To the degree that we neglect this calling, we risk rebuilding the very walls that Jesus dismantled at Calvary.

The call of the cross is a call of embodied reconciliation. It was, after all, a human body on the cross. The fact of God incarnate, that the Son of God has a body, insists that reconciliation doesn’t happen in the abstract; reconciliation has flesh. Political allegiance, symbolic gesture, solidarity through social media, and the comfort of shared sentiment will not suffice. True reconciliation happens through the embracing of other human bodies, other human lives, and the spaces they occupy, all with the aim of joining together in the shared hope of Jesus’ body.

But what sort of bodies will join together in and through the body of Christ? Who are these “others,” and how might we be received and embraced by them?” God calls us to explore such questions by considering both our community’s givenness as well as its uncertainties and possibilities. To this end we must pose questions that probe deeper into the social fabric of the community and into our own complicity with systems that marginalize and oppress. What people and places in our community has the world trained us not to see?  How do we describe the “margins” of our particular community? Who is often perceived as “the other” by us and by our community? What are the social, economic, and theological factors that are shaping our social imagination and understanding of the spaces in which we live and move each day?

Jesus’ invitation for us to follow him into the lives of others is for our good. Through reconciliation and friendship, we begin to see the world through the eyes of those previously estranged to us, affording us a more comprehensive vision of God’s presence in the world. We come to more deeply understand Jesus’ constant reiteration that the issue is not whether we will extend the kingdom of God to the “other,” but whether we will recognize that the kingdom of God is emerging through the other, that it is ushered in through the margins, through the forgotten, through what is foreign and alien to us. Thus we are never simply the subject or object of reconciliation, never its primary agent or recipient. Ultimately reconciliation is not something that we do, but something that God does through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself and calling us to participate in this ministry of reconciliation. But who are we to be reconciled? Who are we to be called friends of God? We, who were dead in our sins; We, who were far of but who have been brought near by the blood of Jesus’ cross; We, who are “the other.”

This essay was previously printed and distributed during North Avenue Presbyterian’s annual missions conference, April 2016.

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