If we were to compile a list of essential practices of the church on mission, things like prayer, Bible study, helping people, might be near the top of our list.
I sincerely doubt pastor and theologian David Fitch would argue against any of those things being a vital part of our lives together. Yet his list of seven practices for the church on mission directs us to think about how those things get habitually applied as we live out our faith.
Following the practice of the Lord’s Table, he lists reconciliation as the second key practice for the church. And this is important. Because as we read throughout the New Testament, there is a tremendous concern not just for the key theological belief about our reconciliation with God through Jesus, but also how we live that out in the rest of our lives in regards to our relationship with others.
The letter of 1 John puts it bluntly; “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20b)
Church community is hard. If we’re in it for any length of time, we will not only experience the care and love of a community walking with us in Christ, but we’ll also see the reality that none of us are there yet – we will encounter gossip, griping, power moves, pettiness, and sadly, sometimes people who abuse their power or position. I’m not about to excuse any of that. It’s real. It’s in the church because it is everywhere, and the church is made of people still dealing with their brokenness, pain and sin. And there will be times where it’s not about ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’ but simply differences of opinion or conflict that comes naturally as we work through how to do life and do life together.
But what *does* make the church different than the rest of the world is its ministry of reconciliation – when we are willing to do the work. Not just inviting people to be reconnected with God, but taking the initiative to be reconciled with one another when there is something that needs to be healed in our relationships.
In other words, when the church is a place where we own our mistakes and lean into conflict not to win, but to seek truth and renewed community; that provides a powerful witness of Jesus’ presence and power to the world.
One the aspects he names of the practice of reconciliation is found in Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 5:21: “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This concept of mutual submission doesn’t seek vindication or punishment as much as restoration, healing and renewed fellowship. At this point, I need to pause and say that the practice of reconciliation is *not* about diminishing or evading consequences where there have been situations of abuse or deep harm.
Genuine reconciliation involves both parties, truth telling, and accountability. We quickly get into deep waters that require not just human wisdom and commitment but God’s Holy Spirit to guide us.
As throughout the book, Fitch explores what reconciliation looks like within the community of believers, but then also how we can be hosts of reconciliation in the wider network of our relationships – how do we help bridge fractures between people, model Christ-centered submission and humility to others, and take responsibility for our actions?
And in the “half circle” where we are neither the “in-group” or the “host”, Fitch addresses what that work could look like when tackling broader issues like the need for racial reconciliation. Critically, he acknowledges that sometimes those who are in positions of power or privilege tend to assume that they (we, as I – pastor Brian – acknowledge my position of privilege), that we are the ones who have to come up with the solutions or set the agenda and understand the issues to fix things. Instead, the work of reconciliation may need to begin with a lot more listening and letting go, so that we can engage more helpfully and as partners.
There’s an example of this in my experience that relates to the desire to care for others. Lots of food ministries and soup kitchens involve people generously giving of their time and resources to gather and prepare food and serve it to those who are in need. This is good, and it almost always comes from a good intention and desire. Yet most folks who do the serving rarely have the opportunity (or take the opportunity) to eat with or get to know those they seek to serve. Nor are there often ways for those being served to participate in a way where there is any kind of sense that they have something to offer, should they choose to. I know – it’s structurally hard to pull these things off. But, going back to the last article on sharing meals together, I’ve seen what happens when people slowly build trust across the table beyond the things that might otherwise divide us. The willingness to sit, eat, listen, and care for someone, not to fix them, but simply to honor them as a person created in God’s image, is a powerful step that can transform lives – ours included.
I’ve witnessed a retired correctional officer who had been recently widowed sitting down in a folding chair next to a young person who was staying in a local warming shelter. As they shared a lunch that the older man had helped set up, they talked. As they talked, they learned that this young man had spent some time as an inmate at the same facility (though not at the same time). Over the next hour, I watched them share, laugh, find common ground, and the retired correctional officer offered some encouragement. The younger man also created space that welcomed and honored someone who might otherwise have been seen as an enemy. Reconciliation isn’t often easy, it takes vulnerability, risk, presence, attention. It is the repairing of that which is broken – and as we know, so many things are easy to break and hard to mend. The cross reminds us of how God took the initiative for reconciliation in Christ, the cost of that act, and the invitation for us to take on the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).
And what do we find in that re-joining but communion?
God is inviting us to that table, how will we extend that through joining that work of reconciliation in our own relationships?