RTG 6: Rediscovering Reconciliation: The Yeast of Sectarianism

Without question, there are many significant challenges involved in the planting of new churches. Yet, over these first years of MCC’s history, I have also discovered that engaging in mission in a completely new context, where nothing can be assumed and where people are rightly sceptical about many of your intentions, is also a place of incredible opportunity. Forced to look at myself, the tradition I am part of and the message I preach through the eyes of those who know little about us ‘Presbyterians,’ I have been permitted insight I doubt I’d have ever gained otherwise. As a result, ‘Why am I in ministry?’, ‘What does it mean to be a Presbyterian church?’ and ‘What is the gospel really about?’ are now questions I feel much more able to answer in a biblically coherent way.

One of the most significant new convictions all this has led me to is that the issue of reconciliation is not just a part of what God is doing as he builds his kingdom in our world; it is the core of what he is doing. As we read through the Genesis accounts it is clear that God’s purpose in creation was that we would know him and walk with him, and one another, in perfect harmony and fellowship. We were created for intimacy in relationship by the God who himself exists in intimacy of relationship. It is equally clear that our rebellion and disobedience marred the perfection of God’s creation, destroying the relationship that was intended and raising up in its place walls of hostility and distrust that divided us not only from God but from one another. Even our relationship with the physical world was gravely impacted. (See Ephesians 2.14, Colossians 1.21 and Romans 8.18-21)

If this is the source of what is wrong in our world, the bad news, then the good news is that through Jesus, ‘God was reconciling the world to himself.” (See 2 Cor 5:18-19) The word ‘reconcile’ comes from the Latin word conciliāre and means to bring together again, to overcome the hostility between, to unite that which is divided. Isn’t this what the Gospel proclaims? In Christ, God has broken down the walls of hostility between us, he has restored our relationship, he has brought us together again through the suffering and resurrection of his Son! The issue of reconciliation thus lies at the very heart of the gospel, and on this I am sure we would all agree.

Tragically, though, what I think we have forgotten is that acting for reconciliation is what lies at the very heart of our response to the gospel. In 2 Cor 5:19, Paul says, “And God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” God’s Kingdom is now among us. God is building it all around us and it is a realm in which all hostility and division will cease, where the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the leopard with the goat (See Isaiah 11:6). It is a place where people will live, and invite others to live, reconciled lives. This is what we pray for in our daily intercession when we say “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Our task, therefore, as those who been reconciled, is now to seek this reconciled life for others and, not only for others, but with others. Our task, as the children of God, is not only to see individuals come to faith in Christ, though it is surely that. It is also to work for the answer to our daily prayers, to see the values of the kingdom lived out in our nation as they are in heaven, to continue the work of peacemaking, of reconciliation that was the focus of Jesus’ life. This is what it means for us to be his disciples, to take up our cross and follow him. (See Mark 8:34)

Yet, Christians in Ireland are known for the exact opposite of this. We are known for our division, our refusal to come together, our lack of unity. We are known, primarily, for our sectarianism.

Surely, any honest gaze at what Jesus’ life and death was all about, simply highlights and emphasises the utter incongruity of such a thing as this existing within any Christian community, in any location in the world – including the Presbyterian Church in Ireland? For those called to a ministry of peacemaking and reconciliation, arrogance or judgementalism, never mind prejudice or hatred towards any other grouping, faith or racial, is simply unthinkable. It is a complete denial of who we are in Christ. If we are to love our enemies, who is there that we are not called to love? If, on the cross, Jesus could pray for those who had betrayed, condemned, beaten and crucified him, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ who is there that we can refuse to pray that prayer for? And yet, what has been our reality? Is there not a widespread sickness in Irish spirituality that not only has, but continues to lead people to believe they can, indeed, claim to love God while being filled with anger and hostility towards those in the ‘other’ camp? Don’t we look with arrogance and judgement towards other denominational groupings? Don’t we have the reputation of being self-righteous and condemning towards those outside the church? When our spirituality is referenced around the globe, isn’t it often in connection to bigotry?

Over and over again we have all witnessed this sickness express itself around us. It has led communities of those called to be peacemakers to be known instead for their hostility. It has led those accepted and made right with God by his astonishing grace to be known for their refusal of acceptance, their lack of grace towards others. Ironically, it has even convinced many to embrace its corruption for the sake of so-called theological correctness, for the sake of defending the faith! How our real enemy must laugh at that! Most of us have even heard its expression through our own thoughts and words. And all this before a watching world to whom we claim to be bearing witness to the ‘truth’ of the Gospel in Jesus’ name! Little wonder our churches are in decline. Little wonder our witness has been so ineffective and our impact on society so slight!

Sectarianism is a toxic yeast, it is an infection that has not only robbed countless numbers of our churches of authentic community within and effective witness without, it has tragically robbed a great many in our churches of knowing the joy of the Gospel. We simply cannot, nor will ever, experience the joy of God’s mercy and forgiveness for us while we are denying these things to others. If we would know God’s grace we must embody it. If we would know reconciliation we must live it. If we would taste and feel God’s embrace, we must offer it freely to others. To think otherwise is foolishness!

Yet, surely there is still hope for us. The Gospel remains the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, even those of us who have been tainted by sectarianism. We can expel this intruder. We can remove this yeast. Already the vast majority of us are agreed that Christianity is not about people becoming Presbyterians, Baptists, or even Protestants. Already, we are agreed that we are not saved by grace through faith and by not being a catholic, a nationalist or anything else. Already we are agreed that there is only one JC to whom we must give our lives and it is not John Calvin! We need only to determine to live out this agreement and not be frightened into compromise any longer by those who do not yet comprehend the full import of God’s amazing good news.

Let’s not pretend, though. It will take great courage and determination for us to face this corruption down – both in ourselves and in our churches. To live in the way that brought reconciliation cost Jesus his reputation, his comfort, his very life. Breaking the world’s cycle of alienation and hostility meant, for him, the way of the cross. Breaking our nation’s, and even our church’s, cycle of alienation and hostility will mean the same way for us. Yet, what else can we do as those who have now been entrusted with this same ministry of reconciliation? What else can we do if we ever again want the good news of the Gospel to be widely comprehended in our land?

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