Fruits of Hospitality: Reconciliation – Rev. Henry Brinton

Fruits of Hospitality: Reconciliation

October 7, 2012

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Berlin is a bustling 21st-century German city, but the scars of a violent past can be seen all around. When Nancy and I visited three years ago, we checked into a modern center-city hotel, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever stayed in. I was glad it was being paid for by my sabbatical grant — the cost was way above my normal budget!

Looking out the window of our room, we saw the spire of a church badly damaged in an Allied bombing raid in 1943 and left in partial ruins as a reminder of the war. A shack in the middle of the road marks the location of Checkpoint Charlie, the most well-known crossing in the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. And a span of the wall still stands across the street from the office of an uncommon Christian community, Reconciliation Parish. Church members recently built The Chapel of Reconciliation in the Death Strip that used to separate East Berlin from West Berlin.

Berlin is still a city in need of reconciliation. And so is Fairfax.

For the past few weeks, my sermons have focused on the roots of Christian hospitality, and this material has been a review for some of you. Today, we enter new territory: The fruits of hospitality. The first of these is reconciliation, a word which means the reestablishment of friendship. This fruit is connected to the Christian belief that God was in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self, and giving us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16–21).

Today, we are going to explore how to be a church that continues Christ’s ministry of reconciliation as we welcome people, eat, and talk together. We are challenged to open our building for community discussions, build bridges with outsiders, host meals for the homeless, and focus on reconciliation in small-group discussions.

But first, let me tell you about Berlin. The morning after our arrival, I take a cab to Bernauer Street for a meeting with a Lutheran pastor named Manfred Fischer. He has served Reconciliation Parish since 1975. I arrive a few minutes early and walk along a section of the wall built by the East German government to seal off West Berlin.

The Berlin Wall was actually two walls that paralleled one another and were separated by the heavily patrolled Death Strip, designed to keep residents of East Germany from fleeing to the West. The path walked by East German guards is still in place, but it now leads to The Chapel of Reconciliation. It is an elegantly simple structure that sits at Ground Zero of the struggle between Soviet Communism and Western Democracy.

I cross the street and enter the parish house that has been the gathering place for Reconciliation Parish since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. Manfred Fischer tells me that during the Second World War, some people in the parish supported Hitler while others did not. The unity of the parish was barely preserved, and two of the clergy who spoke against the Nazis were put under house arrest and transferred to remote villages.

When the war ended, the parish was rocked again by the invasion of the Soviets, the division of the city by the Berlin Wall, and the destruction of their church building by the East Germans. When the wall fell, they built a small chapel in the Death Strip between East and West — a chapel dedicated to making peace, to reconciliation. It is a beautiful expression of Christian hospitality, open to hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

But reconciliation is about relationships, not just buildings, so a significant part of the church’s work has been to bring former enemies into dialogue with one another. Reconciliation Parish has hosted conversations between former members of the East German Secret Police and their victims. Pastor Manfred Fischer has found that “victims are keen to forgive, and willing.” But first there needs to be an honest and open word, such as “I am sorry. I acted in a wrong way.”

Manfred knows that there can be no reconciliation — with God or with other people — without an honest and open word. Establishing new and peaceful relationships is best done through conversation, confession, and forgiveness in a safe and hospitable Christian community — one that is grounded in the reconciling work of God.

So how can we do this? The apostle Paul offers some insight into God’s work of reconciliation in his Second Letter to the Corinthians when he says: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). New Testament scholar Richard Hays says that the interesting thing about the word “reconciliation” is that it is not typically a religious term. “Rather, it is a word drawn from the sphere of politics; it refers to dispute resolution. So one could speak of the diplomatic reconciliation of warring nations or, in the sphere of personal relationships, the reconciliation of an estranged husband and wife.”

This work of reconciliation has been started by God in Christ, and Christians are now challenged to make it visible in practices that show unity, love, mercy, and forgiveness. This is a message that the highly polarized and fractured Christian community in Corinth needed to hear, that former enemies in Germany need to hear today, and that we need to hear as well.

At Saddleback Church in California, a series of “bridge events” called Civil Forums are offered to reach the larger community and enable members to invite friends who might not otherwise come to church. In September 2009, a Civil Forum on Reconciliation featured the president of the Republic of Rwanda and a Yale theologian. They talked about the transformational power of reconciliation and how it reunited the people of Rwanda after its 1994 genocide.

In his passage on reconciliation in Second Corinthians, Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17). Paul is proclaiming the transformation of the world, notes Richard Hays, “Not just individuals. The frame of reference is cosmic and corporate.” The fruit of reconciliation is seen in the transformation of entire communities and nations.

A glimpse of this new creation was seen in South Africa in the mid-1990s, and was later documented in the motion picture Invictus. Nelson Mandela spent decades as a leading opponent of apartheid, the country’s official policy of racial segregation. In 1964 the white government had locked him up for life, but in 1990 he was released and was later elected as the nation’s first black president.

In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup Tournament. At the time rugby was a white man’s game, and the South African team was mostly white. So what did Nelson Mandela do? He showed up at a press conference wearing a rugby jersey and cap. He said, “These are our boys now. We must get behind them and support them in this tournament.” The South African team played exceptionally well and won the tournament. For 24 hours, whites danced with blacks in the streets of South Africa, and for a fleeting moment they caught a glimpse of God’s “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Welcoming congregations know that we all have a role to play in cultivating the fruit of reconciliation. When we do this work, we reach across barriers of race, class, and politics to connect with people who are different from ourselves. We believe that God’s peaceful “new creation” is marked by a network of harmonious relationships, both human and divine.

We did this at Fairfax Presbyterian when we invited Imam Yahya Luqman to come teach us about Islam. We did it again when a group of us visited the Turkish mosque in Fairfax to enjoy a fast-breaking dinner during Ramadan. A shared meal can unite people and build friendships across religious and cultural divides.

Hospitality can bridge different generations as well. Within our church, we make a point of having our youths join the senior citizens of the Golden Age Ministry for their annual afternoon of board games, and then we invite the senior citizens to attend the variety show sponsored by the youths. Along with Manfred Fisher of Reconciliation Parish in Berlin, we have discovered that “knowledge about how to live is not taught in schools, it is taught in community.” In both Germany and in the United States, important knowledge is shared when different generations are brought together.

When the fruit of true reconciliation ripens, people see each other in a new light and recognize that everyone has a role to play in a world made new by Christ’s death and resurrection. Acts of hospitality always teach us something new about ourselves, about our God, and about the people around us. I have heard from many of you that you have gained a lot of insight into homelessness by sitting down with our homeless guests during our annual week of hypothermia housing, and simply listening to the stories of their lives.

Welcoming congregations that want to enjoy the fruit of reconciliation can open themselves for community discussions, as Reconciliation Parish has done in Berlin. They can build bridges with outsiders, as Saddleback Church has done with its Civil Forums. Hospitable churches can join an interfaith group like VOICE, as we have, and develop relationships with Jews, Muslims, and fellow Christians.

All of these approaches can help us to participate in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and catch a glimpse of God’s new creation. Reconciliation Parish should not be a name attached only to a congregation in Berlin — instead, it should describe our church, as well as every church that is engaged in a ministry of hospitality.

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