(Appeared first in November 2010, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
When I read the Gospels, it’s easy to see that Jesus’ followers didn’t always agree and disagree in love. As Jesus walked the dusty roads with his disciples, he heard them talk about who was the greatest and saw occasional flashes of anger. Perhaps on occasion, the “sons of thunder” blasted a companion on the journey with a lightning-quick retort that stung to the heart.
Because the disciples didn’t always get along, Jesus spoke of the need for forgiveness, turning the other cheek and reconciliation. In an appeal to keep first things first, Jesus instructed them to first seek reconciliation with others, then offer their oblations to God.
As I reflect on Jesus’ instruction, I wonder why Jesus assigned such urgency to the task of reconciliation. Didn’t he realize that relationships are often messy? Didn’t he recognize that reconciliation can be a long drawn-out process? If everyone would take Jesus seriously, temple gifts could soon accumulate in piles around the altar, awaiting the day when estranged parties came to agreement.
Jesus surely knew that reconciliation is messy. It takes concerted effort and always awaits someone who is willing to take the first step. Jesus knew that if his disciples blamed others for their relational problems, or waited for someone else to make all the changes one desired, reconciliation would remain a distant or impossible goal. He knew that we can’t change other people, but we can change the way we relate to them. We can make sure we treat others as we would want to be treated.
Jesus knew that true worship has a way of bringing broken relationships to mind. Like sunbeams on the forest floor, God’s Spirit can shed light on the anger and resentments hidden in the shadows of our lives.
In his instructions to his disciples about faith that could move mountains, Jesus spoke of forgiveness. “And when you stand praying,” Jesus said, “if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins” (Mark 11:25). Surely the flow of the Spirit is blocked by unforgiveness. Withholding forgiveness can block the flow of our prayers.
Jesus made it clear that forgiveness need not be mutual to be effective. Forgiveness can be a unilateral move, offered to the offender without needing to agree on the nature of the wrong. It could help move at least one party move toward reconciliation, a gift of grace that requires an agreement from both estranged parties.
As Christians who long for peace, we do well to take Jesus’ teaching to heart. When we worship God with honesty and openness, the Spirit may nudge us about a relationship that needs to be reconciled. At times like these, we can begin with a prayer of forgiveness, releasing our brother or sister from our judgment. This act of release frees the Holy Spirit to pave the way for reconciliation through the grace of God.
At the convention in Pittsburgh next July, we will study 2 Corinthians 5:16-20. In this theme passage, the Apostle Paul speaks eloquently of the ministry of reconciliation. We have been reconciled to God, Paul declares, and he has given us the ministry of reconciliation. A church that is full of resentments and anger blocks the path of reconciliation to God.
That’s why Jesus taught the importance of keeping first things first. When an offense has separated a brother or sister from you, first go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.