In 1896 the Presbyterian Church in Canada opened a day school in Ahousaht on Flores Island off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The school was classified as a residential school in 1903 and remained under the care of the PCC until 1925 when it was transferred to the care of the United Church of Canada. In 2021 funding was set aside to assist in exploring any unmarked graves on the site of the former school. It is important to know that the Presbyterian Church in Canada has clear records of at least 13 children who died in the care of that school from 1903-1913. In my capacity as moderator of the Presbytery of Vancouver Island I have been asked to participate in some listening exercises with residence of Ahousaht and the Nuu-cha-nulth band. Ever since I studied pre-contact North American archaeology for my undergraduate degree, reconciliation has been a part of my life. Having attended the Truth and Reconciliation commission when it came to Victoria I know the importance of listening, rather than speaking, at a time like this. Yet, reconciliation is one of those words that is easy to say and difficult to emulate. It is a challenge to listen to the stories, as a preacher I am used to doing all the talking, but on this matter it is not about speaking but listening. It is about taking one small step towards reconciliation. But what is reconciliation, really?
The word reconciliation is one of those words that we tend to use a lot- often in reference to the reconciling work of Jesus Christ as he suffered and died on the cross- and more importantly rose again. But what does that all really mean? Even I would have different answers for you on different days. Sometimes it is about the fall of humanity- and how God, through Christ, reconciled us back into a relationship with God. Sometimes it is about, grace- and how God has granted us grace so that we are consistently being reconciled. Sometimes, it is more of an accounting term, reconciling beliefs with actions. How do we balance our understanding of Jesus reconciling us to God within the context of reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters? Well, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians might help us in this matter.
You’ve heard me say it before, the church in Corinth really liked to push Paul’s buttons, test his patience, and give him a real run for his money. The two letters we have from Paul clearly demonstrate that as soon as Paul solved one problem, three more would pop up. We don’t have the correspondence from the church in Corinth but we know by his response that Paul is responding to a letter that critiqued his leadership. They accused him of inconsistencies (which, if I’m honest, they aren’t wrong in that regard). They questioned his motives and they challenged his authority. They pushed back- and yet, Paul’s response, while a defence of his leadership, is also some of his best writing. It is thanks to the letters to the Corinthians that we have beautiful passages like “there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit.” or “Love is patient, love is kind, etc” or the imagery of holding a treasure in clay jars. We also have challenging passages like if a woman prays she should wear a head covering, or the testing of generosity. Today some of that beautiful and challenging writing is in full view and I think this was Paul’s way of tackling the theology of reconciliation as well as starting fresh with the Corinthians.
Eugene Petersen’s version of this passage is so concise and beautiful that I feel the need to share most of this paraphrase with you, verses 16-18 go, “Our firm decision is to work from this focused centre: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationship with each other. Become friends with God; God is already friends with you. ” Verse 21 concludes, “How you ask? In Christ. God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.”
You see, based on Paul’s letters we can tell that the Corinthian community was obsessed with hierarchy- this is clear by the way they challenge Paul’s authority. Within this system was also a practice of exclusion or superiority. So, Paul’s words were a major challenge to them. How could they control who became part of the worshipping community if everyone was equal? How could they demonstrate a level of knowing what was right for their community when the community was beneath them? Paul’s words are not only about a new creation but being equal in God’s love. Equality is still a challenge.
In the NRSV translation of this passage it begins, “From now on, therefore,” which I think is a very important piece to reconciliation. Within Paul’s context what he is saying is from this point onward- things are different. Christ’s love and dying changed everything- which means we can no longer see ourselves as we did before- we can no longer work within the realms of this earthly hierarchy, we can no longer claim to be superior or think we know better. As author Wendy Lloyd puts it, “We no longer view others in human terms but through the eyes of God’s love for them. We can no longer see ourselves as we once did, but through the gaze of God’s love. This changes everything.”
You know the word reconcile or reconciliation appears five times in six verses. Paul is hammering it home that the outcome of this changed relationship is reconciliation. And that’s important to note too, reconciliation does not happen before the changed relationship; it is a result of the changed relationship. This has been important for me to realize as I come to the table to listen to stories from residential school and inter-generational survivors. Sure, we could say, look it was years ago, get over it, how many times do we have to say we’re sorry- but that is not demonstrative of a changed relationship- one that works toward reconciliation. I also thought that since I had the desire to work towards reconciliation that, that is where we would start. But the truth is, we have to build a relationship first- equal, humble, loving relationships and then reconciliation can take place. Quite honestly, that shouldn’t have surprised me because that’s how Jesus worked too. Jesus became human first- lived like us, emoted like us, preached about equality, lived humbly, and demonstrated love for all so that he could experience death and only after all that could reconciliation take place through his rising.
Paul’s words to the church in Corinth likely challenged the congregation- but it was also a challenge to the Roman world- a society that liked to differentiate between race, gender and class. But here Paul says, “oh no, we are not to be defined or separated in this way, but as benefactors of love we are to witness to this changed life, no matter who you are.” As a result we are ambassadors for Christ- and it is clear that the church has not always gotten that right. We have abused that privileged of being an ambassador. But Paul is also insisting that God reconciles us for ministry- we could take that to mean we are superior, that because we have accepted the Good news of the Gospel that we know what’s best for everyone else, but I don’t think Paul meant it that way or at least didn’t expect it to be manifested in things like residential schools.
We are mid-way through Lent. We have spent time talking about the relationship between God’s people and the wilderness. We have talked about how the wilderness is a place where God not only teaches lessons but makes promises. Last week it was about growth through repentance and grace in the wilderness- and that we don’t really know how the story ends, but we do know how the story of Easter ends. I don’t think our story of reconciliation will ever end but I do pray that we can be united as God’s beloved children because every child matters and right now we have some communities who are suffering and our focus should be on building relationships with them. Amen