THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION
2 Corinthians 5:17-20 

Coventry Cathedral in Coventry, England is one of the most unique church buildings in the world.  It’s actually two church buildings linked together, a medieval cathedral built out of local sandstone in the 13th and 14th centuries, and a modern cathedral completed in 1962.  The reason there are two church buildings today is that the first cathedral was destroyed during the Luftwaffe blitz of England in the Second World War.  On November 14, 1940, German warplanes bombed the cathedral, along with the rest of Coventry, setting the ancient oak roof on fire, and shattering the beautiful stained glass windows.  Only the church Tower and Spire, almost 300 feet tall, escaped destruction.

The morning after the bombing the people of the church gathered to survey the damage.  They were heartbroken.  Their once-beautiful seven-hundred year old church was in ruins.  The roof and windows lay strewn and smoldering on the cathedral floor.  Some of the exterior walls were still standing, along with the Tower and Spire, but the carved wooden pulpit and all the other contents were reduced to ashes and rubble.  In the midst of the devastation, the cathedral stonemason noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen into the shape of a cross.  He set them up in the ruins, where they were later placed on an altar of rubble.  Then a local priest found three medieval nails that had been used in the roof, and he fashioned a cross out of those three charred nails.  The cross of burned timbers and the cross of nails were signs of hope.  A decision was made that morning, after the devastation of the night before, to rebuild the cathedral.  England was then engaged in a life-or-death struggle against Adolph Hitler and the mighty forces of Nazi Germany, in a war that would last another five years.  But even then, at the outset of the war, with the nightly bombings continuing to devastate their homeland, the Provost of the Cathedral began to lead the people away from bitterness and hatred toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

Eleven years after the end of the war, in 1956, Queen Elizabeth laid the foundation stone for a new cathedral at Coventry.  But instead of demolishing the ruins of the old cathedral, a decision was made to incorporate the ruins into the new structure.  The new cathedral would rise adjacent to the ruins, physically connected to the old sandstone walls by means of a portico that would tie the two structures together.  It took six years to complete, but in 1962, twenty-two years after the old cathedral was destroyed, the new cathedral was consecrated, with the old cathedral remaining alongside as hallowed ground. 

When Michele and Mark Miles and Linda and I toured Coventry Cathedral a few weeks ago I was struck by the parallels between that church and our own.  Our church building also was destroyed by fire, not from enemy bombardments, but from some electrical wiring malfunction.  The morning after the fire I remarked to several people that it looked like a bomb had been dropped on our church.  Although the building was destroyed, like Coventry, some of the brick walls remained standing after the fire was extinguished.    

There was another parallel.  Knowing nothing at the time about Coventry, I took a couple of charred timbers from the old roof of our church building and put them together to form a cross.  On Good Friday that charred cross stood in the ruins of the church building, and it remained on the slab for several months after the fire.  Katie Smith took a picture of the charred cross that hangs in my office.  Like the people of Coventry, the people of Village made a decision to rebuild, almost immediately after the fire.  And we made a decision to rebuild on this site, incorporating the old church into the new building by reusing much of the original foundation and some of the exterior brick walls, as well as repairing and reinstalling the stained glass window from the old sanctuary.  The more I learned about the history of the Coventry Cathedral, the more I found parallels with our own church history.

But what inspired me most about Coventry was not just the new cathedral, but the new mission and ministry of the church at Coventry.  I mentioned that the Provost began to lead the people away from their feelings of hatred and bitterness, even while the war was raging and the church lay in ruins.  When that cross was fashioned from the charred timbers and set upon the rubble altar, these words were inscribed on the sanctuary wall, “Father, forgive.”  Already the people of Coventry were asking God to forgive those who created such devastation.  Long before the new cathedral was built, the cross of nails became a symbol for Coventry’s ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation.  Even during the dark days of World War II the people of Coventry made a commitment not to seek revenge, but to seek reconciliation with their enemies.  

Today at Coventry there is not just a magnificent church building standing alongside the ruins of the old church, but there is also an International Centre for Reconciliation.  The International Centre for Reconciliation works for peace in some of the world’s worst areas of conflict.  The Center works to reduce religious tensions around the world, and to find peaceful solutions to age-old animosities.  Today there is an international network of peacemakers, known as the Community of the Cross of Nails, with local organizations in 60 countries, including the U.S., all committed to reconciliation.  The cross of nails has become a symbol for peacemaking and reconciliation.  In South Africa, Cross of Nails Centres have worked to reconcile races and heal the wounds and painful memories of apartheid.  In Nigeria and Burundi, Cross of Nails workers seek to reduce intense interfaith tensions and conflicts.  In the Middle East, Centres in Israel and Palestine are promoting mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs.  In Northern Ireland Cross of Nails Centres are seeking to foster understanding between Protestants and Catholics.  In Europe there are reconciliation projects in Slovakia, Bosnia, Belarus, and Romania where ethnic and religious rivalries have a long history. 

You see, it wasn’t enough just to build a new Cathedral at Coventry.  The Christians who survived the devastation of World War II discovered a greater mission than simply constructing a new building.  They committed themselves to a ministry of reconciliation.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  It’s not enough to be reconciled to God through Christ Jesus our Lord.  We who have been reconciled to God must become reconcilers ourselves.  The call of Christ is not just to be reconciled to God, but to become instruments, and agents, and ambassadors of reconciliation to the world.  

The news is filled with a lack of reconciliation.  The various factions in Iraq were unable to agree on a new constitution by the appointed deadline and still are seeking to resolve their differences.  Age old rivalries between the Sunnis and the Shiites fuel ongoing attacks against the U.S. military and against Iraqi civilians.  How the people of Iraq need the ministry of reconciliation.  The dismantling of Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip has Israelis pitted against each other, not to mention the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The continuing specter of terrorism is a daily reminder of religious tensions and conflicts that threaten our peace.  Every time I got onto a subway train in London ten days ago, I noticed all the people with backpacks and suitcases and bags big enough to carry explosives.  How we need the ministry of reconciliation in our world today!

God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  And we who are in Christ are called to a ministry of reconciliation.  We are called to an active ministry of helping and healing a sin-sick world.  We are called to seek peace in the midst of tumult, to work for harmony in the midst of chaos, to practice love and forgiveness in a world that too often lives by hatred and revenge.  Most of all we are called to share the love of Christ and the peace that only he can bring.

Off to one side of the main cathedral in Coventry is a smaller star-shaped room called the Chapel of Unity.  The windows in the Chapel were donated by evangelical churches in Germany as a gesture of reconciliation.  Beneath the central glass altar of the chapel is a mosaic of the dove of peace.  Around the circumference of the room are discs on the floor representing all the inhabited continents of the earth.  Our guide pointed out to us that the floor is actually saucer-shaped, sloped toward the center, so that round objects will roll toward the center when placed on the floor.  As we stood on different continents, she gave each of us a golf ball, and we placed our balls on the floor and they all rolled to the dove of peace.  It was a graphic symbol of the hope that one day all nations will come together in peace.

The Coventry Cathedral is a beautiful place, but I saw perhaps the most moving example of reconciliation at lunchtime in the basement.  Downstairs, next to an underground chapel, there is a small café run by the Cathedral, offering sandwiches, pastries, and hot lunches to visitors and employees.  We placed our orders at the counter, then found seats at a table and waited for our food to be brought out to us.  While we were waiting, I noticed that some of the servers bringing the food from the kitchen to the dining room appeared to be mentally challenged.  One young lady, in particular, seemed to relish calling out the number of the order so that the appropriate customers could identify themselves and be served.  Apparently this young woman had been instructed to call out the order number in a loud voice so that she could be heard, and this mentally challenged woman had learned her lesson well.  When she came out of the kitchen with a plate of food, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “number 21, number 22,” or whatever the order number might have been.  It would have been impossible not to hear her, so loudly did she proclaim the number.  I got a chuckle watching another customer cringe every time this server shouted out another number.  Not just this one woman, but at least three of the servers appeared to have Downs Syndrome, or some other developmental disability.  Yet, there were all extremely conscientious and diligent in fulfilling their duties.  I don’t think it was just coincidence that so many of the wait staff had mental disabilities.  I think it was a deliberate decision to hire workers that otherwise would likely be unemployed.  It was a simple yet specific and meaningful expression of the Cathedral’s ministry of reconciliation.

Last Tuesday, another champion of reconciliation, Brother Roger, founder of the Taize community, was stabbed to death by a deranged woman during a worship service in the Church of Reconciliation in Taize, France.  His tragic death was a sad reminder that making peace is never easy.  The ministry of reconciliation is costly—it requires mercy and forgiveness and self-sacrifice and love.  But isn’t that what Jesus was about?  God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  And we who are in Christ must be about reconciliation too.

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
August 21, 2005

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