The Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen wrote in the 1970’s, “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear or do harm.” Perhaps we would agree that, at least where Nouwen’s observations are concerned, things haven’t improved in the last forty years; in fact, it would be easy to argue that they’ve gotten worse. So what Nouwen insisted then is all the more important for us to hear today: that one of the primary spiritual needs of our society is to “convert” hostility into hospitality, to turn “the enemy into a guest.” He wrote:
When hostility is converted into hospitality, then fearful strangers can become guests… [and] guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to others… The term hospitality, therefore, should not be limited to its literal sense of receiving a stranger in our house, but as a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being, which can be expressed in a great variety of ways.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians saying, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view,” because “anyone who is in Christ is a new creation,” and “all this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Having “entrusted the message of reconciliation to us,” God has made us “ambassadors for Christ;” that is, God is “making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:16-20). The second point of our congregation’s new vision statement is, “The New Wilmington Presbyterian Church seeks reconciliation in Christ,” because we acknowledge that how we treat our neighbor matters.
But more than this, our inner attitude toward our neighbor matters. If we’ve learned anything from the Sermon on the Mount (and if you’re not familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, I invite you to reach back into the archives of this blog, and read through it with me), it’s that Jesus’ primary concern is not merely that we treat others well — hard enough for us to do, as it is — but that we treat others well for the right reasons. If discipleship is about following Jesus, being his student, growing in spiritual maturity and using Jesus as our yardstick stick, then participating in the ministry of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us means seeking reconciliation in the same manner that Jesus himself sought reconciliation. We all acknowledge — rather humbly, perhaps, when we compare his actions to ours — that Jesus was loathe to turn people away: even the people polite society expected him to turn away. He ate with tax collectors; he conversed with Samaritan women in public; once, he even graciously accepted a rub down from a known prostitute while reclining at the table of a learned Pharisee! We acknowledge these things… but how often do we ask ourselves why? Why did Jesus treat with outcasts, touch lepers, converse with women, teach gentiles, heal slaves, forgive those who crucified him? Paul explains that “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (5:19). It is very precisely that ministry — the ministry of reconciliation — that has now been entrusted to us. And such ministry is lived out through not only acts of hospitality but, as Nouwen described it, “a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being, which can be expressed in a great variety of ways.”
There is another reason why Christ — and we, his wayward but determined disciples — participate in God’s ministry of reconciliation. And it may be found in this post’s reading from the book of Genesis. The story of Jacob and Esau is well-known to many of us, but perhaps not to everyone. Jacob and Esau were twin brothers. Esau, the older of the two by, presumably, a few minutes, was a hunter, and depicted in scripture as being rather guileless. Jacob, the younger brother, was a shepherd and was sly as a fox. Taking advantage of his brother’s hunger, Jacob once cheated Esau out of his birthright as the oldest brother. Later, he also conspired with his mother to steal Esau’s paternal blessing. In short, Jacob had swindled Esau’s entire inheritance and then fled in the night to another country, where he remained for nearly 15 years.
The story we read for this post is the first time Jacob has seen Esau since the day he scammed him and ran. Jacob has grown up since then. He worked for fourteen years for his task-master of a father-in-law, married twice, and had twelve sons. He’d had profound spiritual experiences, one of which left him with a permanent limp as a reminder of how he had spent his adult life wrestling with God. He had made himself wealthy and was returning home wizened. But then he heard that his brother Esau, accompanied by a large company of men, was coming to meet him along the way. Jacob was rightfully scared half to death.
“Now Jacob looked up,” the narrator said, “and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him” (Gen. 33:1). He arranged his people (his family members, his servants, and an extravagant gift that he hoped would buy his brother’s good favor), and then stepped forward to meet his older brother. “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (33:4). Esau was not inclined to accept Jacob’s gift, being wealthy himself, and being much happier to see Jacob than Jacob had anticipated. But Jacob insisted, saying, “if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10).
Like the story of the next generation — Joseph and his brothers — the story of Jacob and Esau comes to its climax with the reconciliation of brothers who had been feuding. The story promotes what the book of Genesis always seems to promote: reconciliation rather than violence when conflicts arise. When Genesis was written, the characters did not merely represent historical figures, but also the people groups of which they were ancestors or founders. Jacob, then, symbolized Israel, and Esau symbolized Edom, Israel’s near neighbor. So this story is not just about the reconciliation of two brothers but exhorts its Israelite readers to seek reconciliation with Edom rather than retaliation. In both this story and in the story of Joseph and his brothers, the injured party has good reason to want revenge, has the power to get his revenge, but makes a decision for reconciliation and peace instead.
In the twentieth century, writes Diana Butler Bass in her new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, Jewish theologian Martin Buber explained that most arenas of human activity — politics, economics, and education — actually alienate us because they treat human beings as objects. Modern culture has trained us to distance ourselves from one another, seeing others and the world itself as something to be observed, examined, and critiqued. Essentially, we view everyone and everything as a problem to be fixed. When we know others only as objects, what Buber called the “I-it” relationship, it precludes the possibility of community. There is, however, an alternative. If we encounter our neighbors with empathy, remembering that others are subjects [not objects], we can enter into an “I-thou” relationship. Seeing others as “thou” opens the possibility of real affection and mutual responsibility. True neighborliness can be described as being mutual subjects, acting toward one another with respect and understanding. Buber said that modern society is an “it” world. But he also claimed that a “thou” world, of connection and compassion, was the only path toward a healthy human future.
Martin Buber’s theological premise is that people are not merely abstractions; they are people. That is what the word “fellowship” means: it means that people are of a kind. And that “kind” is people. They’re not racial groups; they’re not political parties; they’re not demographic analyses; they’re not generations; they’re not social trends; they’re not skittles in a bowl; they’re not religious monoliths. They’re people; people for whom Christ lived and died; people reconciled to God in Christ; people for whom the ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us. Upon being reconciled to his brother, Jacob exclaimed, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
That is what the ministry of reconciliation is all about: seeing — and helping others to see — one another as people created in God’s own image for God’s good pleasure. That’s what Jesus saw in a woman as she drew water from a well in Samaria. It’s what he saw in Zaccheus, the tax collector and embezzler. It’s what he saw in Nicodemus who, although a dignitary of the Pharisee party, came to Jesus by night, seeking wisdom. It’s what he saw in Peter, who denied him. It’s what he saw in Judas, who betrayed him. It’s what he sees in you, and in me, gathered around his table at his invitation. We come to the feast, which he has prepared, having been utterly, completely, and irrevocably reconciled to God in Christ. We come to the feast and sit at one table, behold one another, and exclaim, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God!”
 Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Image, 1975), 46-48, cited by Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution (San Francisco: Harper One, 2015), 219-220.