Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.
I recently heard the story behind the Oscar-winning short documentary this year. The film, entitled “A Girl in the River” tells the story of a young woman named Saba. When she was 18, Saba fell in love with a young man and decided to get married. When her family forbade her, believing the man to be too poor, she defied them and eloped with her lover.
I sorely wish that we couldn’t all guess what comes next, but the truth is horrifying. Her father and her uncle, believing their family disgraced by her decision, took Saba, shot her in the head, tied her in a bag, and threw her in the river. They did this to preserve their family’s honor.
But somehow, Saba survives. She escapes the fate of an estimated 1000 young women and girls who are killed for honor every year in Pakistan, and finds her way to a hospital, where they are able to save her life.
But there is more to this story. While Saba is initially able to hold her father and uncle accountable—they are accused and placed in prison for what they have done—ultimately Saba is faced with intense community pressure to pardon them. Despite saying that she will never forgive them in her heart, Saba is forced to offer public forgiveness, which frees her uncle and father and lets them return home, where they triumphantly declare that they are more respected than ever, and that, remarkably, they have forgiven HER for putting them in the position in the first place.
I am telling you this story because of two words: Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Sometimes it can seem as though these two words mean the same thing. And I think that this documentary, even with its coerced, forced definition of forgiveness, reminds us that forgiveness and reconciliation may be related, but doing one is not the same as doing the other.
So what’s the difference?
I think we often imagine forgiveness as something like the picture to the left. It is most often solitary work. It is the act of letting go of something, of pardoning an offense. When it is genuine, forgiveness can be incredibly personally healing. It can allow us to move forward from a place of great pain. But ultimately, forgiveness is an interior process. It is for you.
Forgiveness is what happens in Luke 15 when the father races out to gather his wayward son in his arms. He chooses to let go of his anger, and to set aside the past, and in doing so he is free to embrace his child. In our reformed tradition, we sometimes say that it forgiveness is such a soul-shift that it is possible only by the grace of God. It is something accomplished in us by God’s power.
Saba’s story, however, reminds us that there is a shadow side to forgiveness that is purely individual–that when this kind of forgiveness is all that is required for healing, forgiveness can be coerced. People can find themselves under enormous pressure to “forgive and forget,” as the saying goes, because it is far easier to force one person to relent than it is to make a community change. Forgiveness, then, can become cheap amnesty for an offender, who can simply wait for his or her accuser to grow weary, or frightened, or traumatized by the process. This version of forgiveness can look, at its worst, like emotional blackmail. This sort of forgiveness is not forgiveness at all.
So that is forgiveness. What about reconciliation?
Take a look at the picture again and imagine for a second with me—what if there was someone else on the other side of the wall? Imagine—what would it be like to know that there is someone else swinging the hammer, someone else sharing the load, removing the barrier that divides you?
That is what reconciliation looks like. It looks like hammering at a wall, knowing that the other party is hard at work as well. It is a deeply relational, and therefore outward process. It is the business of repairing the damage that has been done to a relationship or relationships. Reconciliation is what happens when people—those who have been wronged, and those who have offended—come together to pick up the rubble of what was and see what might be built in its place. Reconciliation can only happen when the community joins together.
In the words of Lewis Smedes: It takes one person to forgive; it takes two persons to be reunited.
What can this look like in the real world? One of the most famous cases of public reconciliation is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. Following years of apartheid, the entire country committed to a difficult and at times painful process of reconciliation. The commission, headed by Desmond Tutu, sought to bring healing to a broken community. It began with detailed, exhaustive research of the crimes. It continued with honest, unflinching testimony. It did not require forgiveness. Victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and perpetrators could give testimony and request amnesty. The conditions for amnesty were: that the crimes were politically motivated, proportionate, and there was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty. Nobody knew if it would work—but somehow, it did. Society healed. Communities came together. South Africa moved forward. Reconciliation.
We also see reconciliation, albeit of a different sort, at work in our Scripture today. In this case, the situation is a bit different—there is no obvious conflict. But in Acts 11, there is a problem: gentiles want to follow Jesus. In fact, they are like moths to a flame. This may not seem like a problem to you, but you must remember that the early church was a decidedly Jewish one. And so, when Gentiles begin asking to be baptized, Jewish Christians don’t know what to do about it. For a while they ignore the problem, perhaps wondering whether it might go away.
But then things get more complicated—gentiles start having visions, and reaching out to the apostles. And in our story today, the apostle Peter starts having visions too, and God starts telling him things that he never expected to hear—that gentiles are part of God’s plan. Gentiles even start experiencing the Holy Spirit, a classic sign in the early church that God is present, that something important is happening. This problem can no longer be ignored.
And in our Scripture this morning, Peter struggles. He is at a loss for what to do, even when his mind is filled with visions. God’s plan is just so different from everything he imagined. But ultimately, he takes what he has seen, what the disciples have experienced, back to Jerusalem.
It isn’t easy for him. Peter is greeted upon his arrival with criticism—“what are you doing with those people,” the church in Jerusalm asks. And so Peter explains all that has happened. Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he lays out the facts as honestly and transparently as he can. He shares what he has seen, and he brings witnesses to confirm it.
And it is in that circle of trust that the church in Jerusalem finds itself in a new place: affirming that God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Which is their way of saying that God has broken down the dividing wall that formerly existed between Jews and Gentiles. It is a new day.
Reconciliation. It is what happens when insiders and outsiders, victims and offenders, sinners and saints, set down their weapons and reach out to one another. It is what happens when different people become ONE PEOPLE. A BODY. The body of Christ.
And when they do, the Body flourishes. Like the promise of Isaiah 43, God’s love is revealed. A reconciled world looks like Isaiah’s powerful vision, where the people can trust that God is with them, no matter what happens, because God has restored and reconciled them before. Reconciliation looks like new doors that open, and new directions to journey. New life springing from the rubble where the wall once stood.
Because love and reconciliation, at the end of the day, aren’t all that different. We seek reconciliation because we desire love, because we as created beings desire relationship with one another. And we who crave relationship must be willing to put in the work of reconciliation if we are to reap the harvest of love, peace, and justice.
Ultimately, reconciliation is a gift that we can only give or receive in community. In fact it is God’s gift FOR community, an affirmation of Immanuel, God with us.
It is what it looks like when everyone wins. And it is something that we choose to do every day, by choosing relationship over isolation, choosing community over “my way.” It bears fruit as we find God along the pathway.
As we march ever closer to the cross, I invite you: Seek the way of God, which tears down walls and reaches across dividing lines. Follow Jesus, who broke the barrier between life and death, and find freedom in God’s embrace. For the road is narrow which leads to life, but it is paved in the peace, justice, and reconciliation of God.