There is a beautiful story told about the English nineteenth-century landscape painter John Constable. John loved painting the idyllic countryside of East Anglia, and he also loved his many children. His oldest son, also called John, kept a diary, and he writes about one particular day which he would never forget.
There was to be a special exhibition of his father’s new works, and critics from far and wide came to their home in the Suffolk countryside to see the new paintings. The highlight of the day was the unveiling of a very large canvas, and it was hidden behind a curtain. The great moment came. Everyone was very excited, and Constable walked up to the curtain and pulled the cord, and the new painting was unveiled. But there was a groan and shocked intake of breath, because right across the canvas, from top to bottom, was a great tear.
Slowly everyone departed, and Constable was left with his wife and children, staring at the torn work of art. All his children were there, except John. Later that evening young John returned home, looking very frightened and guilty. His father asked him, “John, did you do this?” He replied, “Yes.” What happened next is something the young John would never forget. His father looked at him and said these gracious words, “How shall we mend it my dear?”
Our world is a beautiful work of art – God’s gift to us. And yet we know that God’s beautiful canvas has been torn from top to bottom. Our greed has plundered the land and damaged the environment. Our wars continue to maim and kill. Our sin has broken and scarred our relationships with one another, broken up families, divided people of different cultures, races, and beliefs. Our world is torn and divided violently at every level.
This terrible process is described in the New Testament as the work of diabolos (the devil). That Greek word, diabolos, literally means “the one who throws apart.” The essential work of diabolos is to divide, to break up that which was one. John Constable’s son expected and deserved to be punished – and we deserve to be punished for our sinful share in tearing God’s creation, for spoiling God’s beautiful canvas. But Constable spoke instead these gracious words! “How shall we mend it my dear?”
And God, instead of punishing us, so loved us that he sent Jesus into the world to save us from tearing ourselves apart. If the work of diabolos is to divide and separate, the work of Jesus is to reconcile. When Jesus died on the cross with his arms outstretched, he was forgiving the sins of the world, he was mending a broken world, bringing God and humankind together again. Theologically, that is called “atonement,” “at – one – ment.” Jesus came for this purpose. By forgiving our sins on the cross, Jesus mended that which was broken. Or, as St. Paul puts it more theologically in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.”
For many centuries theologians have grappled with the question of exactly how God reconciled us through the death of Jesus on the cross. There are many answers, what are known as “models of the atonement”: ways to try to explain what is ultimately a great mystery. What we can say with great confidence, is that the atonement expresses just how much God loves us. Rather than wanting to punish us, God so loves us that he gave us his Son “not to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
This is very good news! The work of diabolos, the great divider, has been defeated once and for all by the great reconciler, Jesus Christ, through the cross. But the work of reconciliation carries on! “How shall we mend it my dear?” Constable said to his son. And St. Paul in his Second letter to the Corinthians states, “God has given to us the ministry of reconciliation.” Each one of us has been called to share with God in the work of reconciliation, of mending a broken world.
In our baptism we were each marked with the sign of the cross – the sign of atonement, of reconciliation – and in our baptismal covenant we promise to share in the work of reconciliation, the work of mending. Christianity is really all about mending. That is what redemption means: mending something which is broken. Every Christian is called to share with God in mending that which is broken: mending our relationship with God, with one another, and mending the torn canvas of God’s broken world.
So the cross is the place of hope and new life. However broken and torn our lives and our world may be, we never lose heart, but we look to the cross, for there, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.”