Reconciliation & Atonement: How God Mended a Broken World – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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.”

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  1. Margaret Dungan on December 13, 2016 at 16:50

    I have thought about this subject for many years and my thinking is that we have put the emphasis in the wrong place, on the shedding of blood, an OT idea, there had to be a sacrifice. What Christ did by his life and by his death was to show us the way of love even if it meant his death.


  2. Ruth West on December 13, 2016 at 12:54

    Br. Geoffrey, I see this as a sermon of the gospel story in a nutshell. I thank you for the wonderful illustration of God’s love for us.
    I think that Jesus’ death on the cross is the story of our redemption, incomplete without the follow-up of the resurrection. In fact, if we reject the atonement, we might as well discard the entire New Testament. I pray that, as Christians, we dare not fall for such heresy. The Old Testament records the killing of animals as a sacrifice for their sins, from Genesis throughout. The sacrifice of Jesus embraced the New Covenant in which he shed his blood “once and for all.” I am glad he “mended the canvass” for us and bridged the gap from sin to atonement. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission for sin.” Thanks be to our Savior for taking on that task for you and me!

    • Rhode on December 16, 2016 at 09:28

      I so agree with Ruth. If we throw out atonement theology we might as well be called Deists. God did not demand this sacrifice…Jesus offered himself as ultimate proof of God’s grace and existence. His death, gruesome and horrific was the Roman norm for many condemned men. However, His resurrection is what our faith is hinged on …it is the pivotal point of my faith. If Jesus had just offered himself as a martyr he would have been one of many – as other sacrificial pagan religions required blood for blessings. He would have been remembered (maybe) as another prophet who was crucified. I am a Christian not only because I accept Christ died for my sins but moreso because he conquered death and proved once and for all that the conquering supernatural spiritual life He claimed to be real is very real and divine.
      Without His death and resurrection we have a fearsome God of law and justice…God in Jesus makes a way for us to realize His grace and truth.

      • Marie on December 16, 2016 at 12:06

        Dear Rhode, I have no intention of arguing with you or anyone else. We are all free to believe what we believe and to hear what God says to each of us in our hearts. I just want to clarify that I did not say I did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection. I don’t believe any other commenters did either. The Resurrection is pivotal for Christianity and the ultimate victory. I just don’t believe in the atonement theory. Jesus died on a cross because He was a rebel and people were afraid of Him and misunderstood Him and/or were blind to his message…and He went to his death freely because He loved us. Salvation has been a free gift to all of us from the beginning of time. Jesus didn’t need to die for that. I believe Jesus further “saved” me by coming to this earth to show me how to live and that also meant dying to many things–including my physical life–however that might happen for me. He shows me not to be afraid of death. He shows me His humility and non-violent ways. He shows me to reach out to anyone and everyone in need. Jesus knew that not fighting back with words or actions or “saving Himself” from death, which He surely could have done, would have a bigger impact. And 2000+ years have shown that to be true. My call as a Christian (Jesus-follower) is to imitate Jesus’ life to the best of my ability, even if it means I will die for my beliefs or actions (“there is no greater gift…”). Thank you for your thoughts. We all need to listen to each other and keep our hearts open.

  3. David Cranmer on December 13, 2016 at 09:55

    Thank you for using the imagery of mending. It gives me a clearer understanding of the problems of the world and what I as a Christian am called on to do.

  4. Roderic Brawn on December 13, 2016 at 07:38

    I am the member of a family of six children. How I would love to mend the divisions that separate us. I have three sisters and two brothers. As we grew up certain of the characteristics which are present in every one of us came to be more prominent one or the other of us. Now that the family of us and our parents was dysfunctional is axiomatic. Having read some of John Bradshaw’s work I know that our view of a normal family as one that resembles the “Cleavers” is true for only about five per cent of North American Families.
    Getting back to how characteristics manifest themselves in individuals in one’s family is difficult I want to say that often the qualities that a person finds most objectionable in a family member, or even a wife, are the ones that we have tried hardest to ameliorate in ourselves.
    When confronted by such things as pomposity in a sister or brother can be extremely difficult to get around in order to love that sister or brother unreservedly.
    When we can love our flawed selves unreservedly and considerately we can start to mend the tears in our families I pray.

  5. Marie on December 13, 2016 at 06:58

    I pray to express this gently and that it will be received gently. First, I must acknowledge that the “mending” story and imagery are beautiful, and for that reason this sermon is has touched me deeply. However, we as Christians MUST throw out this theory of atonement! If we don’t we will continue to be a society/culture/religion of retribution instead of restoration! The beautiful story told of mending is the exact opposite of the rest of the sermon which perpetuates a vengeful God who needed someone to be killed in order to make things “right.” This is NOT mending but rather another form of tearing and separating and is a complete misunderstanding of God and Scripture! How can we love and honor and imitate a God who needs to kill?? Please look into this yourselves. People like Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg, James Alison, and others have done wonderful work on this.

    • David Cranmer on December 13, 2016 at 09:54

      When I think about the atonement and consider that it is barbaric to require that someone be killed in order for others to be saved, at those times I have to remind myself that God is a mystery and that God’s wisdom is beyond ours and that God’s ways are above our ways, and I pull back and say that I need to wait until I meet God before I judge any of God’s actions.

      • Marie on December 13, 2016 at 11:16

        You are wise to realize we need to wait to meet God before we judge God’s actions. But with sincere respect to you, there are many of us who do not think it is correct theology that God “acted” in this way (atonement–needing Jesus to die for our sins). This is why we continue to kill with righteousness–whether in war or anger! God bless us all and thank you.

        • carol carlson on December 13, 2016 at 13:54

          As we have just begun to read the first Gospel for this year, it might be appropriate to consider ‘Matthew’s’ theology of the ‘atonement’ as a counterpoise to Anselm’s, which Br. Geoffrey graciously did not saddle us with directly, but, Marie points out, lurks in the background of all implications that God ‘needed’ to kill somebody in order to forgive sins, as if God hadn’t been doing that for thousands of years before Jesus. ‘Matthew’ says right off the bat (and he has a mania for the literal ‘fulfillment’ of Old Testament prophecy) that the name of the child to be born will be Jesus (‘God saves’), which will ‘fulfill’ a prophecy about a long-ago child to be called Immanuel (‘God is with us’). He then proceeds to write a whole book in which Jesus is repeatedly shown to be ‘with’ his disciples – he inserts the word several times in stories in which Mark simply says ‘Jesus AND his disciples’; and his last words to them are ‘I am with you all days’. That’s Matthew’s ‘doctrine’ of salvation; that’s HOW God saves in this Gospel – by being where we are, in the midst of every horror that sin creates in the world, bearing every single shred of torment that we inflict on God’s image in each other and ourselves. The cross is the triumph of ‘diabolos’ – but its victim doesn’t yield one iota of his allegiance to God’s ways in the midst of ours at their most violent and blasphemous. Jesus dies because we do; he dies horribly because sometimes we do; he dies at the hands of others because we do that (and the killing) too. The
          ‘substituitionary’ idea of his death is one I gave up a long time ago. Thank God that there are many other possibilities for interpretation within the New Testament itself – we didn’t have to wait for Richard Rohr and Marcus Borg to enunciate them for us. Blessings on the brothers, and all who hear these memorable ‘Advent words’ – and happy Lucia Day to all..

    • Cris on December 13, 2016 at 18:37

      Yes, Marie! Christianity could flourish in these difficult times if the inspired work of Marcus Borg and his fellow Jesus Scholars were more widely known. So many long for a way to return to a Christian space, and are unable to find it. Dear St. Anselm
      meant well when he invented substitution atonement, but it has done some harm through the ages.

  6. Mary-Lloyd Brainard on December 13, 2016 at 06:56

    I have prayed for 11 years for the mending of a family relationship. These words this morning have given me hope. Thank you.

  7. Ally on December 13, 2016 at 02:00

    Thank you Br Geoffrey, I really find the picture of ‘mending’ a helpful one. Mending conjures up for me notions of kindness and tenderness and a valuing of something that could be otherwise discarded. It has touched me more deeply than I can express in words. Thank you.

  8. Mend | The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on December 13, 2016 at 00:06

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  9. Elizabeth May on December 12, 2016 at 19:39

    This passage was really beautiful and uplifting and I will certainly pass it on to friends whom I am trying to bring back to their lapsed faith. Funnily the story about Constable’s torn canvas reminds me of a recent animated film called ‘Brave’ about a little Scottish princess who slashes a valuable family heirloom. She visits a witch to get a spell to change her mother in the hope she won’t have to marry just yet. Her mother is changed into a bear. To change her mother back princess Merida has to mend the torn canvas by morning or her mother will have to stay a bear forever. It was a charming film and the princess and the Queen both learnt valuable lessons about the mother/daughter relationship.

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