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Carlo Maria Martini
Paul in the thick of his ministry
(4) The minister of the new covenant
as a minister of reconciliation

Let us take up the reading of the central part of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. The illustrious exegete Father Prat has said: “Paul never wrote anything more eloquent, moving and passionate than this letter. It throbs with sadness and joy, hope and fear, scorn and tenderness. The way light is thrown on the most common incidents by the highest principles of faith makes this letter an inexhaustible treasure for the ascetic and mystic.”

Before reflecting on a second passage in which the Apostle speaks of the ministry of the new covenant, let us listen at leisure to the whole context of his words by reading the end of chapter 3 and all of chapters 4 and 5.

READING OF 2 COR 5:18-20

Chapter 5 ends with the words we shall take for our reflection:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Paul calls our ministry of the new covenant a ministry of reconciliation. Of course he is not just referring to the ministry of Confession, but to the whole life of ministry.

Structure and contents

The passage contains a general statement. Then come the explanation of this statement and the consequences leading from it.

The statement is composed of a very general principle and two applications. The principle is: “All is from God.” The whole of reality is seen Christo-centrically. All is from God through Christ.
Everything coming from God is described more specifically in two ways: firstly, that God “has reconciled us to himself through Christ”; secondly, that he “gave us the ministry of reconciliation”. So God’s action is both Christological and ecclesiological.

Then comes the explanation: How has God reconciled us in Christ? How has he given us the ministry of reconciliation?

He has reconciled us with Christ by forgiving us: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (v. 19). It is a reconciliation of forgiveness, of mercy. In Christ’s death, his death for love, God has unconditionally accepted the sinner.
This is how Paul describes the covenant here, with certain new features added to the description in chapter 3. An act of reconciliation, not based on the fact that human beings have repented, been converted, or restored to God the honour they had taken from him. It is a unilateral and gratuitous act.

Secondly, this Christological act of reconciliation is expressed ecclesiologically “giving us the ministry of reconciliation”. It is an act mediated through the Church’ s word, the ministry. This aspect is now stressed: “W e are ambassadors for Christ” (v. 20), we are as reconcilers, in the place of the one who reconciled humanity to God in his flesh, “God making his appeal through us”. We are the bearers of a particular mandate placed in our hands by God. And this mandate is summed up in a phrase directly calling for reconciliation: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, reconcile yourselves to God.” Some versions have “Be reconciled to God”, as if to say: God has already done everything on his side to reconcile himself with you and now you must leave it to God, let him bring to fulfillment his work of reconciliation.

This is the structure of the passage. In the preceding chapter 3 the ministry of the new covenant was seen positively, creatively, as a ministry of the Spirit, of life and enthusiasm. Here it is seen under a different aspect: as a ministry of reparation, restitution, reconciliation.


Now let us try to understand what it means, its message for us.
I shall proceed by means of short points expressing in doctrinal form the rich and moving content of this text, in which Paul stresses his conviction that he is a minister of reconciliation.

Main points

First point: The new covenant is a covenant of reconciliation. God not only wants to establish that intimate relationship of lasting marriage with humanity, through which he and humanity become one, just as Christ’s humanity is one with the Word. The covenant is also a restoration of a broken relationship. This is what characterizes the new covenant and explains why the mystery of the cross is central to it It is not just something that God sets up but something he restores; the covenant mends a broken world, re-ties a broken bond and restores a failed relationship.
The ministry of reconciliation is difficult because it is a ministry that must heal. The image is not of a marriage of two innocent young people, decided upon by their parents, that takes place and brings them together. It is of a broken marriage, in which it is necessary to restore a relationship. This is why the new covenant is such hard work.

Second point. So this new covenant assumes that human beings are sinful and have behaved badly historically. Let us recall Jesus’ dark view of human history: “You who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children” (Lk 11: 13). “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you?” (Mt 17: 17). Jesus assumes that this is a generation whose relationship with God has been broken, both individually and communally.
These are the structures of sin spoken about in the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis which have damaged the tissue of human relationships, making them a prey to ambition, hatred, selfishness, pride… This is the starting point of the new covenant and that is why it is an heroic task: “Exultavit ut gigas ad currendam viam” (Ps 19:5): he rejoiced like a strong man running his course. His task was to restore a situation which had gone badly wrong.

Third point. This new covenant of reconciliation is a new creative act: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5: 17).
Creation was good but because it has become degraded it all has to be remade. The new covenant is a remaking of humanity, a restoring of the human spirit, which had decayed, back to its original state. Therefore it is a great act, not just enhancing humanity but a real act of recreation of the human spirit.

Fourth point. Consequently, this act occurs in the death of Christ for love. The rebirth of humanity is such an upheaval that it requires the death and resurrection of Jesus. And, as Paul says, “The love of Christ controls us because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15).
The new covenant is a new creation, a new beginning starting from Christ’ s resurrection and our incorporation in his death and resurrection. So its central figure is the crucified Christ, showing God’s love giving himself to the last, forgiving to the last, and from this limitless gift of love restoring a new humanity in his resurrection.

Fifth point. Our ministry, which is a ministry of reconciliation, is to restore weak and broken people. So it is very hard-going and we are always in danger of exhaustion and discouragement. Even after baptism we remain weak, even though we have the capacity, the grace to live a new life. We bear the weight of our historical weakness, the condition of flesh. Although we are remade by right inthe cross of Christ and baptism, our remaking in fact requires a slow process.
This process is not only slow but total, because it means becoming reconciled with ourselves, our own lot, our own life, our health, our failings, our environment, our family, society.
The covenant of reconciliation makes us feel at ease, as children of the Father, as brother or sister of our fellows in society, as loved and favoured people, who therefore feel themselves happily loved and favoured.
This is the ministry of reconciliation, ministry of patient reconstruction of personalities which change from being weak and inconsistent to harmonious, capable of right relations with God, the absolute mystery, with their own poverty, with the environment however unpleasant, with the world however dark and grim.
Such personalities can accept themselves and others with love because God has become wedded to humanity forever. Our relationship with God defines us, strengthens us and enables us to become harmonious and integrate our energies with the environment. It is the covenant established between God and humanity, with our brothers and sisters, between men and women, between human beings and the earth.
Our ministry is the ministry of this new covenant, it is in the service of reconstructing both individual and collective personalities, in God’s strength, because without God’s forgiveness, without his mercy, without the gift of his renewing Spirit, all this would be utopia. It is the grace of the Spirit which renews human hearts, makes them able to accept themselves and others, feel loved, express themselves with solidarity and friendship and establishes them in the new covenant.

Sixth point. Our ministry is essentially one of encouragement, as Paul says: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled with God.” Encouragement not in the sense of saying all is well, but that even if things are not well there is hope for you, there is harmony of life for you, there is fullness of human and divine satisfaction for you. Be reconciled to God, with the people round you, with your work, with your sicknesses, your anguish, your nervous exhaustion, with everything in yourself you dislike. Be reconciled through reconciliation with God.

Seventh point. The root of our ministry is understanding and compassion. It is a ministry of peace. A ministry of peace because it tries to understand the depth of the human heart, its sufferings, its ignorance, its resistance, and tries to sympathize so that people can go forward, even with small steps, steps that do not try to solve everything, but lead to further steps because in spite of everything your life is open and you can keep going.

Eighth point. This type of ministry also includes force and severity. It is not alI kindness and we see that Jesus, who is the prototype of our ministry and was capable of incredible understanding, was able, when necessary, to be forceful and severe. Paul also combines severity and understanding. “I speak as to children – widen your hearts also [This is his understanding tone.] Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor 6:13-16a).
Here Paul is speaking forcefully and he insists that the law of the covenant is the law of God’s jealous love, which does not admit rivals. So the law of the covenant is the law of the undivided love of the only God, who is jealous. Then we understand Jesus’ sayings: “Woe to him who scandalizes one of these little ones; it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea” (cf. Lk 17:2; Mk 9:42; Mt 18:6); “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (cf. Mt 7:23).
When we are really into our ministry we are bound to have some moments like this, because it is the ministry of the covenant.
And again: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7: 1). It is a ministry of holiness, not legal holiness, imposed from above with rigidity, anger or complaint, but holiness through love and compassion.

Special moments

The ministry of reconciliation goes on throughout our lives, but especially at two moments.
The first is intercession, that is in the Eucharist. We take on this ministry when we offer Christ’ s body and blood and show it to the people. This is the chief moment in which we are ministers of reconciliation: “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” If only people could understand the extraordinariness of this action and these words! We often lament the sins of the world, the newspapers full of crimes, atrocities and vulgarity. But then we say: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” And we are certain that this world sunk in sin can be restored. When in the offering and intercession of the Eucharist we pray with the Church that the Lord remove from his holy people all evil, discord and hostility, we are ministers of reconciliation.
The second moment is sacramental reconciliation, in which God restores the person by a free and creative act. It is a ministry exercised in difficult conditions through haste and so can be painful. But it still has enormous value because it is miraculous that we can have access to God’s forgiveness of grave faults which are capable of destroying a human psyche.

Reconciled with ourselves

Finally, the ministry of reconciliation also concerns ourselves, because we cannot give peace if we do not have it, we cannot give reconciliation if we are not reconciled ourselves. Reconciled does not mean having nothing to forgive anybody for, but having things to forgive and forgiving, ourselves and others. or course it is easy to be reconciled when we owe nothing to anyone. But if we have credits or debits, either to ourselves or others, or the Church, then we can have the experience of being reconciled. This often takes a long time, because without our realizing it daily life induces continual states of slight hostility, bad temper, negative judgments, irritations, to which we probably pay limited attention but which slowly grow into big clots. One way of dissolving these clots of resentment, discomfort, discontent is by spiritual reading which we should never leave out of our day.
So we are the first objects of the ministry of reconciliation and we should often ask for Mary’s help because she is the mother of reconciliation.

In conclusion, I should like to recall Jesus’ words from the cross, when at the end of his ministry he entrusted Mary to John and John to Mary. This was a sign of reconciliation achieved and it is the formula for the covenant: You are my people, I am your God; you are my mother, I am your son, this is your son and this is your mother.
In the mysterious relationship between the disciple and Mary there is a synthesis of the covenant. They are entrusted to one another as a foretaste, a continual guarantee that the mystery of the covenant dissolves all the differences and oppositions between us.

We should think more about this mystery which comes to us directly from the cross. We should urge young people between the ages of 15 and 18 to entrust themselves to Mary, as part of the choice of the covenant with Christ. It is a commitment that often helps us in the loneliness, labour and difficulties of our life as ministers, because it is a summary of the mystery of the covenant, it is a consequence of our being in Christ and Christ in us, which develops into also having Mary in our lives and being in hers. So I recommend you to reflect on the power of this mystery, a simple symbol of the giant strides of the covenant of reconciliation and wedded unity, that enters our hearts and forms them in ways of peace, compassion, serenity and joy.