March 25, 2019
The Lent 4C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 15:1-3,11-32 from the Lectionary Gospel; Joshua 5:9-12 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 32 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 17 (Lord’s Day 6)
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Author: Scott Hoezee
Go ahead, try to be creative. Mess with this story if you must. Others have. Texts that are super-familiar to many people always tempt one to do something different. “Goodness, people have heard this story SOOOO many times” we think.
Thus when it comes to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, folks have tried to preach it backwards, sideways; from above, from below. Some have tried to be fresh and novel by preaching the story from the father’s point of view, from the older brother’s point of view, from the pigs’ point of view (OK, I never actually heard one from that point of view but it’s surely just a matter of time!). You could even do what one well-known writer once suggested which was, in a way, to tell it from the fatted calf’s point of view!
But when it’s all said and done, we’ve still got the same basic story that Jesus told to make a very basic gospel point. And just maybe you shouldn’t mess with it. This parable is like your Grandma’s classic recipe for chocolate chip cookies: at some point you might try to tweak the recipe to freshen it up a bit—white chocolate chips might be fun, maybe some cinnamon. But when your kids bite into the resulting cookies, they usually end up crinkling their noses and saying, “Why did you mess with it? We liked the cookies better the old way!”
Actually, we have three yoked stories here of lost-and-found, though the Lectionary skips over the first two. Most experts on Luke agree that Jesus’ triplet of stories here should really be read as a unit. Of the three, the parable of the lost coin is the one that seems the most out of place. The lost sheep and the lost son were both in peril for their lives whereas the coin was just lost but in no danger per se (can a coin even be in danger, I mean aside from falling into the hand of shifty Wall Street bankers?). Still, Jesus is hammering home a central point, a point so vital that he tells not one story but three. As Calvin Seminary Professor of New Testament, Jeffrey Weima, notes, all three stories end the same way: with rejoicing (and in Luke’s gospel, “rejoicing” is always synecdoche for salvation). The foil of all that jubilation is the sour-puss Pharisees whose abiding muttering (an imperfect verb in the Greek of verse 2) indicates their abiding/ongoing disdain for Jesus.
So keeping in mind that the Lectionary’s choice is just one part of a larger unit, let’s look at this well-known parable. Though often called “The Prodigal Son,” many have noted that in the end it is the father who is the truly prodigal one in the sense of lavishing grace and mercy and love on an undeserving child. The son’s prodigality, such as it was, focused on himself and on living “the high life.” His prodigality was one of dissipation and a draining away of life’s vitality and goodness. The father’s prodigality went the other way, thickening life, restoring a lost goodness, and insuring a good future.
It’s fairly well-known by now that the son’s request in verse 12 for his share of the inheritance was the ancient world’s equivalent of telling the old man to drop dead. Years ago on his first TV show “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert made the phrase “dead to me” popular. Someone may still be alive but because of some grievous fracture in the relationship, you may refer to this person as “dead to me,” meaning that you will have no more contact with this person than if he were really dead and buried in the ground. (Colbert meant that metaphorically, though on the TV show “The Sopranos,” when Tony Soprano told someone they were dead to him, they usually ended up, well, quite literally dead too).
This is what the son says: “Dad, you are dead to me. And since once you’re dead your last will and testament kicks in, I’ll take my share now.” It’s a truly awful thing this son did and it makes him, properly, a loathsome character.
Please note: the younger son is a jerk. He’s a fool, too, of course, but he’s just not nice. Not pleasant. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to keep his picture up on their piano. Ever met someone like this? Chances are if you did, you quietly were glad he wasn’t your kid.
But that was just the point. In Jesus’ triplet of stories here, we go from a lost sheep who was of some value to a lost silver coin that was of significant monetary value to a lost son who, though once valued as a son, makes himself into a very grotesque and undesirable character. He’d be easy to write off. In fact, most people would write him off. Certainly the Pharisees would. And just here is where our story actually begins . . .
“I saw them eating and I knew who they were.” That saying, or some version of it, is well-known. And it certainly describes the Pharisees whom we encounter in Luke 15:1-2. Jesus was welcoming the very folks whom the religious establishment had written off. Worse, he was at table with them, which was an intimate act of fellowship that implied a kind of personal bond and connection. So we’re told the Pharisees muttered into their beards about this. Jesus overheard their comments and knew their hearts and so told them three stories that reveal the heart of God.
And that’s really what is going on in Luke 15: we’re not here first of all being given stories of the “go and do likewise” variety. The parable in verses 11-32 is not in Scripture first of all to encourage fathers to be forgiving of their naughty kids any more than the first two stories were an instruction to shepherds or a cautionary tale to take better care of your fiscal assets. No, all three reveal the heart of God—a heart that is broken clean in two by lostness but a heart that sings with a joy as wide as the cosmos when even the silliest sheep or the meanest of sons comes back and/or is found again.
As a Lenten text, Luke 15 reminds us that for all its somber tones and focus on Jesus’ grim sacrifice and suffering, Lent is also a season of joy for God. Every confessed sin, every ash-smudged forehead, every sonorous singing of the hymn lyric “I crucified you” sounds in God’s ears like joy. Because each such sentiment is being prayed, uttered, and sung by people who “once were lost” but now are found.
The phrase “Lenten Joy” may sound like an oxymoron (like “elementary algebra” or “jumbo shrimp” or “deafening silence”). But it’s not. As the writer to the Hebrews said, Jesus endured the hell of the cross and all his sufferings not because he was tough or merely bowing to the will of his Father. No, he endured it all “for the joy that was set before him.” Just so. Remembering God’s joy in Lent brings us very close to the bright center of the universe!
Note: Our 2019 Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings here on the “This Week in Preaching” page, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2019/
In verse 31 when the father replies to the older son’s lament, he does not really say (as the NIV and some other translations have it), “My son” but in the Greek uses the more tender term TEKNON. A better translation would be “Child.” Far from a gruff rejoinder, the father’s words to his squirrelly older son are fraught with kindness. This is no slave-driver (as the son hinted at in verse 29 when he said he’d been “slaving” for his father) but a father full of compassion and mercy. “Oh child, my child, just what are you talking about?” Of course, there may also be a slight hint here of childishness on the part of the son. Since he’s acting like a petulant child, it could be that the father used this term as a double-entendre: yes, he is the father’s tender child but he’s also acting like a little boy. If I had to choose, I’d go with the former option because it accords with the tender words that follow. “Child, you are always with me” Turns out, the younger son had always been “with” the father too—he was always in his heart, even when in a far country. That’s just the kind of father this is!
From Robert Farrar Capon’s “The Parables of Grace” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1988, p. 144):
(The father is speaking to the older brother): “The only thing that matters is that fun or no fun [in the far country], your brother finally died to all that and now he’s alive again—whereas you, unfortunately, were hardly alive even the first time around. Look. We’re all dead here and we’re having a terrific time. We’re all lost here and we feel right at home. You, on the other hand, are alive and miserable—and worse yet, you’re standing out here in the yard as if you were some kind of beggar. Why can’t you see? You OWN this place, Morris. And the only reason you’re not enjoying it is because you refuse to be dead to your dumb rules about how it should be enjoyed. So do yourself and everyone else a favor: drop dead. Shut up, forget about your stupid life, go inside, and pour yourself a drink.”
The classic parable of grace, therefore, turns out by anticipation to be a classic parable of judgment as well. It proclaims clearly that grace operates only by raising the dead: those who think they can make their lives the basis of their acceptance by God need not apply. But it proclaims just as clearly that the judgment finally pronounced will be based only on our acceptance or rejection of our resurrection from the dead. Nobody will be kicked out for having a rotten life, because nobody there will have any life but the life of Jesus. God will say to everybody, “You were dead and are alive again; you were lost and are found: put on a funny hat and step inside.”
Author: Stan Mast
Why in the world would you preach on this text, when the Lectionary offers you the options of Jesus’ dramatic Parable of the Prodigal (Luke 15) and Paul’s magnificent doctrine of new creation in Christ (II Corinthians 5:15-21). I mean, this text from Joshua seem so small and insignificant. Plus, preaching on it will make lots of people squeamish, because it will require that you talk about circumcision. (Perhaps sensing our discomfort with discussing penises in church, the RCL cuts off that portion of Joshua 5, but verses 2-8 are central to our text.)
But as is so often the case, the Lectionary’s choice is wiser and more important than a quick first read reveals. In fact, this little text is crucial in the history of Israel’s redemption and has some important implications for our Lenten journey.
Joshua 5 marks the great transition from Israel’s wilderness wanderings to her conquest of the Promised Land. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel has at last arrived in the Land. As God parted the Red Sea to lead Israel out of bondage in Egypt, so he has now parted the Jordan River (Joshua 3 and 4) to lead them into freedom in the land of milk and honey. The next step will be the conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6).
But before Israel takes one more step on their redemptive journey, there is one small matter to take care of, namely, the renewal of the covenant. It wasn’t that Yahweh had ignored his side of the covenant. He had, after all, redeemed them from Egypt, having already kept his promise to Abraham to make his offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky. Yahweh had led them through the wilderness, providing food and drink in that inhospitable environment for 40 years. And now they had set foot in the Land God had promised to Abraham. Yahweh’s steadfast love had never failed them.
But they had failed God repeatedly, most significantly when they had come to the southern border of the Land some 38 years ago. Terrified by the report of the 10 unfaithful spies, their lack of trust in Yahweh caused them to yearn for the land of bondage. And God said, “No one with such a lack of faith will ever see the Promised Land.” That faithless generation wandered for almost 4 decades, until they were all dead.
During that time, neither circumcision nor Passover had been observed. The two great sacraments of the Old Covenant had fallen into disuse. Circumcision was the rite of entry into the covenant, a visible sign that this circumcised person was part of the chosen people, that God had “cut around” this person and consecrated him to covenant blessings and obligations. Passover was the rite of remembrance, a visible sign of what God had done to redeem his people from the power of Egyptian bondage. The first gave Israel its identity and the second gave Israel its confidence.
So, there was a whole generation who did not know who(se) they were or whom they could trust in the battles of life. They could not possibly accomplish the conquest of the Land unless they knew those foundational truths of Israel’s life. Before they took another step, they had some unfinished business to attend to.
In verses 2-8, Joshua took care of the first item of business and in verse 9 God tells Joshua what that superficial ceremony meant. As the foreskins had been rolled off the Israeli men, so the “reproach of Egypt” has been rolled off his people by God. It is very difficult to know exactly what “the reproach or disgrace or shame of Egypt” means. Some say it is simply a reference to the shame of slavery; that’s all done now, completely behind you. Others say it refers to the shame Egypt and other nations would have heaped on Israel (and Israel’s God) if they had failed to reach the Promised Land; “we told you Yahweh couldn’t get them all the way there.” And still others believe it is a reference to the shame of Israel’s disobedience at the southern border 38 years ago, when they yearned to return to Egypt. Whichever meaning we adopt, the sense is the same. The old has passed away. Your faithfulness in being circumcised indicates that you have made a new commitment to your covenant God. And he has rolled away the past with all its sins.
The celebration of Passover and the attendant events signified a new beginning in God’s covenant with Israel. If circumcision involved a break with the past, cutting themselves off from the sins of the wilderness, then Passover involved a newfound trust in God’s ability to open a new future for them. As he had saved them from death in Egypt by passing over the houses marked with the blood of the lamb, Yahweh will save them as they enter this new land. His power as signed in the Feast will be more than sufficient in the future.
As a further sign of this new day coming, God cut off the supply of manna that had kept them alive for the four decades. Now that they were in the land of milk and honey, they could live by the produce gained by their own hands. It’s true that they started modestly (and sacramentally) with unleavened bread and roasted grain. But that was a foretaste of the feast to come. Passover reminded Israel that they would not take the Land with their own hands, but by the mighty hand and outstretched arm of Yahweh. As the next episode in Joshua 5:13-15 would suggest, it would be the Lord’s armies that would give them that land.
By circumcision and Passover, Israel is identified and equipped as part of the Lord’s army. They could not take another step on their journey into God’s good future without observing those sacred sacraments.
There are two ways to preach this text. One is sacramental. As we journey toward the cross and the empty tomb, toward our redemption, it is terribly important that we regularly celebrate the sacraments that remind us of our identity in Christ and his saving work for us. Though Christians disagree about who should be baptized and how it ought to be done and when we should be baptized, all Christians see baptism as the rite of initiation. And all of us understand that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on the occasion of Passover, intending that it would help us remember what he did as our Paschal Lamb. We simply cannot continue our journey without the regular reminders of the sacraments.
Or we could preach on what the sacraments signified for Israel, a break with the old and an embrace of the new. As circumcision cut off the useless foreskin, let us cut off the useless sin in our lives. Here is a vivid, uncomfortable way to call people to repent. And as Passover reminds us of God’s past work for Israel, let us look back to the cross and ahead to the Parousia. No matter what battles we face in this part of the journey, we can be confident that God will see us through to victory.
Our text opens with a pregnant word, “Today.” It reminds us of Paul’s next words after his great announcement of God’s new creation in Christ (II Corinthians 5:15-21). “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you. I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation (II Cor. 6:2). This peculiar little text from Joshua can help us press on people the urgency of making a break with their sinful past and embracing God’s good future. We do Lent every year, and it can get to be old hat. Joshua 5, with its old ceremonies, reminds us that it is always “Today.” Now is the time to repent and believe! Don’t take another step without taking care of unfinished business.
The discomfort we experience in talking about circumcision is nothing compared to the discomfort of these adult Jewish males in Joshua 5. As a sign of their commitment to their covenant God, they had to take a flint knife to the most private and sensitive part of their being. That’s a sign of how painful genuine commitment can be. That reminds me of an old joke about a farmer’s breakfast of ham and eggs. The hen made a little contribution to that breakfast. The pig made a painful commitment.
Though circumcision is performed for medical purposes in our modern world, its significance as a religious rite is lost on most people. It helps me to compare circumcision to the NBA draft; that’s the National Basketball Association. Every year, the professional basketball teams have a list of players who might be good enough to draft onto their teams. Management very carefully studies the list. Finally, at draft time, they circle the players they will put on their team. That’s what God did with Abraham and his seed throughout the generations, without paying any attention to their skill or character. God’s selection was, as we Calvinists say, “unconditional.” As a sign that God had drafted them onto God’s team, he asked them to draw a circle in their flesh. That way they would always remember that they belonged to God’s team, the Lord’s army, the chosen people. Though it is not as visible or painful, baptism is a sign and seal of the same thing.
Finally, it is fascinating how often salvation is celebrated with a meal in the Bible. We have it here in Joshua 5. We have it in the Messianic banquet of New Testament eschatology. No wonder Jesus ended the parable of the Prodigal with a meal. After he had wandered in a far country for untold days, that unfaithful son came to his “today” and went back home. What he found was not a slave’s duty, but a son’s reception. And a great banquet, a sign that the past was forgiven and the future was secure and rich.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Most of his friends had been hanged. But despite his central role in helping to construct Adolf Hitler’s Nazi nightmare, Albert Speer somehow managed to receive from the Nuremberg trials only a twenty-year sentence at the Spandau Prison in Berlin. Not long after arriving in Spandau, Speer met with the prison chaplain. To the chaplain’s shock, Speer said, “I want to use my time in prison well. So what I want to ask you is: Would you help me become a different man?”
The chaplain was savvy enough to know that for Speer to have even a chance of becoming different, he would have to provide full disclosure of his past evils. Whether or not Speer succeeded in doing that is a matter of considerable debate among those who have studied Speer’s writings. Speer’s memoir Inside the Third Reich was praised for its candor when it was first published. But over time people began to see that in actuality Speer may have held back, failing to confess the full scope of his Nazi activities. In fact, Speer probably made use of that age-old trick whereby you acknowledge some truths as a way to distract people from noticing other things you’d rather not talk about.
He talked to avoid speaking. He laid just enough on the table to keep people from noticing what he was hiding under the table. Alas, it is possible Speer himself was not aware he was doing this. At very least, however, Speer and his spiritual counselors knew that the key ingredient in becoming a different person is forthright confession. Psalm 32 agrees.
Psalm 32 is a powerful poem written to be read by three voices as it teaches that the path to beatitude is confession. In a scarred world of sin, we are as often the perpetrators of wrong as we are victims of it. Fight though we may to combat sin, the unhappy fact is that whether you are nine-years-old or ninety, confessing sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough–in fact, you need to keep up with the task daily so the house doesn’t start to stink!
True, some days we may have only the spiritual equivalent of a crumpled cereal box and a banana peel to carry out. But there are also those days when the trash has to go out because a chicken carcass and some bacon grease are deliquescing at the bottom of the kitchen trash can. But whether it’s some small lapse or a stunning misdeed, the truly honest among us admit that the core truth of Psalm 32 touches us every day.
Again, the very structure of the psalm makes this clear. Psalm 32 appears to have been written for use in worship. The opening and closing pairs of verses are the “lines” spoken by the priest. The priest begins by claiming that the path to beatitude, the way to be really blessed in life, is to be a person who knows he or she is forgiven by God. Following verse 2 you can almost hear the priest say, “For instance . . .” and then he would point to the person who speaks verses 3-7. This second voice in the psalm then becomes like a living example to substantiate the claim of the opening beatitude. The priest claims in verse 1, “Blessed is the one who knows her sins are forgiven.”
Then just such a person chimes in and says in verse 3, “That’s true! Look at me! When I kept quiet about what I had done, I was miserable. Day and night I was tormented by the thought that there was something out of alignment between the Master of the universe and me. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and so I spilled the beans. And, Voila!, God took away my guilt by forgiving me in something quicker than the blink of an eye!”
Following these wonderful words, the voice of God then bursts onto the scene in verses 8 and 9, confirming what the penitent person had just said. Things are so correct now between this sinner and God that God can speak tenderly and directly. God is not aloof, sitting off in a corner with his arms crossed over his chest and a stern look in his eye. No, he’s tenderly, personally present, offering further instruction so that from here on out maybe life will go a bit better for this person.
Finally, in the last two verses the voice of the priest returns. With a smile on his face, he proclaims that his opening beatitude has now been proven. “Yahweh’s unfailing love, his chesed, his grace, surrounds us. We’re hemmed in by God’s good heart. God’s got us surrounded! There’s no escaping his mercy! And so rejoice! Sing! Be glad! We’ve got a God who makes forgiving us the #1 item on his list of things to do every day.”
Psalm 32 reveals a biblical irony: as grim, dark, and awful as sin is, dealing with this same sin leads to joy! Sin may be the “bad news” of life, it may be every bit the “downer” and “guilt-inducer” that all those trendy preachers who avoid ever talking about sin claim it is. But Psalm 32 is one of a legion of biblical texts which reminds us that the path to lilting joy leads right through sin. Indeed, some of the most effusive passages in the Bible are the ones that talk the most about sin. Because when you’ve got a God who drips with grace like our God does, the bottom line is never just about sin but about how swiftly God forgives sin!
Probably not a few of us could tell a similar story from our own experience. But it is equally probable that many of us could tell an opposite story, either about ourselves or about someone else. If Psalm 32 were a description of how things always go, our world and our lives in it could be significantly better. If it were true that every time we sinned we not only knew it but were plagued by it until we came clean and confessed it, if that’s how things always were, then we might very well find ourselves leading happier lives.
If everyone always confessed their sins to God and to each other, then we maybe would be done with bearing grudges. We would maybe be done with seeing people “get away” with something. It always drives us a little crazy to watch someone hurt another person only to trot away without even the slightest twinge of regret. But if Psalm 32’s description were always accurate, that wouldn’t happen. The person who hurt you would admit it and ask you to forgive him. Also, when it is you who did the wounding, you also would be led to beg for forgiveness. As a result, our mutual life together might go along much better.
Alas, however, Psalm 32 is not a description of how things always go. All of us routinely commit sins that as a matter of fact do not burn our innards like hot wax, that do not cause us to toss and turn on our beds all night long, that do not sap our strength. No, instead we often go on with our lives just fine. Sometimes we even flourish.
And if that’s true even within the community of the church, we know full well that it happens with abandon in the wider world. Lots of people have whole aircraft carrier’s worth of sins which they never acknowledge to God or anyone else. But far from being weighed down, these folks proceed forward in life with a spring in their step, smiling all the way to the bank as shady business deals pay off, tax evasions succeed, extramarital affairs go undiscovered. They not only fail to confess their sins, they fail even to notice them!
Again, that’s not just the case with mafia dons, corrupt corporate CEOs, or playboys. Something similar can happen even to us. More days than not our confessions of sin get no more specific than the generic, “Forgive me for all my many sins, Amen.” Granted, saying even that is better than never confessing at all, but how probing or finally helpful is such anonymous acknowledgment of sin? Do such generic confessions help us feel and so celebrate the wonder of grace? Do empty confessions help us clean up those parts of our acts that are less-than-lovely many days? These are vital questions we ought to face squarely and honestly.
Because Psalm 32 does not aim at giving you some increased psychological well-being–it aims for the glory of God.
We can’t change the past, we often say. That’s a painful truth. How much don’t at least some of us yearn that we could go back and turn left instead of right. We can’t. If, as science fiction movies like to show, if we could travel through time, I suspect the world would end. If time travel were possible, I suspect that most every person in the world would take advantage of it by zipping back to one past moment after the next to change something, to prevent something, to make something better. Eventually there would be so many changes going on in the past that there would be no stable present moment in which to live.
No, we can’t change the past. But God can. Through the alchemy of grace God can take what hurts us and make it better, take what weighs us down and blow it away like a feather. And when he does that–and when does he not?!–the present moment is transformed. Our happiness increases, our love for God mounts higher, our wonder at his grace brings an irrepressible smile, and the future looks effervescent with joy.
Note: Our 2019 Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings here on the “This Week in Preaching” page, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2019/
Psychologists tell us that there is such a thing as “doubling.” On a grand scale this is sometimes accomplished by those who have committed truly heinous crimes. Some of the soldiers responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam viciously put bullets through the brains of women and children and bayoneted suckling infants. How could they live with themselves following such horrors? Well, they doubled themselves. “It wasn’t I who did that but someone else, some nameless “other” person inside my skin. That didn’t come from the core of who I am–it couldn’t have!” Ask some of those soldiers who pulled all those triggers, and they will reply, “I don’t know.”
That is but a dramatic example of something we all do to one degree or another. We keep trying to daylight between ourselves and ourselves. In some of the Godfather movies mobsters who had assassinated one another’s sons nevertheless find it possible to be in the same room together, backhanding away those other events as being “just business.” “Sure I had your son killed, but it was just business, right?”
Sometimes we put a similar move on ourselves. Decisions we make at the office on Thursday don’t follow us into the sanctuary come Sunday morning. Or, we manage to slip out of the noose of our own actions by claiming afterwards, “I was misunderstood. My intentions were good! I’m not really an angry person, I just lose my temper sometimes . . . a lot of times . . . OK every day, but I don’t have an anger problem! I love people!”
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Author: Doug Bratt
“From now on,” Paul insists to the Corinthians in this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson, “we regard no one from a worldly point of view (16)”. Yet whenever I hear him say that, I want to ask, “Really?! Do we really no longer view people from a worldly point of view?
After all, how quick aren’t even God’s adopted sons and daughters to regard especially people who somehow differ from us “from a worldly point of view?” To help our hearers and us approach that issue, those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 5 might ask a leading question like this one: if I were to ask you how you’d describe your neighbor or co-worker, how would you respond? I imagine that many of us would begin by describing what a nice guy he is (or isn’t). I suspect that you’d probably even tell me the color of her skin before you got around to finally telling me that she’s a Christian.
Or think of how we identify ourselves to those who ask about us. I tend to first mention my daily work as a pastor. I often say something about where I live and to whom I’m married. I might also say something about my interests and grandchildren. I might even eventually get around to mentioning that I’m a Christian.
Those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 5 will want to spend time exploring with our hearers what a “worldly view” looks like. Perhaps foundational to that view is its contrast with God’s view of those whom God creates in God image and cares for. God’s view doesn’t mimic our culture in thinking of people as primarily black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, Muslim, Jewish or Christian.
Yet if Paul doesn’t want us to view people the way our culture views them, how does he want us to “regard” them?
Clearly he expects us to view each other the way God in Christ views them. “We are convinced,” Paul writes in verses 14 and following, “that one died for all and therefore all died. And [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
At the heart of God’s view of people is the “all” for whom the “one” who is Jesus Christ “died” (14). Jesus’ followers view all people not first of all as black or white or any other color, but as those for whom Jesus died. Since Christ died for all, Christians see people not primarily as rich or poor, or as gay or straight, but as those for whom Jesus Christ died.
Yet perhaps especially those whose ears are especially tuned to the melodies of the Reformed expression of the faith may be ringing about now. Don’t Reformed Christians, after all, profess that Jesus Christ died only for the elect, only for those who God chose before God even created the world?
As my colleague Len Vander Zee, to whom I’m indebted for many of this Starter’s ideas, notes, we don’t have to say that God will somehow save all people in order to profess that Jesus Christ died for all people. By saying that Christ “died for all,” Paul simply means that through God’s atoning work in Christ God did something radically new for the whole world.
So, as Vander Zee goes on to note, God didn’t let people kill Jesus before raising him from the dead just to offer people some kind of religious deal. God doesn’t make offers; in Christ God creates something “new.” God doesn’t offer Jesus to the religious marketplace as some kind of new fad; God’s work in Christ changes the world. God transforms history, making all things new.
Of course, God expects God’s beloved children to faithfully respond to this new thing God has done. After all, for the seed that is God’s transforming work to fully flower in people’s lives, we must receive it with our faith. God’s people most appropriately respond to Christ’s death and resurrection by faithfully reconciling ourselves to God and each other.
That reconciliation, in turn, shapes the way Christians now view the people around us. Now even if people label themselves in that way, we don’t see them as primarily male or female, rich or poor, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist.
Instead of viewing people from such “worldly” perspectives, now Christians see people as those whom God wants to faithfully respond to God’s grace. From “now on,” that is, ever Christ’s completed his saving work, we see all people as those for whom Jesus may well have died.
Christ’s love compels God’s adopted sons and daughters to love those whom we so quickly label as unlovable. So Jesus’ followers seek to live for him who died and was raised for our sakes in part by loving all people with the unconditional love of God.
That means that, among other things, Christ’s love compels God’s adopted sons and daughters to deeply love both our fellow Christians and our enemies. Christians are, after all, sometimes the most critical of our Christian brothers and sisters. Since we often expect more of them than of those who don’t yet believe, we’re often least loving towards Christians who sin or even merely disagree with us.
God, however, challenges God’s children to live for Jesus Christ by unconditionally loving our fellow Christians. God expects us to respond to Christ’s transforming work by praying and working for what’s best for our Christian brothers and sisters.
Christ’s love also compels his followers, however, to love even our enemies. So instead of torturing them, we treat them with love. Instead of condemning people to hell, we learn to pray for them. We learn to view even our enemies as those whom God wants to draw into his glorious presence.
Flannery O’Connor was what one colleague calls “a remarkably perceptive diagnostician of the human condition.” One of her most diagnostic but startling short stories is entitled, A Good Man Is Hard to Find.
It’s the story of Bailey, his wife, children, and mother.
The family decides to travel to Florida for a vacation, even though that means it must travel through an area in which an escaped convict is on the loose. The ornery grandmother is what some call the story’s driving force. She constantly tries to direct the trip. Eventually she convinces her reluctant son to turn off the main highway and onto a deserted road. There they have an accident that disables their car.
The only people who stop at the remote scene of the accident are the escaped convict O’Connor calls the Misfit and his docile henchmen, Hiram and Bobbie Lee. When the grandmother shrieks his name, the Misfit tells her that it would have been better for all of them if she hadn’t recognized him.
The old lady spends most of the rest of the story (and her life) desperately trying to save her family and herself by insisting that the Misfit must come from good people. While we sense she really believes just the opposite of what she keeps saying about him, the strong-willed grandmother continues to insist that the Misfit is a “good man.”
Even after the Misfit’s henchmen take Bailey and his son John Wesley away to execute them, the grandmother insists he must be good, not common people. She tells the Misfit he could be honest if he just tried hard enough. All he needs to do, the grandmother keeps on saying, is, “Pray, pray, pray.” Even after the Misfit’s henchmen take the mother and her daughter June Star away to kill them, the grandmother just keeps on insisting that he’s a good man.
Finally, the grandmother peers intently enough at the Misfit to see that he’s about to cry. That leads her to jettison all her religious clichés and murmur that he’s just one of her children, one of her “babies,” in other words, a child of God.
However, when the grandmother expresses this by gently touching his shoulder, the Misfit recoils and then shoots her three times. She would have been a good woman, he concludes, if there were just someone there to shoot her every moment of her life.
The grandmother naturally regarded the Misfit (and nearly everyone else) from a worldly point of view. It seems as though it took her recognition of her imminent death for her to view the Misfit not as he regards himself, but as God views him.