February 29, 2016
Luke 15:1-2, 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. 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. These days, in part due to the popularity of Stephen Colbert and also the TV show “The Sopranos,” the phrase “dead to me” is common. 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. (Of course, if Tony Soprano tells you that you are dead to him, you might just be in actual mortal peril but that’s another story . . .)
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 now. 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!
But that, in turn, leads us to the one character in this story who lacks all joy: the older brother. We find out only retrospectively that he never did take joy in the work he did for his father. He says that all along it had been a “slaving away.”
The older son “slaved” for his father, and that’s as ugly as it gets. Who loved the father less? Was it the rude younger son who told the old man to drop dead just once or the paint-by-the-numbers older son who spent his every waking moment wishing his father were dead in that he was a cruel slave driver?
BTW: Note a piece of irony: Although he never gets this far when actually confronted with his father’s exuberant welcome, in the original version of his well-rehearsed confession, the younger son decides to conclude by saying, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.” Hmmm . . . apparently the older brother more-or-less had seen himself this way all along! He wasn’t a son but a slave, a hired man!
The older son lacked joy. He took no joy in the tasks he performed for his father. He failed to sense the joy in his father’s own heart, the generosity of spirit that marked the man. And hence he never even asked to throw a party for his friends. Maybe he had no friends! He lacked joy. He lacked verve. He lacked a celebratory spirit. Life for him was duty and drudgery, suspicion of his father’s motives and a pinched attitude toward that which was indeed his.
Basically this is the world’s caricature of the hyper-religious. There is an old definition of a Puritan or a Calvinist as being someone whose #1 fear is that somewhere in the world someone is having a good time. That’s cruel and an outsized caricature indeed but we know what is behind it. And we know how well it described the joyless Pharisees. They slaved away for their God. They suspected their God of his own divine stinginess and so worrying about their own standing with Him was enough to keep them from ever wondering about whether they were reaching out to others who needed God’s love.
Indeed, when you serve a stingy and joyless God, you assume that this is a God who has to work extra hard just to love YOU. It’s a cinch then to assume that this same God hates people “out there” in the world who don’t even look remotely religious. And since not getting caught up in their ways—or contaminated by their spiritual germs—is your primary goal, you avoid, you shun, you judge from afar. What you most certainly do NOT do, however, is sit at table with those greasy characters.
Near as we can tell, the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus was eating in Luke 15:1-2 were simply attending an ordinary meal. It may have been a dinner of no more than flatbread and broth with a little fruit for dessert. It may have been peasant fare or it may have been something a little nicer. We don’t know. But whether it was bread and soup or veal with mushrooms, in God’s eyes it was the feast of the fatted calf. For the Son of God was eating with the very last, least, and lost souls who needed to know more than anybody that the God in heaven above whom Jesus represented was a God of generous joy who is enthusiastic about our lives and eager to throw one party after the next for every bedraggled sheep, lost coin, or lost son who shows up on the front porch of God’s heart to say, “Still got room at the table for me?”
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: Doug Bratt
Few of us like new beginnings any more than we enjoy the change that precedes them. A new neighborhood. A new school. A new job. Old circumstances often produce old headaches. Yet new circumstances also produce new headaches.
Since Joshua 9’s Israelites have just crossed the Jordan River on dry land, their feet are neither damp nor muddy. Yet they figuratively have scarcely more than a toe in the land of promise. While God’s mighty acts on Israel’s behalf have clearly intimidated Canaan’s residents, Israel’s “hold” on her new home could scarcely seem more tenuous. Why on earth, then, would God want Israel to take the time and expend the energy on both circumcising her men and celebrating the Passover? Wouldn’t Israel’s time and strength be better spent expanding her foothold on her new home?
Those who stand on the threshold of the land of promise are not literally the Israelites whom God freed from Egyptian slavery. They are the children and grandchildren of the Israelite slaves. So they don’t remember Egyptian slavery. What’s more, their memories of the wilderness journey are hazy, if not non-existent. The Israelites have just spent hundreds of years scratching and clawing their way through the wilderness. So it’s understandable if they’ve been too busy to remember just who (or, more particularly, whose) they are. Joshua 9’s rituals serve to remind Israelites of their identity.
The Lectionary does not appoint Joshua 9’s account of Israel’s mass circumcision for this Sunday. But those who preach the rest of Joshua 9 do well to remember that circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Israel. Apparently while Israelites who had been born in Egypt were circumcised, those born in the wilderness were not. So Joshua reminds Israel of her identity as God’s covenant partner by demanding that her males be circumcised before they get too far into the land of promise.
After Joshua circumcises the Israelite men, as part of the text the Lectionary does appoint for this Sunday, God tells Joshua “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (9). Gilgal, the name of the first city Israel occupies in the land of promise, seems to be a pun on the Hebrew word for “I have rolled away.” Yet no one’s exactly sure just what God has “rolled away.” Many scholars suggest it’s the shame that’s associated with Israel’s slavery in Egypt. However, a few scholars wonder if Egypt’s “reproach” would be Egypt’s denigration of God if God had allowed the Israelites to die in the wilderness. Either interpretation, however, reflects the new beginning that Israel’s circumcision marks in her national life.
God goes on in today’s Old Testament text to further remind Israel of her identity by calling her to celebrate the Passover. That feast, of course, celebrates God’s liberation of God’s Israelite people from their Egyptian slavery. It had been, in fact, first celebrated on the night of the Exodus itself. However, it seems that Israel had not celebrated the Passover in the wilderness.
So it’s not just that their Passover celebration reminds the Israelites of their identity as those chosen and liberated by the Lord. It also serves to mark a renewal of an old ritual that takes on a kind of new meaning in the land of promise. Now Passover reminds the Israelites they weren’t just freed from Egyptian slavery by the Lord. God didn’t just lead them through the wilderness. God didn’t even just give them a toehold in the land of promise. Israel will take possession of Canaan because God graciously gives it to her.
Yet that Passover feast marks a new beginning in the way God graciously provides for God’s Israelite people. Throughout their wanderings through the inhospitable wilderness, they have completely relied on God to feed them manna. However, on the day after the Israelites celebrate their freedom from Egyptian slavery, they also celebrate their freedom from dependence on manna. On the day after that feast, manna, in fact, seems to stop falling. Now, after all, Israel is able to begin to eat the produce of her new home, homegrown food that includes unleavened bread and roasted grain.
Yet God recognizes there’s a real danger in this switch of provisions. No one could mistake that manna was God’s gift to Israel in the wilderness. Without it, there would be only dew in the morning. With the manna, there was enough sustenance for the new day. However, now Israel is preparing to no longer travel, but settle down. But she settles not in the inhospitable wilderness, but in the land of promise that flows with milk and honey. Canaan produces enough food for Israel not only to survive, but also to flourish. Yet it leaves the question of just who provides that produce. From where does Israel’s Canaanite daily bread come? From the land of promise’s rich fertility? From Canaan’s bountiful sun and rainfall? From the Israelites good agricultural techniques?
It will not be as clear to Israel that the land of promise’s produce comes from the same divine hand that provided her with manna in the wilderness. It will be hard to tell just what Canaan produces, what Israel tills or what God provides.
It’s arguably no less easy to differentiate the source of food for citizens of the 21st century. We naturally assume that our “daily bread” comes from some combination of fertile soil, good fertilizer, sufficient rainfall and sunshine, as well as efficient harvests, transportation and merchandizing. It’s not even easy for God’s own children to recognize God as the source of all good things, including our food.
Perhaps that’s why our own rituals remain so vitally important. Few Christians either circumcise males for explicitly religious reasons or celebrate the Passover anymore. Yet we seek to let God remind us of our identities through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We may wrestle with how to celebrate them and what they mean. However, they do remind us that God is the generous and gracious source of not just our salvation, but of all good things.
It’s not especially easy to see how Joshua 5:9-12 fits into the season of Lent. Yet an examination of Luke 15 alongside our Joshua passage may prove fruitful in that regard. Both texts involve wanderings. In both instances the wanderers eventually find their way home. However, in both cases only an “other” is able to fully take away the shame of their past. God rolls away from Israel the disgrace of Egypt. Luke 15’s gracious father welcomes his wandering son with “he was lost and now is found.”
In Isak Denison’s Babette’s Feast, Babette is a talented Parisian chef who is banished from her native Paris in a time of political turmoil. She ends up in a small Danish fishing village, where she finds a deeply fragmented religious community.
The once close band of believers spends much of its time arguing with each other, harboring grudges and exchanging petty insults, much to the dismay of the two elderly sisters who head up the community. While the sisters hire Babette to be their cook, they ask her to prepare only flavorless foods, which is what they’re used to eating.
When Babette wins the lottery in Paris, she’s given an opportunity to start over again. But first, she offers to prepare a genuine banquet for the community. She treats the villagers to rare treats, the best wine, and some of the most delicious gourmet fare in the world. It’s a genuinely lavish meal.
Babette’s feast is not a ritual like circumcision or the Passover. It’s in fact the first time anyone has ever thrown such an extravagant banquet in her community. Yet it has a certain resonance with Joshua 9. Although these religious folks have no idea of the true value of Babette’s gift to them, the meal seems to restore their sense of community. They forgive past insults, drop grudges, and when the evening is finished, join hands and sing the Doxology under the stars, praising God for the extravagant gifts of creation and salvation.
Author: Stan Mast
On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, we’re a little past mid-point on our journey to the cross, and Psalm 32 gives us an opportunity for a mid-course correction. It is very easy to make light of Lent by giving up something that doesn’t really matter or by playing at spiritual disciplines. Psalm 32 reminds us that the penitence at the heart of Lent is not merely a rote recitation of sin in a confessional booth or a carefully constructed part of the Sunday morning liturgy, but a deep, honest, open, intensely personal confession of sin to God. For a world that has forgotten what such confession looks like and what it can do for us, Psalm 32 is a perfect mid-course correction.
As I reflected on this Psalm, I thought about three “kings:” David, the king from ancient history whose experience led him to write this Psalm; Donald Trump, the man who would be king, the Republican presidential candidate who professes to have no experience with this Psalm; and Richard Nixon, the disgraced king, the President who was brought down by his cover-up in the Watergate scandal.
Until recently, most scholars thought that Psalm 32 was born out of the post-adulterous guilt of David in those days when he tried to cover up his affair with Bathsheba, before his crime was exposed by the bony finger of Nathan. “You are the man!” I see no reason to abandon that traditional understanding of this Psalm; it fits David’s experience perfectly. And it fleshes out David’s words in Psalm 32 with a real story.
I thought of Donald Trump when I began to reflect on this Psalm. Early in his campaign for President, he boldly proclaimed that while he is a Christian, he has little experience with the kind of confession described in Psalm 32. After he said, “I am a Protestant, a Presbyterian, and I go to church and I love God and I love my church,” a reporter asked him if he has ever asked God for forgiveness. He answered, “I am not sure that I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. If I think I do something wrong…, I just try to make it right. I don’t bring God into the picture.”
Some younger readers will not have my vivid memories of President Nixon and the Watergate scandal, but his name is synonymous with the word “cover up.” He was driven from office not so much by the fact that a group of lower level Republican operatives broke into the Watergate Hotel, but by the fact that he attempted to cover up his own involvement in that fiasco. It was not the original crime as much as his subsequent efforts to cover his guilt that brought him down. That’s what Psalm 32 talks about—the cover up.
Indeed, if I were to preach on this text, my sermon would be entitled “The Cover Up,” not only because David uses that word as part of his confession (verse 5), but also because that’s the word he uses to describe God’s forgiveness of his sin. “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” Further, the idea of being covered is suggested by David’s description of his post-forgiveness faith experience. “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble….” (verse 7) That reminded me of Moses hiding in the cleft of the Rock in Exodus 33, where God covered him with his hand as God passed by in all his glory. That, in turn, made me think of how Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves after they fell into sin, and how God replaced their hastily devised cover up with skins from slain animals. That intimation of blood being shed reminded me of that famous text in Heb. 9:22, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” All of that brought to mind a central Old Testament conception of salvation that is currently out of favor with many preachers, the idea of expiation, which has to do with covering over sin with blood.
But I digress into my own thought processes. Let’s follow David’s train of thought. While the whole subject of the confession of sin sounds like a real downer, David clearly did not experience or explain it that way. His first word is a twice repeated “blessed,” and his last words are a call to sing and rejoice. In a world that follows a million different paths to happiness, David had discovered that there is no happiness in the deepest sense of being “blessed” without an open and honest confession of sin. Indeed, the Bible is filled with these Beatitudes, but Psalm 32 suggests that forgiveness by God is the first and principal basis for a truly happy life. That will come as news to a world wearing fig leaves and hiding from God. David’s words about confession and forgiveness are not an invitation to writhe in moral misery or to wallow in guilt or to blush with shame, but to sing for joy over the blessing of forgiveness.
David ends his opening riff on the blessedness of being forgiveness with a word that is crucial to forgiveness. Blessed is the person “in whose spirit there is no deceit.” That is the human secret of forgiveness; that is what God requires of us in the mysterious transaction of forgiveness. We must come to God with no deceit—not with no sin (that, after all, is why we must confess), but with no deceit. In what follows we discover that deceit can take two forms.
First, and most obviously, deceit can take the form of covering up our sin with a code of silence. “When I kept silent” out of fear (as Adam did) or out of stubborn pride (as Nixon did) or even out of ignorance (as do many today who do not know the Scripture at all), I suffered terribly. In words that anticipate modern psychology, David describes the physical, emotional and spiritual effects of covering up sins with silence. Through his suffering David experienced the hand of God upon him, not in grace, but in judgment. Does that mean that every episode of suffering is a judgment of God upon our sin? Of course not! Job and Jesus teach us not to think that way. But when we keep guilty silence, we do experience the heavy hand of God, even if we don’t know what we’re feeling.
The way to the blessedness of forgiveness, says David, is to stop being deceitful, and that means breaking the silence. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord….’” This breaking of silence is so important. It is not enough to feel remorse secretly, to counsel with oneself, to simply turn around and try to do better. Something has happened, something terrible, something that broke relationship, something that became part of the history between you and the Other, something that affected you deeply. For things to be restored, the silence must be broken. Only then can we experience full and free forgiveness. “I said, ‘I will confess… to the Lord’—and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
But there’s a second way we can be deceitful with regard to our confession of sin. We can be deceitful in the very act of confession– if it is a routine shallow mouthing of words, or if it is a thoughtless easy presumption on God’s forgiveness, or, more subtly, if we see our confession as an act of righteousness that earns God’s forgiveness. The honest truth is that God forgives us not because we confess our sins, but because Jesus’ blood and righteousness covers that sin. Today’s lectionary lesson from the Epistles puts it in this stunning way: “God made him who had no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (II Corinthians 5:21)” The confession of sins, then, is nothing more than a humble act of faith in God’s grace in Christ. Note how David emphasizes faith in verse 10; “but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the person who trusts in him.” As the hoary old hymn, Rock of Ages, put it, “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”
David wanted to be sure that his awful/wonderful experience wouldn’t get lost in the mist of history, so he wrote this Psalm to instruct all Israel. In his speech to God, David is also addressing us. “Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to you (in this fashion) while you may be found.” Do those last words suggest that there may be a time when God can’t be found, when it is too late to confess our sins, when forgiveness is out of the question? We have a suggestion of an answer to that dreadful question in Isaiah 55:6. There we hear those same words about “seeking the Lord while he may be found,” but they are part of a passionate plea to return to the Lord and they are attended by a profound promise that he will always pardon those who do return. That seems to indicate that the only people who can’t find God and his grace are those who deceive themselves to the end, who never return, who keep silent about their sins and the Savior forever.
David didn’t want that to happen to anyone, so he writes this Psalm about confession and forgiveness to “instruct, teach, and counsel” his people. He begs them to learn from his example, rather than being like horses and mules that don’t have understanding. I wonder if his reference to using bit and bridle to lead those brute beasts is a metaphorical way of talking about God’s forceful ways of breaking our guilty silence. Is David saying something like this? Uncover your sins willingly so that God doesn’t have to lay his heavy hand on you. I know, we need to be very careful with such heavy handed warnings, but there is such a thing as severe mercy.
If you do take that tack in your sermon, be sure you don’t end there. Even as he began with the buoyant proclamation of blessedness, David ends with the blessed assurance that “the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him.” No wonder he calls on “the righteous” to “rejoice in the Lord.” Those who are upright in heart (because they have stopped being deceitful in spirit) can sing with joy to the Lord. That’s how a sermon on this penitential Psalm should be framed and preached—as a call to the joy of forgiveness, which comes only to those who walk the Via Dolorosa of deep, honest, open, intensely personal confession of sins. That’s the paradoxical Good News of Psalm 32. Those who uncover their sins before God will experience the joy of having their sins covered by God’s grace in Christ.
Every married couple has experienced the kind of guilty silence David talks about. In the depths of a marital dispute, it can be very hard to come clean and say that you were wrong and ask forgiveness. So we don’t always do it. But that un-confessed sin becomes part of the relationship, laying a brick of hurt and sorrow and anger between the two of you. If that happens often enough, a brick wall of offense given and taken can separate you. Finally the love is blocked and you are wondering about the future of the marriage. Simply feeling bad about it, wishing it were different, thinking about how to make it better, trying to act like everything is fine—none of that will fix a marriage broken by sin and the ensuring guilty silence. Only the hard work of confession and forgiveness can restore the joy of “unfailing love.”
David’s description of the suffering produced by his sin and guilt reminded me of the fevered thoughts and deeds of the murderer Raskalnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I just read an updated version of such suffering in the murder mystery, The Executor, by Jesse Kellerman. Joseph Geist is a hapless philosophy student; he is broke and homeless, recently estranged from his long time girlfriend, unable to finish his PhD dissertation after 8 years, and thus dismissed from the program. He finds a lovely home and a delightful companion with an aged woman who was herself a philosopher. Joseph is so happy with her that he will do anything to keep things as they are, including murdering her ne’er do well nephew and her meddling maid. So begins his suffering, which includes physical misery and eventual madness. And so it goes.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Author: Scott Hoezee
When we were younger, we perhaps naively thought that so long as we were sincere and well-intentioned then, even if we made mistakes (as we all do) we could avoid creating any enemies, avoid having anyone who so disliked us as to avoid us in public even as they derided us in private. But then one day you wake up and suddenly realize that, as it turns out, you now have a small list of folks with whom you once had contact but to whom you no longer speak. With some of these people a chance encounter at the supermarket creates awkwardness: some hand wringing and a nervous looking down at your feet. With others, though, chance meetings are ugly reminders of how deep the rupture is. In those situations there is no conversation, awkward or otherwise, but just sheer avoidance and icy stares.
And it hurts. When I was in seminary, I never imagined such things, certainly not within the context of the church. Yet it happens. Rifts and gaps open up between people for all kinds of reasons. Those who once complimented now critique, those who once thought well of you could scarcely be less charitable now.
Paul knew what that felt like. He had had a good experience in the city of Corinth. The church he planted was filled with people dear to his heart, and though the Corinthians were a feisty group loaded with potential problems, Paul loved them and, even after leaving Corinth, prayed for them every day. So how it must have hurt to learn that in Corinth his reputation has been shattered. After Paul’s departure some nay-sayers came to town and called Paul into question. They impugned Paul’s credentials, claiming he had no right to call himself an apostle. They alleged that Paul was a money-grubber and a charlatan whose motives were impure and whose so-called “gospel” was just so much hogwash and heresy.
So in this second letter to the Corinthians Paul, with grit teeth sometimes and through tears at other times, has to defend himself. At the conclusion of this fifth chapter, Paul’s desire to clear his name combines with his effort to repeat the true gospel, resulting in a sublime passage of great power. The centerpiece is reconciliation. By grace alone and because of Jesus, God has reconciled us to himself.
The result of this cosmic reconciliation is that we now look at everything differently. We look at everything and everyone through the lens of reconciliation. We are ambassadors of reconciliation as we call others to believe in Jesus and so find themselves in a good relationship with God. But it’s not just about the vertical dimension between God and us. Being caught up in God’s salvation changes everything on this human, horizontal plane, too.
“Once upon a time,” Paul writes, “we regarded Jesus only from a human point of view and when we did, we didn’t think much of him. But now we see Jesus and everyone in a divine perspective and it changes everything.” In the Greek Paul talks about regarding Jesus and each other kata sarx, which literally means “according to the flesh.” If we look at Jesus as no more than just another flesh-and-blood human being among the billions of other flesh-and-blood people who populate this globe, then there’s nothing remarkable about Jesus. If Jesus is only human, then to worship him is idolatry. But Jesus is also the Son of God, so we are right to worship him. You cannot look at Jesus only according to his human side.
But Paul makes a parallel between looking at Jesus in a complete way and looking at each other in a complete way. But none of us is divine, so what is the parallel here? Well, the parallel, according to Paul, is that because we are all “in Christ,” we are more than just human, too–there is more to us than meets the eye!
We are the bearers of God’s saving grace with the Holy Spirit living inside us. Of course we don’t treat each other like pieces of meat! Of course we do not ever think that broken relationships are no big deal. No! We are caught up in the grip of God’s cosmic reconciliation in Christ. Jesus died so that fractured relationships, dysfunctional families, lost friendships, and ruptured social circles could be restored.
From a purely human point of view it’s easy to see alienation among people and chalk it up to just the way life goes. Things like that happen, we might conclude. One friend says the wrong thing to another and that’s it. Romances break up, friends drift apart. In congregations, as in corporations, people come, people go. Some people like each other, some people can’t stand each other. The person to whom you were once close is now the one you cross the street just to avoid. Happens all the time. It’s the same all over.
But the gospel screams God’s thunderous “No!” to that kind of casual dismissal of alienation. Paul knew that in his own lifetime he had gone from being God’s number one enemy to God’s beloved apostle. There was a time in his life when if someone mentioned the name “Jesus” in Paul’s presence, Paul (who was then called Saul) turned purple and began to sputter profane vindictives about that name Jesus–a name he was intent on wiping from the face of the earth. Even years later Paul no doubt sometimes awoke in the dead of night, cold sweat running down his forehead, because of the nightmares in which he remembered the Christians he had run through with a sword, the dear women he had dragged away by their hair, that look on Stephen’s face just before the last stone hit his forehead and took his life. Paul knew from his own experience that reconciling former enemies is the main reason Jesus died. He was a living example of that!
A contemporary theologian who has done a tremendous amount of thinking about reconciliation is Miroslav Volf. He once wrote that in God’s heavenly kingdom, it cannot be just impersonal forces of evil that are done away with. It cannot be just the entire creation, broadly conceived, which gets reconciled with its God. No, Volf says, it has to get more specific than that. Before we can all dwell happily together in the shalom of God’s kingdom there needs to be real reconciliation between earthly enemies. Perpetrators and victims must embrace. Those who have lived in conflict need to have that conflict put away if there is to be shalom. It’s not just the lion and the lamb that need to learn to curl up next to one another but all of us who have lived as the human equivalents of lambs and lions in how we have treated each other. There can be no peace in God’s kingdom so long as there is anyone there who would just as soon cross over to the other side of a golden street in order to avoid you.
To be reunited with former friends is our hope. Of course, we also hope for other things, like a day when sickness and cancer will be no more. But even as for now we are not done with tumors, so for now we may also never be fully reconciled with everyone. There are many reasons for that. Sometimes it’s sinful stubbornness which blocks the fixing of things. Other times there is nothing we can do as there is too much hurt such that our efforts to be kind are rebuffed or just make matters worse. Still other times the kind of hurt and psychological damage we have sustained is too intense to overcome. In short, there are times when there is not a blessed thing we can do to repair what’s broken in life.
As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, in the Lord’s Supper the minister holds up a whole loaf of bread as a reminder of the whole, perfect presence of God among his people. But then that loaf is shattered, broken, torn, and the crumbs fall onto the table. It is a reminder that our perfect wholeness, that peace for which we yearn and pine, is not behind us but up ahead yet. Wholeness is coming, but the broken loaf reminds us that it is coming not through what we’ll do but through what Jesus already did. His brokenness is what will one day put our lives back together whole and complete, relationships and all.
Such was Paul’s message of hope to the Corinthians from the midst of that messy, hurtful situation. Such is God’s message to us from the midst of the messes of our own lives. There is a reconciliation, a wholeness, and a peace which endures. It’s a peace we need to remember and hold onto, even (or maybe especially) from the squalor of our lives.
Tom Long was once asked to preach at what was billed as a special “family worship service.” It was a great idea . . . on paper. The notion was to hold the worship service not in the sanctuary but in the fellowship hall. There, families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a mini-loaf of bread. The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, the minister would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
It was a great idea . . . on paper. But it didn’t work well. Within minutes the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as children hurled bits of the dough at each other. Husbands and wives began to snipe, nerves were frayed. Then the ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. Children whimpered, babies screamed, families were on the verge of falling apart. But finally, and mercifully, the end of the service came. The script called for Long to pronounce the normal blessing saying, “The peace of God be with you.” Too tired and irritable to ad-lib anything, Long just said it straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and saying, “The peace of God be with you.” And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up, “It already is.”
When we come to the Lord’s table, we do so coming from the broken mess that just is our life in a fallen creation. Maybe we’ve reconciled what we can and, by God’s grace, perhaps we will be able to do still more. But it’s not all fixed, not yet. Much though we might like to, the fact is that we still can’t shake hands with some folks. Yet we reach out those same hands for the bread and wine now. And over the chaos of it all come the words, “The peace of God be with you.” The good news is that somehow, some way, it already is. Because once upon a time God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. Amen.