Fourth Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXTS: 1 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (1 Cor. 5:18-20)
Here’s a truth about our world: it’s full of trouble spots. And we know this—don’t we?—all too well. Long-standing animosity too frequently bubbles up into provocation and retaliation. The tragic and brutal war being waged by Russia against Ukraine is but the latest and most frightening example. Most frightening, because it could so easily spiral out of control into an unbounded nuclear conflict.
Here’s another truth about our world: in most of the trouble spots upon this earth, there are dedicated people working behind the scenes—striving for concord, hammering out the details of cease-fires and peace treaties.
But, you know … even when these negotiators are successful, their diligent efforts are but rarely acknowledged. Usually, the credit goes to the respective leaders on whose behalf they have acted. And most often—to all the armchair diplomats who watch the evening news—their work seems far too slow.
That’s because, most of the time, all we get are dribs and drabs in news reports about how the peace negotiations are grinding on with a final agreement still not reached. Sometimes, their work is conducted entirely in secret, and we never hear any details whatsoever. But without these dedicated mediators, the world, I submit, would be even more tragic and dangerous than it already is.
In most cases, their task involves trying to piece together a patchwork of compromises such that each side gives up enough of what it was asking for so as to secure the end of hostilities—but not so much that they lose face; because that would leave them even more bitter and hostile.
If the peacemakers can succeed in forging such an agreement—so that both sides can accept it—then an end to the violent hostility can be secured, and the work of reconciliation can begin.
Always, some will be unhappy with what was given away. Perhaps some loss of sovereignty. Or perhaps some monster is guaranteed immunity from prosecution for grievous crimes. It’s not perfect. However, the choice often is between compromises … or continued bloodshed.
According to the Apostle Paul, in today’s passage from his letter to the Corinthians, God has hammered out a peace agreement with the world, and has made some astonishingly big concessions in the process. Indeed, God has made exactly the sort of concessions that often cause complaining in peace agreements—most notably, offering us immunity from prosecution.
In fact, if you put the agreement God offers on the table next to some of the convoluted cease-fires and treaties that are painstakingly negotiated between hostile nations, you might start to wonder just what was in it for God.
You might be tempted to describe it as an almost complete capitulation by God. The Almighty seems to give up everything—offer everything—and demand almost nothing in return. In particular, God promises to wipe clean the record of everything we have ever done wrong.
And as if such a complete immunity from prosecution was not enough, God also offers us high-ranking diplomatic positions.
That’s right. He wants us to be his ambassadors! God calls us to represent him in the ongoing task of promoting this one-sided agreement.
We can’t imagine any of the world’s superpowers ever making such a monumental capitulation. Something close might sometimes be extracted from a very guilty party who has been single-handedly responsible for the ongoing mess … But in the case of the reconciliation deal which God offers to the world, the one who clearly holds the moral high ground is the very one who is rolling over and conceding absolutely everything.
We are the ones who took God’s gift of a beautiful planet and set about polluting it and tearing it apart with war and hatred and injustice. We are the ones who were invited to live in peaceful communion with one another, and who instead hardened our hearts and succumbed to the demons of selfishness and greed and cynicism. We are the ones who squandered our gifts, blew our inheritance, and dragged our own names—and God’s name—through the mud.
So why is God making such big concessions to secure a peace agreement with us?
It’s hard to come up with a satisfactory answer. And yet, we witness the same scenario being played out in the story Jesus told about the prodigal son. The prodigal knows he’s got no bargaining power. He has blown his father’s trust and his father’s money. He has dragged his father’s name through the mud of the pig sty. And he is desperate. He is ready and willing to give up everything for whatever shreds of his father’s care might be forthcoming.
However, what transpires is amazing. In fact, it almost becomes a competition to see who can give up the most.
The aging father bounds down the street in a most undignified manner, throws himself on his errant son, forgives him everything, and then crowns him in glory and throws a huge welcome-home party for him.
And Jesus tells this story to illustrate what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. God is like that father, he says. Our God is the picture of boundless love, offering unconditional forgiveness.
What more could God give? Well actually, according to the apostle Paul, there is more. Reputation. God was in Christ, trading reputations with us. Christ, who was never implicated in any wrongdoing, accepted guilt by association with us.
Christ put his hand up and implicated himself in our callousness, injustice and hostility. He put his reputation on the table along with everything else to secure the deal. And, says the apostle, in doing so he paved the way for us to be implicated in his goodness. He made it possible for us to become—by association with him—righteous, and blameless before God.
This is the “extreme makeover” par excellence! Christ offers to be seen as ugly as we are, in order that we might become as perfectly beautiful and unblemished as him. No wonder Paul says we’d be crazy to turn our backs on this deal! It is a take-it-or-leave-it deal, but why on earth would you leave it? You’ve got everything to gain and almost nothing to lose.
The deal is completely stacked in our favour. We are offered complete forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, a new identity, a fresh start, mercy and healing and life and love beyond our wildest imaginings. And what are we asked in return? What do we have to put on the table to complete the deal?
Well, there’s a paradox here, because the answer is both nothing and everything. God actually demands nothing of us except our willingness to accept the deal, to sign our names on the line. Everything else is completely voluntary. God signs off on the deal regardless of our response. It is sheer gift. Nothing can break this agreement. God’s gracious acceptance of you cannot be nullified. God will be all over you like the prodigal’s father, lavishing love and generous gifts on you. And it costs you nothing at all.
And yet, like I said, there’s a paradox. Not a catch, but a paradox. And it’s this: if you give nothing in return … you will fail to appreciate—and fail to enjoy—even the lavish gifts you have been given. Then you’ll end up as sad and pathetic as the prodigal’s older brother who—even though he is now the sole heir to all his father owns—is weighed down by the burden of yesterday’s resentments.
That’s the awful truth. You can be forgiven, and yet still feel burdened. You can be accepted and still exclude yourself, refusing to join the banquet of celebration. You can be loved and still feel yourself unlovable.
In this season of Lent we are reminded again and again of the discipline and commitment required to experience the full fruits of life’s greatest gifts. They are gifts, and our response is purely voluntary, but unless we do volunteer and respond in full, the gift may again be squandered, and we may horribly short-change ourselves.
God calls us to become ambassadors for Christ, to be the ones who take the news of God’s gracious reconciliation and proclaim it and live it out so that the full dimensions of God’s gracious love might be obvious to all.
God’s offer is not dependent on our acceptance of the deal. But those of us who do not accept it …
Well, we will find that we are cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Because we will deprive ourselves of the here-and-now benefits of that gracious and healing love. Those benefits will still be there for us, but we will not take advantage of them.
What a tragedy. What a waste. What a shame.
Therefore … since God’s gift of reconciliation is so graciously free—and so extravagantly generous, let us respond to the challenge of this Lenten season by committing ourselves to the way of Christ. Let’s embrace the path of disciplined love: the path which leads all the way to the cross and beyond; the way which—in its very willingness to give up everything—opens our hearts to receive the fullness of life for which we hunger.
Perhaps that’s precisely the method in God’s madness. Perhaps that’s the secret God is enjoying and trying to let us in on: that, only in putting everything on the table—everything we are and everything we have—and then letting it go … can we enter into the fullness of life and love for which we were created.
May God’s Spirit guide our thinking as we ponder these things. Amen.