2 Corinthians 5:16-21 is as compelling, important and timely a text as we have in all of Scripture. Reconciliation isn’t just a buzzword in church life and among recent seminary grads. It’s our historic work – and we need to engage in it zealously, patiently, doggedly and in hope, given the extreme divisions and intense rancor in society (not to mention the church!). We did a whole series on Reconciliation year before last (with Christena Cleveland, Matt Rawle, Ben Witherington and more! ); it should be our gig constantly.
Cleveland (Disunity in Christ) is especially sharp on the nature of the work of reconciliation. We can meet God in our cultural context, but then to follow God we must cross over into other contexts. She explains how “group polarization” works – we experience confirmation of our views because of our narrow social circle or social media tricks. Church makes it worse! God calls us to “cognitive generosity,” as we expand our “we,” and discover the fruit and joy of the hard labor of reconciliation.
Reconciliation isn’t an optional add-on for some churches. This is the church’s work, always, everywhere. Not splitting up, or even being “right.” Sam Wells (in God’s Companions) reminds us that, for us, ethics isn’t so much about what’s right and wrong, but what builds up the Church. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out how our “goodness” can actually get in the way of us doing God’s will; God doesn’t ask for goodness, keeping our hands clean, but prefers we do whatever God asks, which will likely involve getting our hands dirty.
Notice Paul begins with “from now on” – assuming the saving work of Christ and consequent community engagement and commitment to holiness he’s just talked about. This is totally new – a “new creation.” The Christian isn’t 14% nicer or 11% more generous. We are all new. And we see others through new eyes. Echoing the haunting truth that “God does not see as we see” (1 Sam. 16:7 – when David was the one chosen, not the taller, more muscular sons of Jesse).
And why do we see differently? Not just because God said Look at them this way! For Paul, it is that Jesus was once viewed as merely a guy. But now he’s the risen Son, the Messiah, our Savior. We, too, used to be mere people; but now we are “ambassadors” for God! Then, as if to be sure we don’t miss it (since we might), Paul pleads, urges: “See?!?!”
This seeing differently, the enactment of reconciliation, is embodied in what many think is Jesus’ best story, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. The pious file their ironic complaint: “This fellow” (love the distant dismissiveness of the term) “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They find fault with the root purpose of his mission. Perfectly nuanced – and impactful for the pious of today.
The prodigal son. Or is it the older son who’s prodigal (as in lost)? Or is it the father who’s prodigal (as in lavish, generous)? Think of Tim Keller’s lovely little book, Prodigal God, and even better, Henri Nouwen’s brilliant and moving The Return of the Prodigal Son (his best book by far, in my eyes).Watch! – the best 11 minutes you’ll spend any time soon. I may just show this instead of preaching. Here we see reconciliation on intersecting planes: Peter to Christ, Peter to Matthew, like us to God and us to others. Amazing.
Commentaries will advise on legal issues: the father gives all he has to the two sons – so the boy isn’t just squandering his money, it’s his father’s security! Notice the son doesn’t “repent” or have some religious moment in the pig sty. He’s just desperate – and if anything he sounds a bit cynical, as if he knows he can still take advantage of his dad.
Who is just the type. Not demanding the son grovel, he swoops him up and throws a party. All mercy. And all joy: God’s kingdom isn’t about getting straight with God, but it’s about raucous delight, total joy. The Kingdom is a party.
Which the older son can’t comprehend, so ossified is he in his smug doing good. Nouwen, feeling for the steely, distant brother in Rembrandt’s painting of the moment the younger son returns, asks about his own soul: “Had I really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God, instead of choosing over and over again the position of the outsider looking in? There are so many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. These voices say, ‘Go out and prove that you are worth something.’ Do you know these voices like I do? They cut deep inside into those vulnerable recesses where we doubt our worth, where we know we can never achieve enough; they wrap ‘what I do’ around ‘who I am’ and cruelly lie to us. They suggest that I am not going to be loved without my having earned it. They want me to prove to myself and others that I am worth being loved. They deny loudly that love is a totally free gift.”
I regret the lectionary skips the lost coin and the lost sheep; I preached on these last time around. On a panel, I once asked my friend Alisa Lasater Wailoo, pastor of Capitol Hill UMC in Washington, Who is God? She answered with the lost coin story –that God is like this woman, down on her hands and knees, searching diligently in the cracks to find that one lost coin, to find us.
The sheep story echoes this. It’s not sufficient in God’s Kingdom to say, Hey, we have 99, that’s not bad. No, we even risk losing the mass in hand to search out the one that’s lost.