12 March 2013

Welcome Home

Rembrandt (1606-1669), Return of the Prodigal

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 10th March 2013

Do you have a life verse?  Do you have a favorite verse of the Bible?  One that you turn to for inspiration, affirmation, comfort, strength?  Is there one text or one story that sums up what it means to be a child of faith, a follower of Christ, alive in the Spirit? For some, it’s John 3:16 and 17.  A dear friend from New Jersey often signs her cards and letters with Matthew 5:16: “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Growing up, especially during my teenage and college years, Proverbs 3:5, 6, was one of mine:  “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  Acknowledge him in all your ways and he shall direct your paths.”  

            As an adult, there’s one verse that probably sums up the gospel for me, that captures the heart of my faith and ministry. It’s 2 Corinthians 5:17-19, particularly verse 19. I think this is the core of the gospel:  “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 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.”

            Why these verses?  Paul goes right to the heart of what he experienced in his own life.  Paul’s epistles are written with a pastor’s heart. And while we might not agree with everything he says, he’s strongest when he’s writing from the heart of his experience: when he speaks movingly about who Christ is to him, when he speaks eloquently of the new man he had become through this same Christ, sharing his strong conviction that God had accomplished something new for him and for the world through the cross, of the transformation that took place in his own life, being the former persecutor of Christians, and thus holding out for us the same experience: to become new people in this new age of resurrection.

            When Paul talks about being a new creation in Christ, he’s not talking hypothetically from a vacuum, he’s not offering a religious idea and asking us to just believe it or accept, and he’s not making a philosophical argument. Instead, he’s talking about what he knows to be true, and he’s trying to be faithful to it with every ounce of his being, every bone in his body, and with every intellectual means possible, to serve this new creation with all his strength. He knows – he doesn’t have to struggle with belief or unbelief – he knows it, in his heart, in his spirit, in his gut, in his blood, sweat and tears.  He knows that when you get mixed up with Jesus of Nazareth you’re changed, you’re never the same. In fact, you feel like you’re someone new, or different, that something new and different has occurred deep within your soul that’s you, yet not you, but Christ (see Galatians 2:10-20). And because of this “something,” this shift, this re-creation within, you find that your perspective has changed. You’re outlook has changed. You no longer see the world the same way, you can’t. We no longer see issues – especially social and political issues –the same way. And you no longer see your sister or brother the same way. Your feelings have changed. Your thoughts have changed. Everything that appeared old and stale and empty of life now appears new and fresh and full of vitality.

            This is what Paul is getting at – it’s his experience of transformation at the heart of the Christian experience. It’s not dissimilar to what Jesus said to Nicodemus when he said, “You must be born again” or literally, in the Greek, “You must be born from above” (John 3:3).  “To be born from above” speaks to the other thing that Paul knew – this new life, this new creation, this new world he discovered in Christ had nothing to do with Paul, it had nothing to do with what Paul could confess or believe, it did not come from living a good life or trying to be a good person or trying to follow the Ten Commandments or the Law. The new life broke into his life the moment Christ blinded Paul with the truth that threw him to the ground on the Damascus Road – his life would never be the same again (Acts 9:1-19a). He didn’t go looking for this new life; he didn’t expect it. Much of his life was in open rebellion against God. But God made the first move, reached across the void of Paul’s separation and alienation from God, in order to set right a life set off on the wrong course: to heal a broken fellowship with God.

            That’s what God was doing through Christ – reaching across our alienation from God to bring us home, prodigals all that we are.

            That’s what God was doing through Christ – putting right a life full of wrong so that the wrong can never again hinder our connection with God.

            That’s what God was doing through Christ – reconciling the world to Godself and not counting – not counting! – our trespasses, our debts against us.

            That’s what Paul discovered was in the heart of God, and he saw into the heart of God through the face of Jesus Christ, the same Jesus who says that God is like a parent who welcomes a wayward child home (Luke 15).

            This was an exceptionally rich week for me.  On Monday and Tuesday I was with 650 other Presbyterians in Charlotte, NC, attending the NEXT Church Conference, with Presbyterians trying to figure out what God is up to in the world and trying to discern what’s coming NEXT for the PC (USA).  It was an invigorating experience.  It became clear that what we’re looking for, what the world is really looking forward to is reconciliation.  To know that one is reconciled to God, God to humanity – humanity to God, and an experience of reconciliation with our sisters and brothers.

            Yesterday, we hosted the Covenant Network of Presbyterian Baltimore/DC Regional Conference around the theme of hospitality.  Henry Brinton, pastor at the Fairfax Presbyterian Church, Fairfax, VA, was our keynote speaker.  He stressed the fact that one of the fruits of the Christian life, one of the fruits of embodying the gift of hospitality, of welcome, is the experience of reconciliation.  It stands at the heart of the gospel.[1]

            We are reconciled to God – all debts paid, all delinquent accounts settled.  We are reconciled to God – we didn’t do it, it’s been done for us; we didn’t earn it, it’s merely ours to receive; it’s ultimately not about us, but about this new act of God raising Christ from the grave, inaugurating a triumph over everything that hinders us from God, everything that alienates us from what our hearts long for more than anything else – to be close to God, to be at peace with God, to be at home with God, to be whole and wholly in God.

            This might appear too good to be true, too simple. There’s something within us, maybe as Westerners, as Americans, that feels that we have to work hard and earn this reconciliation, that we have to prove that we are worthy of such a welcome. Lots of people believe this, even folks who have been in the church all their lives believe this way. They might sing “Amazing Grace,” but they don’t really believe it.  We assume we have work for and earn our welcome – this is just rubbish.  Yes, God’s grace might sound too good to be true, but maybe it’s too good not to be true?

            The gospel has power, above all other philosophies and probably most other religions, because it speaks to the plight of the human condition. The gospel offers good news to humanity lost in a swirl of bad news. It provides a way of healing for the broken, alienated heart, a healing that can’t come from within the human condition.  It can’t come from within the human condition, but must come from beyond it, outside it, from God. That’s why reconciliation cannot come from within us, within our alienation from God, each other, and our alienation with ourselves. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), many existentialist philosophers and theologians have taught us this. We’re too broken for that, all of us.  We are too trapped in ourselves, caught in our circumstances to heal ourselves, to save ourselves. That’s why it has to come from outside us.

            One of the wisest philosophical minds of the last century got right to the heart of the matter, to the heart of Paul, to the heart of the human condition. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) said, “Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean a theory about what has happened or will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life.”[2] And that something is reconciliation, transformation, redemption, salvation – call it what you will. It all speaks to the healing of the human heart that every heart is crying out for. It’s about God making broken people whole.

            Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) once told a story to illustrate the popularity of the Spanish name Paco and in doing so showed something else. “A father journeyed to Madrid to put an ad in the local paper that read: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON WEDNESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA. The next day the authorities had to muster a squadron of the Civilian Guard to disperse the mob of 800 young men who massed on the street in front of the inn.”[3]

            We’re all Pacos, hungry for forgiveness, hungry to be reconciled to God, to others, to the past, to ourselves, hungry for that welcome.  Peace with God and with others and ourselves. This is the ministry entrusted to the church. This is why we exist. If this has been your experience, then you’re called to be its witness, you’re called to be its servant, wherever you live and work. Restoring broken fellowship wherever you find it, restoring broken communities, here we witness the presence of Christ here with us. Into a world such as ours, when we open our eyes and see the ruin of broken lives strewn everywhere, especially in war and terror, brutality and violence – into this world, we have been entrusted with this hope, this experience. This is what we are called to do. This is God’s good news. Amazing, indeed.

[1] Brinton's keynote is based on his recently released book:  The Welcoming Congregation:  Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).
[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (1977), cited in Fergus Kerr, Theology after Wittgenstein (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1989), 182.
[3] Cited in Donald W. McCullough, The Trivialization of God:  The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs, CO:  NavPress, 1995), 100.

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