“Be reconciled to God.”
We can take Paul’s exhortation in two ways this morning. In Lent we are most often asked to consider how we can be reconciled to God from God’s point of view, in light of our sin which separates us from God. That is indeed an important and necessary part of our reconciliation. And, this morning our scriptures invite us to consider also how we can be reconciled to God from our point of view, in light of the resentment and distrust we often hold toward God.
At first glance, the story that has come down to us as “The Prodigal Son” is a straightforward redemption story that focuses on the younger son. He asks for his share of the inheritance, squanders it “in dissolute living”, comes to rock bottom, and then “comes to himself”. He realizes that while he cannot have the life he had, he can still have a good life. So he goes back to reconcile with his father, to serve him as a servant if he cannot serve him as a child and heir. The father on his part greets him with joy and is quick to reconcile, restores him as a child if not an heir, and throws a luxurious party to celebrate his return. All well and good. But Jesus does not end the story with this happy ending. Instead, he continues the story with the arrival of the elder son, who bitterly resents the father’s joyful reception of the younger son with no retribution. He resents also the father’s lack of appreciation for his, the elder son’s, hard work. The elder son refuses to join the party even when his father pleads with him to come in. He refuses his relationship with his brother (“this son of yours”, he calls him). He questions his father’s love for him himself. We never do find out if he joins the party or not.
If we are honest, as we are called to be in Lent, it is often a challenge for us – the good people, the Christians, the members of the Church – to be reconciled to God in the face of what God and others choose to do. Even if others repent or undergo the consequences of bad or even evil choices, we still find it hard to believe that God can or should love them as much as we should be loved in our goodness and hard work. Some of you may remember the denial and outrage when it was reported that Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer, had repented and become a Christian in prison, and that when Dahmer was killed in prison the chaplain stated that he himself did believe that Jeffrey was saved and would be in heaven with God. Likewise the denial and outrage when Charles Colson, Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, repented in prison and went on to found his Prison Fellowship. Some folks found it very hard to pray for George W. Bush and Richard Cheney as they professed to be brothers in Christ, and some folks find it very hard to pray for Barack Obama as he professes the same. And in any given church deliberation more and more progressives and conservatives draw lines in the sand, with no allowances that God might even conceivably be present with the other “side”. These are just some of the challenges within Christianity. How much more are we encouraged by our culture and our own privilege to demonize the poor, the uneducated, the different, the refugee, the “uncivilized”, even as our delicate sensibilities call us to resent or distrust God on their behalf. Like the elder brother with his father, we often feel that we have worked very hard as good people, and have very little to show for it, or that what we have may be taken away. We feel more and more uncertain of our place in an entangled and globalized world. Climate changes and the decisions of others who we may not even know affects us and those around us in frightening ways. The complexities of our lives make us complicit in wrongdoing without our knowledge or consent. How can we be reconciled to God, who insists on love toward that which so deserves punishment?
In any relationship, there are times when one party has a grievance against the other, a big one or a small one. That is not the problem; the problem arises when the aggrieved party does not talk about the grievance with the other party. This then becomes a problem for both; as the Psalmist says, “when I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all the day long”. As with sins we have committed, so with sins we feel are committed against us. If we do not express our grievances, they fester, and turn to distrust and resentment. The problem is then compounded when the other party may not realize there is a problem. The elder brother at least expressed his resentment and distrust toward his father. The father then had an opportunity to respond. And he clearly stated his affection and plans: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The reason the father celebrates, and pleads for the elder brother’s celebration, is that the younger brother has come back, come back not just from dissolute choices, but from his own death and being lost to his family, the true evil of his choices. In his response toward the elder brother’s grievance, the father invites the elder brother also to “come to himself”: to realize and claim for himself his own place as his father’s son and only heir, and to rest in that true identity. Maybe to claim it to the extent that he could just take a goat and celebrate with his friends, and not work all the time. Maybe to claim it to the extent that he could join the party for his brother, back from the dead to be a son and brother again in a different way, but a son and a brother nonetheless.
Be reconciled to God. The same principle of openness applies to our relationship with God. Part of the invitation of Lent is to examine our grievances toward God, to examine the sins we feel have been committed against us through the choices of God as well as the choices of others. This is for our benefit, so that we know the grievances that we carry and so that the grievances do not fester. It is also for God’s benefit, so to speak: we may feel that God already knows, indeed must know, what our grievances are, but to express them is to give God a chance to respond and to work with us to make things right.
So what does all this have to do with atonement? One of the preachers in my home
church used to say that the meaning of “atonement” was “at-one-ment”; the same word but hyphenated – at-one-ment; that in that great mystery of atonement/at-one-ment God became truly one with us, and we are invited to be truly one with God, in all the complexities and complicities of our lives. Indeed, Paul exhorts us to be reconciled to God “on behalf of Christ”, for Christ’s sake, for the sake of the one who was both God and Human, for the sake of the one who “was made to be sin who knew no sin.” for our sake, for the sake of the one who from the very incarnation in our humanity and human life is “God With Us.” While the mystery of at-one-ment finds its expression in all of Jesus’ birth, life and ministry, it finds its fullest expression in Jesus’ crucifixion. Crucifixion is a nice word for what it really was: Jesus’ execution — by the state through injustice and torture and by the collusion of religion with political expediency and evil. The experience of crucifixion is the answer of God With Us. It is God’s answer in love and solidarity in suffering. It is God’s answer to our resentment, dist
rust, and fear of uncertainty. This is how much God loves us. This is how much God wants to be at one with us, even to our death in suffering and injustice. In the crucifixion together through Jesus Christ we may experience the worst that sin as evil has to offer, but we do not have to give in to it, we do not have to become it or retaliate in kind; we can keep the faith that evil does not have the last word, that same faith in which Jesus himself, even on the cross, knew himself reconciled to God.
Be reconciled to God. We do not know the end of the story of the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother. But we do know the end of the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. He did indeed die. But evil did not have the last word. There was instead Resurrection and Pentecost and the birth of the Church (which while often oblivious and coopted and aggravating by its own choice is for all its faults still on a good day the Body of Christ) and there is our ongoing sanctification in the work of the Holy Spirit. But these are sermons for other days. For today, we have the possibility and promise of our identity precisely as we are Christians, those who have accepted the love of God With Us and love God in return, as we do indeed work to serve the good: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”
One of my mentors in the ministry of reconciliation says that “you have to give people a way back in.” Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother in response to people who grumbled about the tax collectors and sinners who came to listen to Jesus, and grumbled about Jesus when he welcomed them and ate with them. The grumblers too were good people, religious people, who worked very hard for God, who also were challenged by the choices of God and by the choices of others. Jesus offered the story to give them a way back in, to recognize themselves in both the Prodigal Son and in the elder brother. If we are honest, as we are called to be in Lent, we too will recognize ourselves in both. As good as we may be, we are in no way perfect, in our own choices and in our judgments of the choices of others. Part of the recognition of the grievances we have with others is the recognition of the ways we may also be implicated in those grievances. To deny others a way back in is to deny it to ourselves as well.
In the mystery and paradox of atonement, God offers us a way back in to relationship, through our sin that separates us from God. God also asks us to give God a way back in through our resentment and distrust and fear of uncertainty. If we take the way back in, if we give the way back in, there is a new creation. We are no longer caught up in resentment, distrust, and the fear of uncertainty. We are reconciled to God, at one with God, able to claim our true identity as beloved and at home wherever we are, whatever happens. We also are entrusted, entrusted, God trusts us with the ministry of reconciliation for others, even those whose choices we may find challenging. We are trusted to offer others a way back in to reconciliation with God, with others, and with themselves. When we accept and offer reconciliation for ourselves with God, and accept and offer reconciliation to others, we go a long way toward the elimination of resentment, distrust, and fear of uncertainty for everyone. We go a long way toward helping to continue to create that new creation for ourselves and for the world.
Be reconciled to God. From both God’s point of view and from our own, it is love that makes reconciliation possible. May we accept our own at-one-ment, and offer at-one-ment to others, with joy and thanksgiving.