God is reconciling the world in Christ, in God’s way, not ours, and if we are ambassadors of this reconciliation we need to bear it fully and truly in our lives.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, year C
texts: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Does God get to be who God wants to be? Can God do what God wants?
Obviously, yes. The Triune God created the heavens and the earth, galaxies and mitochondria, all things. God can be and do whatever God pleases.
But the Triune God is mostly hidden from view in our world. We don’t see God directly. How people see God depends upon interpreters of God.
So: does God get to be and do what God wants? Yes. Does the world get to see the truth about who God is and what God wants? That depends.
This matters, because we are called to speak for God. Paul says that, baptized into Christ, we are ambassadors for Christ, through us God is making an appeal to the world. If we won’t accept who God is and what God does on God’s terms, we’ll deliver the world a misleading and untrue appeal.
As Paul says in another letter, we’ll misrepresent God.
Since we’re not comfortable with who God is in Jesus’ parable today, we may have a big problem.
Wait, you say, isn’t this our favorite parable? We love the story of the prodigal father who freely loves and forgives, who welcomes us when we’re lost.
Maybe. We like to think God will do that for us. Judging from the way Christians, even Lutherans, speak of God’s grace and forgiveness in the world, though, we’ve got serious problems with God’s approach.
This parable is a poor example of parenting, we think. The father enables the younger son’s misbehavior, foolishly giving him his inheritance without strings attached and welcoming him back without strings attached after he wasted it all. He overlooks that his younger son wants him dead and doesn’t care about the shame this puts on him. He doesn’t care about losing face with his older son, and lets him painfully insult and criticize him, responding in love and welcome. He’s never heard of our concept of “tough love.”
When Christians speak of God’s grace, it’s rarely with this fullness. We speak of God needing satisfaction for our sins, of the wrath of God that only Jesus can appease by his death. We threaten people that they can’t expect to be forgiven if they keep on sinning. To hear most Christians, God is nothing like this father.
But if Jesus is the Son of God, the face of the Trinity for us, and this is how Jesus says the Triune God acts, does Jesus get to be right? Or do we get to impose our indignation, our suspicion, our conditional grace on God?
Does the Triune God get to be like this father? Or will we speak and act as if God is different?
If we could, we’d have some criticisms to make to God.
We’d say, look, there are problems with your approach. If you offer grace freely, like this story, you’re going to get taken advantage of. People will sin and ask forgiveness, and go and sin again. They’ll get away with anything, knowing you’re a soft touch. No one will respect you if you don’t defend what’s right.
But the Triune God’s answer is, “what’s your point? Just what do you think happened on the cross, anyway? Don’t you see that taking on your flesh, living among you, I embodied this unconditional love and forgiveness and because it didn’t fit your world view, your sense of justice, your need to earn things, you killed me for it?”
Of course God will be taken advantage of if God acts like this father. Christ Jesus proved that. Even risen from the dead, he didn’t punish his faithless followers, he still loved them, and invited them once more to be people bearing his love in the world.
We may not parent in this way. We may not love in this way. But this is the way that God is. Like it or not. God is not made in our image. As God says in Hosea 11, “I’m God, not human. I don’t have to be like you.”
In this parable, Jesus only gives us one relevant thing: God’s love is unstoppable.
We who need accountability get no answers here we really want. Does the younger son straighten up after this? Does the elder son come into the party? Are he and his brother reconciled? Who knows?
All of that is irrelevant to Jesus’ point. Why the younger son wanted to leave, why he wasted his inheritance, is irrelevant to the story. Why the older son felt left out, and didn’t realize how much his father loved him, is irrelevant. Jesus gives us only enough to fill out the story.
What we get clearly is the unconditional, unassailable, foolish, self-giving love of the father for his sons. This parable says one thing: God will deal with human sin by loving us out of it, into new life. Remember, this is Jesus’ response to the criticism that he spends his time with sinners.
We might think it’s inadequate. That doesn’t matter to God. This is who God is.
God will heal us by unconditionally loving us into life. Nothing else matters.
Paul says in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. The Triune God comes among us in person, living unconditional love and grace, inviting us to live in that love by loving God and neighbor, to live and move and have our being in such foolish, unrestricted love.
It breaks all our rules. We resent that God offers love to people who are evil, people who don’t deserve it, people who don’t intend to change. God’s love as shown in this parable is the opposite of how the world works. So much so that Jesus was executed for living this. So much so that we crucify Jesus by killing this message and covering God’s grace with all our rules and restrictions.
What we do with this doesn’t change God. This is how God will save all things.
The only question is, will we faithfully carry this message to the world?
God will reconcile all things in Christ and bring a new thing into being, whether we like it or not. Of course it’s messy; remodeling something into new always is. Winning people back by love means a lot of pain and struggle and difficulty. The cross was only the beginning of that.
But this is the message we are called to speak, the ministry we are called to bear as ambassadors. Maybe we fear to admit the truth about God because we fear being taken advantage of, too. We’ll be as vulnerable and look as weak as God. We’ll risk being walked on, misused. That’s the deal.
We’re not as comfortable with this parable as we thought, and so we hesitate to follow Christ with our whole lives.
But remember what this parable is: a promise of welcome in the loving embrace of the Triune God that cannot be taken from us.
When we resent God loving others freely and unconditionally, we forget this: God’s throwing a party of love, a feast of grace, and we’re invited. We’re invited, even if we’ve wasted our inheritance, rejected God in our lives, and run away to do what we wanted. Even if we’ve seen God’s love as a duty and have been “good children”, slaving to be the best we can be, missing the joy of living in God’s love. Even if we haven’t figured out how to keep from sinning after being forgiven. Even if we resent others getting breaks from God that we don’t. We’re invited, period.
God gets to be and do what God wants to be and do. And what God wants to be and do is love.
Love the world, love us, love all, back into new life, love us out of our sin, love us into the image of God. The party is waiting, and it’s for the whole world.
This is what we get to live and tell in our lives. This is the message we get to bear as Christ’s ambassadors to the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen