March 31, 2019

ABUNDANT GRACE
4TH Sunday of Lent

BIBLE READINGS
Psalm 32
Luke 15:11-32
2 Corinthians 5:11-21

 REFLECTION

I’ve said this before and I will say it again today (and again in the future if necessary). One of the most powerful moral figures in the world, South African Desmond Tutu, once said that:

“We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”

 Friends, none of the characters that we find in the Bible (except Jesus of course) was perfect. All had flaws. All were broken. Yet, God used broken people like them to work for God’s Kingdom.

 Indeed, being righteous is not about being perfect. Righteousness is about acknowledging our weaknesses and failures. Righteousness is about accepting God’s forgiveness.

 We see this theme strongly in our reading today from the book of the Psalms. Psalm 32 sounds like a penitent Psalm. It was likely that the Psalm was sung in the temple by people who were confessing their sins.

 Sin is the major theme of Psalm 32. Sin appears in the Psalm in three different words: iniquity, deceit, and transgression:

“Happy are those
whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those
to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
(Psalm 32:1-2 – NRSV)

 Indeed, sin manifests itself in different forms. Its presence in one’s life is pervasive and complex.

Yet, the focus of the Psalm is not on sin itself. The focus of the Psalm is on God’s grace. Sin is real and God does not ignore sin. Yet, God is ready to restore the damaged relationship caused by sin in one’s life.

 Tradition demands that to be righteous before God, one has to follow God’s law in one’s life. But, Psalm 32 gives us a different insight. According to one commentator, the Psalm reminds us that

“to be righteous is not to be perfect in adhering to that law, but to be forgiven of one’s failings, to open oneself up to God’s gift of forgiveness, to be made right with God ...”[1]

 Sin does not determine our status in God’s eyes. It “is God’s willingness to forgive and our willingness to receive that forgiveness that makes us right before God.”[2] 

Friends, Christianity is not about creating perfect people. Christianity is about forgiving and accepting broken people.

We hear this message in Jesus’ parable today in Luke’s Gospel. The son is accepted not because of what he has done. If his welcoming back is based on his actions, he does not deserve to be welcomed back. He is accepted because his father still loves him and sees him as his son. Love is the foundation of his being welcomed back to his family’s house.

No, he does not achieve that forgiveness. His father gives it to him. His acceptance back into the family is a gift given, not a trophy achieved.

Indeed, today’s parable was one of three parables that he told to respond to religious leaders’ cynicism. They were questioning Jesus for spending time with sinners. The other two were the parables of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. The parable of the lost sheep ends with these words:

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
(Luke 15:7 – NRSV)

 The parable of the lost coin ends with these words:

“Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
(Luke 15:10 – NRSV)

 And, our parable today ends with these words:

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
(Luke 15:32 – NRSV)

 Indeed, all of these parables were about being lost and found. So, the point that Jesus was making was clear. He spent time with sinners because that’s what God wanted him to do; that was his mission.

Those who were considered as sinners were ostracized. They were cut off from the communion of the people of God. Jesus spent time with them to show that God still loved them as much as God loved the others.

Unlike other people in their life, God did not condemn them. God welcomed them with open arms. God had never lost His love for them. God had already forgiven them. Indeed, God is like a shepherd who looks for his sheep who is lost; or like a woman who desperately looks for her silver coin who is lost; or like a father who embraces with open arms his lost son who has returned.

Indeed, Jesus summarized God’s mission in his life when he said these words:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
(Mark 2:17 – NRSV)

 No, God doesn’t look for perfect people to be members of God’s family. God’s family consists of broken people, sinners. Yet, we all have one shared identity: we are all forgiven.

Friends, we are not to attain perfection in this life. We are to attain forgiveness. Our spirituality should be based not on perfection; it should be based on our own acknowledgement of our failings.

A spirituality that is based on perfection will only breed condemnation. But, a spirituality that is based on forgiveness will breed acceptance.

 We hear this message in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians today. For him, anyone who is in Christ

“is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
(2 Corinthians 5:17 – NRSV)

 But, being a new creation is not something that people achieve: it is a gift given.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ ...”
(2 Corinthians 5:18 - NRSV)

 For Paul, the foundation of Christian identity was the ministry of reconciliation that Jesus began. And, forgiveness was at the heart of this ministry.

“... in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them ...”
(2 Corinthians 5:19 – NRSV) 

In Christ, God reconciled people in the world to Himself by forgiving their failures. God is like the father of the prodigal son who looks beyond his son’s failures and welcomes him back. No, Christ didn’t wait until we become perfect before he came into the world. Christ died on the cross while we were still sinners.

 

Friends, some outside of the Church may accuse us of seeing ourselves as better than others. We, ourselves, may have the wrong impression that we are indeed better than others.

But, coming to Church does not mean that we are better than everyone else. We are as broken as everyone else out there. The only difference is that, regardless of our brokenness, we seek God’s forgiveness.

 “The Church is not a hotel for saints, but schools for sinners.”

These words are often attributed to Augustine of Hippo, one of the church’s founding fathers. Remember, Jesus came not for the righteous, but for sinners to call them to repentance. He came not to condemn, but to save.

No, Jesus didn’t condone the kind of behavior that the younger brother does in his parable. What he does to his father is hurtful.

But, he didn’t condone the elder brother’s aloof attitude to his younger brother either. The elder brother hasn’t done anything wrong to his family. But, in the parable, he represents the kind of spirituality that people are to avoid; the kind of spirituality that many Pharisees possessed; the kind of spirituality that sees God’s favor as a right not as a privilege; the kind of spirituality that sees oneself as deserving for God’s blessings.

Jesus offered a different kind of spirituality; the kind of spiritualty that is represented by the younger brother; the kind of spirituality where one sees oneself as not deserving of God’s goodness in one’s life; the kind of spirituality where one surrenders oneself entirely on God’s grace and providence. 

In the movie, Gladiator, there is a scene when the General, Maximus, meets the wise Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The Emperor offers Maximus the title: the Protector of Rome. He is to lead the Roman Empire once Marcus Aurelius’ time as the Emperor ends.

Maximus refuses. He does not feel that he has the skill and the experience necessary to take the role. He does not feel that he deserves the title.

But, Marcus Aurelius points out that Maximus’ refusal shows why he should be the one. Rome is filled with people more experienced than Maximus in politics. But, their hearts are all corrupted by their desire for power, including Commodus, Marcus’ own son. Commodus is an immoral man, yet he sees the throne as his birthright. He believes that he deserves to sit on the throne for the sole reason that he is the son of the Emperor.

In a way, the movie’s storyline is similar to Jesus’ parable today. We see two different approaches to power. One sees power as a birthright. The other sees power as a privilege; as something that one is underserving of receiving. One is like the older brother in Jesus’ parable, the other is like the younger brother.

May we approach God with the kind of attitude embodied by the younger brother in Jesus’ parable. May we approach God not with a full heart, but with an empty heart, longing to be filled with God’s love. May we approach God not with surety, but with uncertainty, waiting for God to assure us. May we approach God not with pride, but with trembling, hoping that God will steady our hands. And God, who witnesses our brokenness wrapped in humility, would welcome us with a father’s heart.

Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] Psalm 32 Commentary by Amanda Benckhuysen - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[2] Psalm 32 Commentary by Amanda Benckhuysen - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)