Forgiveness and Reconciliation

March 6, 2016

Bible Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 The Prodigal Son |

There’s a reason the Parable of the Prodigal Son is so popular. How could it not be, when God is depicted as such an eager father, hitching up the hem of his robe to go running with outstretched arms to greet his son? It’s as if the whole time the father had been at work on the farm, he was always keeping an eye on the horizon: hoping, waiting, watching for the son’s return. And as soon as the son emerges, the father is immediately right there – hugging him and kissing him. When the son tries to launch into his prepared repentance speech, the father won’t even let him get through it: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s enough. BRING OUT THE RING! BRING OUT THE ROBE, AND LET’S HAVE A PARTY!”

Do you notice how easy it is for God to forgive? It may be hard for us, but God simply doesn’t share that problem. Forgiveness is easily and quickly accomplished. All that matters is love, and as soon as the son returns, love is ready to throw a party. This should be central to any Christian’s understanding of God.

Throughout the centuries, whenever someone has reached the bottom of the barrel, this picture of God has been the most welcome news. It is the gospel for every person who’s finally ready to stop with the excuses, to stop with the justifications and the blame, and is ready to say, “I’m a mess. I’m tired and ashamed. I need help.”

At the beginning of Lent someone set up an appointment with me to go through the Rite of Reconciliation. That’s the sacrament where you set up a private appointment with a priest to confess your sins and to have God’s forgiveness proclaimed over you. I always encourage people to be utterly honest when they make their confession – not because I’m particularly hungry for all the scintillating details – but because I want you to be truly free. As long as we’re still using euphemisms to soften our guilt, or as long as we’re still couching our sin with self-justification or blame, we cannot experience the total freedom of being forgiven. When we know we’re holding something back, shame will always have the upper hand.

As is often this case – this person came with fear and trembling because they knew they were about to reveal something deeply shameful and they were afraid of my response. But – as is also often the case – because they were completely forthright, they were also able to receive unhesitant and unrestricted grace. And since that moment, they have been filled with new life and new courage to begin pursuing a path of healing and hope.

Our sins will always oppress us and weigh us down. And so long as they remain hidden, they will always speak with a deceitful authority that insists that the shame is our true self: We are the adulterer, the alcoholic, the sex-addict.

But when the gospel is allowed to pierce that shame it rushes in like the father who won’t even let the son complete his apology. You are not defined by your sin. You are now defined by love. And if God should call us beloved – if God should call us forgiven – then we are free indeed.

When I was young and growing up in church, the biggest superstars were the Prodigal Sons, those people who’d been total wrecks – ex-cons and people like that – who had hit rock bottom, and then found Jesus. These folks would go on the preaching circuit to share their stories. And, oh, I was so jealous. I wanted a story like that. Wouldn’t it be delicious? the 13 year old recovering drug-addict. To God be the glory, and there I’d be beside him, soaking it all up.

But you know what? The parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t actually about the prodigal son at all. It’s about the older son – the “good son” who stayed home and followed the rules and did what he was supposed to do. What I didn’t recognize as a child, was that I was in the parable. It was written to people like me, “good people” who followed the rules, but did so with a begrudging spirit that had no conception of the father’s love. At that age I hadn’t yet learned to admit to my own fears and shame, and I certainly had no conception of God’s deep mercy.

Notice how the parable begins:

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. (That is, all the prodigal sons were coming near.) And the Pharisees and scribes (that is, the “older sons”) were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable. “There was a man who had two sons….”

Jesus’ audience here isn’t the tax collectors and sinners. He’s not telling them about God’s love. He’s just been choosing to love them and they’ve been responding in kind.  It’s when the scribes and the Pharisees take offense at this love, that this parable gets told – to them and about them.

The problem with the older son is that – although he stayed at home with his father and was obedient – he actually had no conception of who his father was. His father’s principle desire is to be with his children. Presumably, while the father and older son have been working side-by-side, it is just what the father would want for their relationship – to be sharing the everyday rhythm of life together. The son, however, has been grumbling inside. His daydream? He wants to go party with his friends, without his father.

You know who the older son is, right? It’s all the good Christians who follow the rules, who come to church regularly, who put money in the plate, because it’s the right thing to do, but also know no happiness in their relationship with God. They have no experience of God’s love and when they see a “sinner” receiving it, they’re scandalized and disapproving. “Faith” and “religion” should be disciplined and sulky. Their best friend in church is the one they can complain with.

The spirit of the obedient son will always lead to division. But the spirit of the father creates unity.

Wherever sin enters this world it will lead to division: Gossip, divorce, warfare, adult siblings who never talk until it’s time to fight over the inheritance. From petty grievances to political mudslinging to lawsuits, sin will always divide and divide and divide again. Christians and the church are no exception. The heritage of the protestant reformation, including our Anglican tradition, is that – in the name of doctrinal purity – we continue to divide ourselves from each other.

But wherever the gospel of grace enters, it brings unity and mercy.

We, the church, have been given the ministry of reconciliation. If there is any one thing that should define us as the Body of Christ, it is that we are the ones who forge unity and mercy – not so much by our programs – but by our spirit. We have been given what the world wants. We have been given God in us. We’ve been given forgiveness and an assurance of our desirability. We have been ushered into the Kingdom of Peace and Grace. But – like the older son – though we live with it every day, we fail to recognize its presence or substance.

I had a dream the other night. It was a Sunday morning in church, and the church was totally full. Who are all these people? I wondered (a bit giddy). But then, not long into the service, they all got up and left. It turned out they were people who’d heard about a class being offered at Chapel Hill, and when they realized they were in the wrong church, they just left. Right in the middle of the service.

But as a metaphor, it depicts exactly the way the world has experienced the church throughout the ages. They’ve stopped in to see what we’re about, but after a short while, they got up and left, because they didn’t find the spirit of forgiveness and unity their hearts were searching for.

I saw a little video on Facebook the other day. Apparently there are some duck species that build nests in holes way up high in the trees, so that the little ducklings can hatch in safety. But at some point – pretty early on – it’s time to move from the nest to the water. The mother duck leaps out first and flies proficiently to the ground. Then she calls out to the ducklings to follow. They all stick their head out of the hole like, Are you serious? But the mama duck keeps calling, and eventually the first little duckling leaps out. His wings are only about an inch wide, and he flaps and flaps and basically just crashes on the ground. But he’s okay. I guess his wings are just big enough to give him a little bit of a glide. Then all the other little ducklings start flinging themselves out and they’re crashing all over the place – but they’re all okay. It’s both pathetic and precious. And then the duck family is all together and they go waddling off to the water.

And really, that’s what we could be. When it comes to building reconciliation, we’re just little ducklings.  Christ our mother – who knows how to fly beautifully, who knows how to forgive completely – has gone before us and is calling for us to follow. We might be afraid. We might not be as gracious as Christ. When we leap out of the nest, it will be more of a free-fall than actual flying, but our mother knows that our little wings are enough to make it to the ground.

God has 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. So we are ambassadors for Christ.

(2 Corinthians 5:18-20a)

And if we are his ambassadors, then it means we do as he does; we live out his mission. The Kingdom of God will be manifest in this world only so much as we become agents of reconciliation: with God, within our families, within the church, and in this world. This is the mission of the church and of St. John’s.

And even if we are only little fledgling ducks, crashing more than flying, we’ll be okay. Jesus knows how hard it is to seek reconciliation. But that is what he does, and what we’re called to do with him. And he will lead us to the water of life.

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