March 31, 2019

Extreme Makeover: A New Creation

Passage: 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Luke 15:11-32

20190331 Sermon Rev

 

We are living in a culture of extremes:  extreme sports, extreme weather, extreme views expressed in extremely loud voices.  We discover in scripture that this is not a new phenomenon.

 

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the extreme makeover he has witnessed in his lifetime. [1]  Paul regards the crucifixion as the central event in history.  Christ died for all so that those who live would not continue to live for themselves.  He died for them and was raised from the dead so that they would live for him.[2]  Everything is changed by the death and resurrection of Christ.   Paul wants his readers to see the event as a new beginning, when everything is remade, reordered, reconstituted.

 

Each follower of Christ is a new creation.  If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have gone; everything is made new! [3]  Therefore, we should judge no one from a human point of view.  From this time on we do not think of anyone as the world does.  In the past we thought of Christ as the world thinks, but we no longer think of him in that way. [4]

 

By this Paul meant judging according to outward appearance or worldly position.  Here is how this verse is translated in The VoiceBecause of all that God has done, we now have a new perspective. We used to show regard for people based on worldly standards and interests. No longer. We used to think of Jesus the Anointed, the same way. No longer. [5]  Not evaluating others from a human point of view means there is unity and equality in Jesus across ethnic, ideological, class, and gender boundaries.  Instead, we look to others’ hearts, remembering that Jesus Christ died for them and set them right with God.

 

Before his conversion, Paul had regarded Jesus by human standards, zealously persecuting his followers as defilers of Judaism.  Paul testifies that he has experienced a major shift in his perception.  His encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road led him to a stunning reassessment of Jesus.

 

Not only does Jesus initiate the reordering of all things; he also is the means through which we participate in the reordering.  This is what Paul refers to with his notion of being “in Christ,” of belonging to Christ. [6]  It involves stepping into this process of new creation begun with Jesus.  It involves participating in this newly created order, where the old is gone and the new has come.  The reordering of the world that began in Jesus now begins in us.

 

But what form does this “new order” take?  One where alienation gives way to reconciliation.  All of this is a gift from our Creator God, who has pursued us and brought us into a restored and healthy relationship with Him through Jesus the Anointed. And God has given us the same mission, the ministry of reconciliation, to bring others back to Him. [7]  The essence of the new creation is the work of God in bringing humanity, actually, bringing all of creation, back into covenantal relationship with God.  The distinguishing mark of the new creation is reconciliation – bringing together that which was separated.

 

Jesus talked about and modeled this ministry of reconciliation during his time on earth.  One teaching moment is the story of the man and his two sons told in Luke 15. [8]  The first three verses set the context for this familiar parable.  Jesus became increasingly popular among notorious sinners—tax collectors and other social outcasts.  The Pharisees and religious scholars noticed this and complained:  “This man welcomes immoral people and enjoys their company over a meal!” [9]

 

Jesus’ behavior greatly offends the religious leaders.  This is quite understandable.  The people Jesus associates with are not simply friendly folk who have been misunderstood.  Tax collectors have taken jobs with the foreign government occupying Israel and make good money collecting taxes from their own people, charging extra to keep for themselves.  Sinners are persons whose offenses are so horrendous that have been thrown out of the synagogues.  The fact that Jesus eats with them is clear evidence of his acceptance of them.

 

The people who are guardians of law and high standards of behavior sense the erosive force of not distinguishing between good people and bad people.  Jesus’ acceptance of sinners seems to convey a laxity about obedience to God’s laws.  So the religious leaders grumble about him.  And Jesus responds with three stories – one about a lost sheep, one about some lost coins, and this one about a man and his two sons.

 

In Act One of this story, the younger son leaves home and falls on hard times. [10]  A man had two sons.  The younger son said to his father, ‘Give me my share of the property.’ So the father divided the property between his two sons.  Then the younger son gathered up all that was his and traveled far away to another country.  There he wasted his money in foolish living.[11]

 

There’s some disagreement among Bible scholars about how much of an insult the younger son’s request is.  Some say asking for his share of the inheritance is a complete rejection of the family and equivalent to wishing his father were dead.  Others say that asking for his share of the inheritance is not necessarily an act of rebellion.  With the economy in precarious shape, it is not completely unheard of for younger sons to leave home and try to find a better life.  He would have been expected to invest his share of the inheritance and use it to earn more income.  He is forbidden, however, to jeopardize the capital.  This must be available to care for his father in his old age

 

What happens next, though, is totally unacceptable. His decline is rapid.  He squanders his entire inheritance in loose living.  He works for a Gentile – a Roman citizen, a pagan pig-owner – doing a job no Jew would do.  He feeds pigs, animals Jews are forbidden to eat.  He’s so hungry he would even have eaten their food.  He has lost his home, his family, his religion, and his health.

 

In the depths of his despair he thinks about home and realizes that even his father’s servants have it better than he does.  He decides that returning home in humiliation is better than remaining in this situation.  He practices the speech he will make when he sees his father.  “Father, I have sinned against God and against you.  I don’t deserve to be called your son.  Take me on as one of your hired hands.”

 

In Act Two of the story the younger son returns home. [12]  While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt sorry for his son. So the father ran to him and hugged and kissed him. The father said to his servants, “Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him. Also, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get our fat calf and kill it so we can have a feast and celebrate.  My son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!” [13]

 

It’s difficult for us to understand how shocking the father’s actions are.  In that culture, the idea of the male head of the house running for any reason is ludicrous.  But instead of sitting and waiting for his son to come to him, he actively welcomes him.  He’s been waiting and hoping for his son to return and when that happens a flurry of activity begins.  The father sees, has compassion, runs, embraces, kisses, plans a party, orders his servants around, and celebrates.

 

The father's response is unheard of for someone who has been publicly shamed by his son.  He does not allow his son to complete his prepared three-part speech.  He does not allow his son to call himself a servant.  He restores his son to his original position in the family and perhaps even symbolically raises that position with the ring and the robe and the sandals.  He plans a party to restore his son’s relationship within the community.

 

The older brother appears in Act Three of the story. [14]  He also returns – not from a life of debauchery but from his work in the fields, work he’s been doing every day while his brother is gone.  He finds a celebration in full swing.  When he learns the reason for the party, he is angry and refuses to go in.  This too is a terrible insult to his father.

 

But he does have a point.  Ok, maybe let his brother come home if he shows remorse and makes restitution.  But let him return to bread and water, not a fatted calf; to sackcloth, not a new robe; to ashes, not jewelry; to kneeling, not dancing; to tears, not celebration.

 

Again, the father’s actions in response to this son are shocking.  He doesn’t run, but he leaves the party he is hosting.  Abandoning his guests is a huge breach of etiquette.  He goes out to speak with his son.

 

The older son doesn’t speak to his father with respect but blurts out his complaint.  “I’ve stayed here many years serving you, never giving you grief.  You have never thrown a party for me and my friends.  When this son of yours who has thrown away your money on prostitutes shows up, you go all out with a feast!  It’s not fair!”

 

The older son now sounds and acts very much like his brother.  Both of the sons damage their relationship with their father and with each other.  The older son with his self-righteousness and sense of entitlement.  The younger with his selfishness and squandering of the inheritance.

 

In both cases the father restores relationship.  Here he turns his older son’s attention to his own love and bounty.  “There’s plenty to go around.  All that is mine is yours.  You’ve had the benefit of being with me all the time.”  The father counters angry and divisive language with images of reconciliation and unity.

 

In both cases the father’s surprising actions challenge the self-identity of each son.  He redefines the conditions under which “family” can happen.  He demonstrates that reconciliation is more important than feeling blameless and right.  Living at peace with both sons is more important to him than honor and status.  The relationships as redefined by the father lead to life and joy.

 

And so we are back to the new order—the new creation—that Paul talks about.  A new order in which alienation gives way to reconciliation.  The younger son alienates himself by leaving his home and becoming a stranger in a strange land. He chooses a series of misguided, self-serving actions and, after exhausting himself, ceases to act on his own accord and falls into the graces of his father.  The older brother alienates himself in his own home, remaining outside and refusing to be restored to his brother.  He chooses actions that are equally misguided and self-serving as his brother’s, but they are habits of inaction and lack of initiative. [15]

 

Both sons, each in his own way, misunderstand the workings of grace.  The younger seeks to bargain or manipulate, while the elder cannot let go of self-righteousness and grudges.

 

Yet both are welcomed home, regardless.  Both brothers are called to abandon their selfishness and fall into the graces of the father’s abundance.  The love of the father—impetuous, abundant, and renewed love—interrupts the cycles of selfishness and alienation that plague the family.

 

This story is Jesus’ defense for eating with tax collectors and sinners.  The father loved two sons, lost two sons, went out to both, and was generous to both.  In the same way, the embrace of publicans and sinners does not mean a rejection of the faithful religious leaders.  The reception of sinners is not a rejection of saints.  God is a “both/and” not an “either/or” God.  The love of God interrupts the cycles of selfishness and alienation that plague the human family.  Since we share in God’s reconciling work through Christ, it naturally follows that we are to be ministers of reconciliation, extending God’s reconciling love throughout the world.

 

The passage from 2 Corinthians and the story of the father with two sons challenges each of us to ask tough questions of ourselves.

 

How can I fully experience reconciliation, the love and peace God has waiting for me?  What keeps me from feeling worthy of God’s love?  How am I rejecting God’s love?  What misguided and self-serving actions take me away from God?  What habits of inaction and lack of initiative prevent me from moving toward God?

 

How can I be a messenger of reconciliation, of God’s love and peace?  Who am I rejecting?  Who am I dishonoring?  Who am I resenting?  To whom am I failing to show my love?  Who am I evaluating from a human point of view instead of from God’s point of view?

 

When we are lost and feel far from God, God reaches out with open arms.  Get up and enter the feast of reconciliation.  Amen.

 

[1] Sources consulted include Fred B. Craddock John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C, Trinity Press International, 1994, pp. 157-158 and Douglas E. Wingeier, Keeping Holy Time:  Year C, Abingdon Press, 2003, pp. 134-135.

[2] 2 Corinthians 5:15, New Century Version.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:17, New Century Version.

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:16, New Century Version.

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:16, The Voice.

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:17, New Revised Standard VersionSo if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:18, The Voice.

[8] Sources consulted include Fred B. Craddock John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C, Trinity Press International, 1994, pp. 158-159; Douglas E. Wingeier, Keeping Holy Time:  Year C, Abingdon Press, 2003, pp. 135-136; Matt Skinner, Commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b.32, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=533; and Barbara Brown Taylor, The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family, http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2007/031807.html; and John R. Donahue, The Gospel in Parable, (Fortress Press, 1988), 151-162.

[9] Luke 15:1-2, The Voice.

[10] Luke 15:11-19

[11] Luke 15:11b-13, New Century Version.

[12] Luke 15:20-24

[13] Luke 15:20, 22-24, New Century Version.

[14] Luke 15:25-32

[15] “Worship Resources, Lent-Easter 2019,” Leader: Winter 2018-19, MennoMedia, p. 43.

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