Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/7CpFUQRZCU4.
Lent 4C 6th March, 2016
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered”. To ‘transgress’ is literally to cross over, to cross some line in the sand of good behaviour, to go beyond where a reasonable person might go. To ‘transgress’ is to cross from the side of the goodies to the side of the baddies. There is no mention here of rules, commands or anything else, just a boundary that has been breached. And we all cross that line from time to time. Some of us offend in major ways- we drink drive and are caught spectacularly with a blood alcohol ten times the legal limit. Some of us offend in a much more mild sort of a way doing five kilometres above the speed limit, not quite enough to get a fine. And if we pride ourselves on our perfect obedience of the law of the land, then it might well be our pride that has caused us to cross a boundary. We need to be able to see ourselves realistically and to measure ourselves by Jesus’ standard. Jesus reminds us of the two great commandments, to love God whole heartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves and the truth is that everyone of us fails to live up to that dictum at some level or another, so we are all transgressors.
The Psalmist reminds us of how we feel when we are gripped by a major failure. His body wasted away, and his strength was dried up. This is a visceral reaction to his own failure. And in a way, I think the psalmist is lucky here, because this kind of agony cannot be ignored and the solace that the psalmist feels in confession and forgiveness is an incredible relief after the pain of transgression. But what about those of us whose sin is in minor offenses, those of us who can readily ignore the little transgressions, those of us whose offense is not punishable by law? Have you ever had a moment when you said something less than kind and felt a little twinge of conscience? Or are you perhaps the kind of person who is so secure in your own opinion of yourself that you never even notice when your words hurt someone and don’t realise that in doing what you think is right you have caused your brother or sister to stumble? I confess to you that I fall into all of those categories at different times- from the terrible devastation of major failing to the incomprehension of wrong. “Happy are those…whose sin is covered” says the psalmist. The premise is, however, that you have confessed your sin, you have prayed to the Lord for forgiveness. And then the Psalmist says a quite incredible thing- that God is a hiding place. Imagine for a moment that you have knocked on the principal’s door and gone in and confessed your transgression, or you have asked for a private word with the judge and confessed to the crime, do you expect to then hide in his or her arms? We are back to that parent heart of God, aren’t we? We are back to God the mother who desires to gather the chicks under her wings and to protect them from what? The consequences of their actions? Or the pain of the knowledge of their own sin? This is God the judge and God the mother or father all bound into one. God who sees even the smallest details of our hearts, the smallest transgressions that perhaps we don’t even want to recognise and yet who loves us so much that the father will run to meet us. “You are my hiding place, you surround me with glad cries of deliverance,” the psalmist says to the Lord. Confession of our transgressions, our failing to love God and to love our neighbours, or even perhaps to love ourselves properly, leads to forgiveness. Our sins are covered. God has a limitless budget for forgiveness, large and obvious or small and hidden, all our sins are apparent to God, and all our sins are covered. Forgiveness for sin leads to reconciliation.
In Luke’s Gospel we have a most beautiful picture of repentance, or changing direction, confession, forgiveness and reconciliation in this parable of “The Loving Father”. Both brothers are sinful in their own ways, aren’t they? One’s sins are obvious, plain for all the world to see. The younger brother has wished his father dead in demanding his inheritance while his father still lives. He has behaved as no good Jewish boy would behave. He has squandered his property in dissolute living- and there is no need to go into the details. Finally he has gone so far that he is keeping pigs, the archtypical unclean, Gentile animal. He has fallen very low. But let us just look at the older brother for a moment. He has been good and dutiful, he has worked hard and faithfully but he doesn’t emerge well from this story does he? Because, in his self-righteousness he is showing a lack of the generosity that characterises the father, and he is refusing to come in to the party. The younger brother is like the psalmist, he has experienced the agony of wrongdoing and like the psalmist, when he changes his direction and confesses his sin, his sin is covered and the father becomes his hiding place. The younger son doesn’t even get to finish the confession that he has planned before the father has thrown his arms around him and held him in unconditional love. And that is what the older brother, the good boy, resents so much. The unconditional love of the father does not seem fair. “What about me?” he says. “I have been a good boy, my sins of bitterness and a lack of understanding of others, particularly my little brother, have been very small- in fact, I won’t even admit that you have anything to forgive me for. And I won’t come in and sully myself with this underserving, badly behaved, horrible brother of mine. I refuse to rejoice.” Let me ask you, which brother ends up out in the cold? The good boy or the bad boy? Well, we all know the answer to that, but the thing that we mustn’t miss is that self-righteousness is what excludes him from the arms of love. The older brother chooses to be out in the cold.
“You are my hiding place,” the younger son says to the father, “whenever I feel afraid, I will trust in you.” Particularly when I am afraid that I have blown it, that I have transgressed so far that I am beyond the pale. But there is no place too far away for the arms of love to reach you. How sad it is that the son who has always been there with his father, cannot share the love when the father reaches out to him. I am always so glad that there is no ending to this parable and there is always the possibility that the older brother will relent, repent and come in to the party.
The problem is that the older brother is seeing the younger brother, and for that matter the father himself, with untransformed eyes. He is looking with human eyes that measure fairness and righteousness, not with eyes of the new creation that see only love and beauty. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…. so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” Paul calls the Corinthians to look with new eyes, new eyes that see reconciliation. God has reconciled the world to himself. The Father has forgiven the erring children and is reunited with them in bonds of love. God doesn’t count the trespasses, the transgressions, any more. Large or small, the transgressions are gone. And what is more that is true for every one of us. All of our wrong steps, wrong words, wrong actions, the things we have done and the things we have failed to do, have passed away and everything is new. We are a new creation. And in the light of that knowledge, both in heart and in mind, we are called to be agents of reconciliation. We are called to be the people who speak the words of love and forgiveness, “ambassadors for Christ”, Paul says. We are the bearers of the message of God’s open arms, and the complete eradication of sin. Just think about that for a second! We are called to be the messengers of God’s reconciliation for everyone. Does that change what we say? Will that change what we do? “God is making his appeal through us”. We are the ones who are given the task of calling the brothers, both the younger one, sinner as he is, and the righteous, and self-righteous older brother, in to the party with God.
If we really lived in this truth, if we could accept this grace, our lives and the lives of those around us would be transformed.
“Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy all you who are upright in heart,” because you have been transformed into a new creation. “[T]he former things have passed away, behold, God is making everything new.”