March 18, 2007

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone; A new life has begun.

These words, written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth, were first read by people who were only too aware of their sins. They were divided among themselves, and they argued about which of their leaders to follow. They were steeped in the polytheistic religions of their culture and they were still struggling to live as Christians and to sort out what that would look like in their context, with all their varied backgrounds and experiences.

If the Corinthians had been paying any attention to Paul’s letters to them, then they must have been fully aware of their sins. Imagine having a great religious leader writing letters to your church, pointing out all the things you’re doing wrong – being specific about the cliques among you, about the silly arguments, and exhorting you as to how to do better.

The Corinthians couldn’t help but be aware of their sin when they are reminded by Paul that, as Christians, that is all behind them. When they trust in Christ and begin to live in Christ’s ways, their old lives are wiped away, and their new lives begin. They’re born again… born from above… they’re re-created for something new.

Imagine if you could really start over again. Imagine if you could put your old life behind you, and start a completely new one. Like a blackboard, when it’s not just been erased with a brush, but when someone has taken a damp cloth and wiped it clean, as if nothing had ever been written on it. I remember thinking, when I first moved to Saskatoon three years ago, that it was kind of like a chance to begin again. I left all my family and friends (other than Nick) back in the Ottawa area, and I knew hardly a soul on the prairies, let alone did I have any connections in Saskatchewan.

Having moved so far from home and the life I used to live — meeting new people who had no experience of my past — it was like a chance to make a fresh start. And yet, my past came with me. The experiences I’d had that have formed my character. The mistakes I’d made, along with my accomplishments as well. In so many ways, I carried with me my old life, even as my new life was beginning to unfold.

It seems to me that for someone wanting to really start over, it must be extremely difficult to wipe that blackboard clean, to really leave the old life behind. You hear in the movies mostly, about people who go into police protection programs where they move to a far away city, change their name, their job, their appearance… They change everything about their life. And yet, they’re still the same person. How can you leave all that behind?

Jesus told a parable about a brother who lived a life that he would later want to leave behind. He had chosen a life of selfish consumerism. He had chosen to spend his life and his money on satisfying every base desire that he had. No thought for the future. No thought for his family. No thought for anyone but number one – – himself.

But eventually, the story tells us that “he came to himself” and he wanted to begin again. He thought maybe he could go home to his father and ask to become a servant in his house. Certainly, he’d lost any rights he had to be called a son, but maybe his father would be kind enough to let him work for a living. Maybe he’d be able to put some of this awful mess behind him.

But when the wayward child was almost home, his father came out to welcome him back. Maybe you know the song the father sang:

I’ve got the robe, the ring, and the shoes for his feet.
Gonna have a party tonight.
My son was lost but now is found.
Tell everyone, get the word around…
I’ve got the robe, the ring, and the shoes for his feet.
Gonna have a party tonight.”

And as the party began, you might say that the prodigal was reborn in the loving embrace of his father. Whatever mistakes he’d made, whatever wrong paths he had taken, he’d found his way home. His father was ready to leave the past behind and welcome his son to begin again. His old life was gone. A new life was about to begin.

Of course, he’d never forget the experiences he’d had. He’d still carry the memories and lessons he’d learned. But his past wouldn’t hang around his neck to weigh him down. His father had forgiven him, so he could move forward into his new life.

Perhaps there are parts of our lives that we would like to leave behind. Likely we haven’t strayed so far that we need to abandon it all for a fresh start. But there are habits that we’ve gotten into that we wish we could move past. There are broken relationships in our lives that we wish we could mend. There are old sins that we have confessed many times, yet they continue to come to mind, bringing back guilt, temptation, or simply overwhelming sadness.

As we move through this season of Lent, we are so often reminded of the sin that binds us, and we are called to confession and repentance. But today, God’s word reminds us that our God is like a forgiving parent who is waiting at the gate for our return…waiting for us to return to the life that we were created to live as children of God…waiting to welcome us to begin again. All we have to do is come home.

Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone; A new life has begun.

I preached this sermon last Sunday afternoon at a service at the Scott-Forget Building, a seniors’ building where some of our members live. And this is where the sermon came to an end. I said “Amen,” and sat down. But this morning, I would like to add another twist.

As I’ve been talking about these texts from scripture, I’ve been assuming that we are something like the younger brother who sinned against his father, but was welcomed home for a new beginning by a loving, forgiving, gracious parent. I’ve been assuming that we can all benefit from the reminder that in Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are given the freedom to make a fresh start.

But what about if we think of ourselves as the older brother? You know, we’re the church-goers. We’re the ones who have a stable relationship with God. We make mistakes too, but not drastic ones. Not the kind of mistakes that require a dramatic homecoming or a dramatic confession and new beginning.

Remember how the older brother in the story was angry at the father’s forgiveness? He was annoyed by the lavish wastefulness of the father’s love. When his brother returned and the father threw a party, the older brother refused to join in the celebration. He argued that it wasn’t fair. He claimed that there should have been a party for him.

Any one of us committed, church-going Christians might have reacted the same way. Think of all the work that we’ve done over the years. The committees we’ve sat on. The pastoral care we’ve provided. We’ve come early to church and stayed late. We’ve done our scripture study. We’ve spent our time in prayer. And where is our reward? Where is our robe and our ring? Where is the celebration for us?

I want to draw your attention back once more to our reading from 2 Corinthians. If you remember, first there is the assurance of forgiveness, that there is a new life in Christ that breaks with the past and the old life. But then Paul goes on to say that we are to be ambassadors. We have experienced reconciliation, and now we are called to a ministry of reconciliation.

What does that ministry of reconciliation involve? First, I think it involves the proclamation of the reconciling love of God in Jesus. Maybe if we think about our parable, the older brother could have gone to find his brother. He could have invited his brother to come home. Maybe he should have understood his father enough to know that the door would always be open, and he could have encouraged his little brother to trust and come home.

The ministry of reconciliation that we are called to is essentially evangelism. It’s witnessing to the world of the love and forgiveness of God and making the invitation for all of God’s children to come home.

But there’s a harder part of the ministry of reconciliation, I think. (As if evangelism wasn’t hard enough.) And that’s the part that involves being reconciled ourselves to those people who have not only strayed from God, but have hurt us in the process.

The younger one left, leaving his brother to do all the work. The younger one left, off to have a good time and spend the inheritance, while his brother laboured on without any special treatment. The younger one left, breaking not only his relationship with his father, but abandoning his whole family. Sometimes it is easier for us to acknowledge that God forgives those who sin and stray from God’s ways, than to actually forgive them ourselves.

Everything that we know about God reminds us of God’s mercy, grace, and faithfulness. But it’s much harder for us to actually open our own hearts wide enough to love as God does.

Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone. A new life has begun. May we give thanks that in Christ, we are forgiven. In the strength of Christ, may we also learn to forgive. Amen.