Grace Presbyterian Church
March 27, 2022, Lent 4C
2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:11b-32
The church in which I grew up – which was not a Presbyterian church – had two programs for elementary-age children, separated by gender. To be perfectly honest, the programs were basically knock-off Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts programs, without the fancy uniforms and such (we could actually get badges, however). Girls got to be part of a program called Girls in Action, which you have to admit sounds kind of cool, or GAs for short, which still confuses me any time some Presbyterian starts to refer to the denomination’s next General Assembly as GA. Anyway, Girls in Action had their own song and everything, which again sounds kind of cool.
Boys were placed in a program given the name Royal Ambassadors, or RAs. As befitting a Boy Scouts-but-just-for-us program, activities ranged from outdoor games to crafts and building projects. (I still have a bookshelf at our house from one of those RA building projects.) Anyway, if you asked what that name Royal Ambassadors was about, you most likely got some verbal fumbling and stalling, and finally you would get pointed to verse 20 of today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church.
In the intervening period between 1 Corinthians and what we have recorded in scripture as 2 Corinthians, things had actually gotten worse between Paul and the Corinthian church. Different teachers had started to tickle the ears of the Corinthians, teachers who cut a more impressive figure than Paul, who spoke more loquaciously than he, and whose teaching flattered the Corinthians more than Paul’s bluntness. There was apparently at least one more letter from Paul to this church, not preserved in New Testament canon and apparently lost, with much more tears and anger about it, and even in this letter (which may contain portions of two still different letters) feelings are still raw.
In chapter 5 Paul has been pleading for reconciliation with the Corinthians, and this talk of reconciliation leads Paul to expound upon God’s reconciliation with us. That telltale word “therefore” in verse 16 clues us in that we are coming to one of his climactic summaries, here speaking of what reconciliation – not merely “making up” with one another but being reconciled to and by God – looks like.
We judge no one any longer, in this reconciled state, “from a human point of view.” Other translations read “according to the flesh.” The Revised English Bible rephrases the verse to read “With us therefore worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of anyone…”, which might help us here. In the state of being reconciled to God, “worldly standards” are not how we value other people. We don’t go by a person’s appearance or loquaciousness or wealth or social standing.
Just a few verses earlier, in verse 12, Paul remarks about answering “those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart.” There’s an interesting echo here of 1 Samuel 16, in which God is directing Samuel to find and anoint a new king of Israel. Samuel has been impressed by the physically handsome and imposing older son, but God says no: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Paul isn’t just pulling these thoughts out of his hat in self-defense; what he is saying here has a long and important history in Hebrew thought and teaching. Things look different from a divine point of view, and when we are reconciled to God, when we truly live in the “new creation” that comes of being “in Christ,” that divine point of view is our point of view.
This reconciliation is done by God; God, in Christ, is the one that tears down the barriers and swats away the sins that we have accumulated and draws us back to Godself. It is in this reconciliation that we become those “ambassadors for Christ” that verse 20 names. God chooses to represent Godself to the world through us. Verse 21 ups the ante even further; in Christ’s living and dying he took on our sins; God “made him to be sin who knew no sin,” to achieve that reconciliation and to make us representatives of God and even more “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (emphasis mine). Being an ambassador for Christ is no small thing.
Note how Paul says “we are ambassadors for Christ.” This isn’t an instruction or exhortation; it’s not “we become ambassadors for Christ” or “we strive to be ambassadors for Christ“; it’s the simple statement “we are“. “We are ambassadors for Christ.” We don’t get any swanky embassy to live in, but we are representing Christ in the world nonetheless. And that’s whether we think we are or not; if we call ourselves church, we are representing.
You ever heard anyone talking about a relative gone bad, one who “brought shame upon the family”? In the eyes of that family, that “bad sheep” was indeed representing them, though not in a good way. So it is with us in being Christ’s ambassadors in the world; sometimes the church brings shame upon the name of Jesus more than respect.
Speaking of a relative representing his family badly provides a useful segue into the famous parable in today’s Luke reading. It’s fair to say that the runaway son did not bring glory to his family in his debauched life in that far country. His idea of “coming to himself,” or coming to his senses, didn’t require him to reconcile to his father; he simply planned to catch on as a hired hand. But he couldn’t even get his prepared speech out before his father had run to him in the road and embraced him and gotten him all dressed up and started up a big feast. The father was reconciling his son to himself, yes?
Funny thing, though, about how this story ends. For one, we never really hear how the runaway son responds to all this. We don’t get any indication that he ran away again, but neither do we get any indication of how much he truly embraced or accepted or even understood what his father had done. For all we know he sat through the feast being perplexed at what was happening around him, and still not knowing reconciliation to his father.
For another thing, there’s the matter of the older, stay-at-home son. When he sees what is happening, he blows a gasket and refuses to come in. Even when the father explains himself, we never get any indication that this older son gets it at all. By the end of the story, it looks like both sons are alienated, not reconciled.
Sisters and brothers, you don’t want to be either son in that story. You want to heed Paul’s call and be reconciled to God. You want to be so reconciled to God that you even end up being the righteousness of God. You want to be in Christ. You want to be in a new creation. It’s not even about doing anything yourself; it’s not “reconcile with God,” it’s “be reconciled to God.” In all seriousness, our main job is to get out of the way. Be reconciled to God and bear the message of reconciliation to God – be ambassadors of Christ. That’s what we are here to do; indeed, that’s what we are.
For being reconciled to God, and being ambassadors of Christ, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #804, Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart!; #23, God, You Spin the Whirling Planets; #821, My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep from Singing?)
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