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March 15, 2010

reconciliationFrom first to last this has been the work of God. God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and he has enlisted us in this service of reconciliation.  What I mean is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding our misdeeds against us, and that God has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation.

     ~ 2 Corinthians 5: 18-19

The liturgy of the Fourth Sunday of Lent draws us into what St. Paul clearly understands to be the core of his preaching: “the service of reconciliation.”  This message, as presented in 2 Corinthians, has two aspects.  The first is that reconciliation with God is “the work of God” through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and the second is that this reconciliation calls those who receive it into the “service of reconciliation” to all others.

     “From first to last this has been the work of God.” We live, however, as if the work of reconciliation is our own work. If we are at all reflective we recognize ourselves to be at a great distance from the person God calls us to be, and we swing between the extremes of willfully striving to create ourselves anew and willessly living out unreflective lives of habit and reaction. Our attention is fixed on who we must become if we are to be living our life in accord with God’s will for us. We do not see ourselves as being reconciled to God through Jesus, but we have rather as having to reconcile ourselves to God.

     The Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Lent is the parable of the Prodigal Son. There is perhaps no story of Jesus that is better recognized and loved. And yet, its central meaning continues to elude us. “So he set out for his father’s house. But while he was still a long way off his father saw him, and his heart went out to him. He ran to meet him, flung his arms round him, and kissed him.” (Luke 15: 20)  It is the father who runs to meet the Son, “while he was still a long way off.” All the son did was to return to his father who had never ceased to wait for him with longing. As the father makes clear to his other son, it is the father’s unceasing love and not the righteousness of his son that necessitates the celebration. The joy in heaven is joy over the return of the sinner. And the joy is unending precisely because we are always sinners in need of returning, of fulfilling the reconciliation which Christ has accomplished.

     Our very sense of who we ought to be, of what we must do, of how good we must become before we become reconciled to God is a great part of the delusion in which we live.  It is what Adrian van Kaam terms the “pride form” in us that keeps us from receiving in gratitude the reality of our reconciliation through Christ. God no longer holds our misdeeds against us, but runs to meet us and embraces us in the condition of our life as it is. If we only knew the gift of God that is ours, we would live moment to moment in gratitude and openness, knowing peace in our actual, broken, and sinful lives.  We would live in the truth of our own littleness and the mystery of grace, realizing that every moment of life, every aspect of creation is gift, that “the Kingdom and the power and the glory” are God’s and not ours. As we arrive at these closing weeks of Lent, have we awakened to the “sweet repentance” that recognizes the fulfillment of the deepest longing of our heart: that we are loved and desired by God in all of who we are? Are we becoming small and humble enough to trust that because God does not hold our misdeeds against us, we must do likewise?

     This extraordinary realization of the gift we have received impels us to become servants and ministers of reconciliation to all whom we encounter in our lives. The call is not merely to speak of reconciliation but to live it, to be its servant. Thus, Jesus admonishes us not to see the speck in the other’s eye while neglecting the beam in our own. (Mt. 7:3) To truly know the gift of reconciliation in our own lives renders us unable to judge the other; to experience in our hearts that God does not hold our misdeeds against us is to make it impossible to hold the misdeeds of others against them.

     The Christian scriptures make clear to us that the greatest of virtues is love. But the truth of the matter is that attempts to live the call to love can become very discouraging. As the years pass, our difficulties and failures in love become more and more present to us. We know the truth of human sinfulness in our own difficulties in attempting to care for others, in our frequent and powerful feelings of envy, mistrust, and resentment. It is not unusual as we age to seriously question our ability to love others, to break through the self-centeredness and criticalness of others that is so much a part of our fallen human nature. It is here that the teaching of St. Paul points the way. We are reconciled to God through the love, mercy, and obedience of Jesus Christ. The ground of our love is not self-realization or self-perfection, it is humility. As we begin to understand deeply and to appropriate more fully the compassion of God toward ourselves, prodigal daughters and sons that we are, we very slowly begin to grow in compassion for others. This compassion is borne not of self-realization or personal moral or spiritual achievement but from our grateful acceptance of the gift of reconciliation we have received. From knowing who we are and God’s love for us as we are, we experience the humility, the living in the truth, which enables us to be compassionate toward our poor and broken sisters and brothers even as they frustrate and irritate us.

     “The natural heart will do any amount of serving, but it takes the heart broken by conviction of sin, and baptized by the Holy Ghost, and crumpled into the purpose of God before the life becomes the sacrament of its message.”  In these words Oswald Chambers suggests that there is a difference between the serving of our “natural heart” and the serving that is inspired by the mission of the Spirit of Jesus Christ within us. There is a “service” of others that arises from our fears of our own humanity. The ever lurking sense of our own inability to live up our own demands for self-righteousness always threatens to evoke in us a “service” of others marked by judgment, manipulation, and exclusion. In short, our service is not that of reconciliation but of judgment, a judgment of the other person based on our deepest fears about ourselves. Every believing person and every church must always be vigilant against a self-righteous and fearful presence to the world that designates itself as pure and knowing and others as impure and ignorant.

     To allow ourselves, on the other hand, to be “broken by conviction of [our own] sin, and baptized by the Holy Ghost, and crumpled into the purpose of God” is to become a humble servant of the reconciliation of God in Jesus Christ. We no longer fear and exclude the other but become the sacrament of Jesus who “welcomes sinners and eats with them”. (Luke 15:2) Our personal lives and the lives of our believing communities then become places of welcome to all and thus become servants and sacraments of reconciliation at every moment and in every encounter. As Lent draws to a close, may we deepen in gratitude for God’s mercy and love, for the reconciliation we have received, in our sin and our delusion, through Jesus Christ, and may our gratitude for that mercy and reconciliation help us to embody ever-increasingly in our lives with others “this service of reconciliation.”

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