2 Corinthians 5:16-21
A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor of New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 14, 2010.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are two issues that we encounter throughout the Bible. Whether we like to admit it or not, God does not allow us to avoid or escape the notion that humans need forgiveness. No matter who we think we are, how religious we think we are, what religion we profess, or even if we distance ourselves from religion in its many forms, the fundamental premise of Christianity is that there is something about our humanity that is flawed. Somehow, we are not right. Somehow, we manage to mess up even when we are trying to fix up. Somehow, we just need forgiveness. Christian theology defines this reality as our “sin” problem.
We are sinful. Yes, each of us and all of us. According to the Bible, God did not will sinfulness on us. God did not force sinfulness on us. God does not desire sinfulness for us. According to the Bible, sinfulness became part of our moral and spiritual DNA because our moral ancestors believed that we could exist independent from God. We now have enough evidence to know how wrong they were. Apart from God, the whole creation is disjointed. Apart from God, we are at odds with ourselves, with others, and with the rest of creation. Apart from God, we have created chaos where God intended order, violence where God intended harmony, oppression where God intended justice. We see the evidence of our sinful insistence on defining life on our own terms everywhere, and constantly.
Yet the Bible does not merely define our predicament. Instead, we find there that God has refused to leave us outside his love. God loves us, with all our sinfulness. God loves us, despite the fact that we create hellish situations for ourselves, for others, and in the creation. God loves us, as strange as it may seem to us and as hard as we may find it to accept, because God chooses to love us. God loves us because God loves us. So God provides a way to restore the relationship we ruined. God provides a way to re-create the holy order our moral ancestors chose to contaminate by their willful independence. This way, made personal in Jesus Christ, we know by the word “forgiveness.”
So the Bible is essentially about forgiveness. Forgiveness is the theme that runs through the lessons we read about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Forgiveness is the theme we see when we read about Joseph and his treacherous brothers. Forgiveness is what we see happening in the lessons about the Hebrew people finally entering Canaan after years of wandering in a wilderness, and what we see throughout the rest of their history as interpreted by the prophets. The prophets call the people to confront their sinfulness, then they assure the people that God forgives and restores. The consummation of this message is presented to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus represents God’s personal assurance that we are forgiven.
The passages we have read today (Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) challenge us to ponder the magnificent implication of divine forgiveness. Psalm 32 declares the happiness of those who contemplate divine forgiveness. The passage from 2 Corinthians 5 declares that anyone who is “in Christ” is part of an entirely new creation that is constantly unfolding and always becoming new. And the parable of the prodigal son reminds us that God’s design and desire to forgive will not be frustrated by conventional thinking about what is proper. God is scandalously graceful, so the prodigal can come home. God is scandalously graceful, so the prodigal can be restored to family status. God is scandalously graceful, so the prodigal is re-introduced to the community with great flourish. God is scandalously graceful, so much so that God will leave the party for one restored son to plead with another who has taken offense that God would be so gracious.
All this gives us reason to take confidence in what St. Paul wrote about the “new creation” that exists for “anyone” who is “in Christ.” According to St. Paul, being “in Christ” makes a radical, revolutionary, and transformative difference. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The difference is as real and substantial as the difference between old and new. It is not a modest difference. It is not a subtle difference. It is not a partial difference.
According to Paul, this “if” changes “everything.” It is the difference between being treated as if we offend God and being claimed as loved children of God. It is the difference between celebrating God’s grace and pouting about how gracious God is for people we think are undeserving. If we are in Christ, “if” we accept the forgiveness that God freely offers “in Christ,” if God is truly loving, holy, forgiving, gracious, and able to create new life in Jesus as proved by the resurrection, then something different takes place for us, with us, in us, and is possible through us.
According to Paul, this is a cosmic difference. The whole order of life is changed and constantly changing. We are delivered from our addiction to guilt, delivered from our petty insistence of keeping score, delivered from our notions of moral hierarchy based on what pew we sit on, what side of town we come from, whether our social history includes prominent or private wrongdoing, and so much more. “If” anyone is in Christ, we are part of God’s scandalous grace that embraces prodigal children whether they are prodigal like us or prodigal in different ways. We embrace them because they are like us in Christ, like us in being forgiven, and like us in being beneficiaries of the scandalous grace of God that will not be held hostage by religious conventionality, political power, economic class, or anything else.
Yes, we are part of a new creation that is unfolding because God loves us. And because we have been forgiven, God has brought is into the family business of reconciliation. Because God is in the forgiving and reconciliation business, God has not simply forgiven and restored us to the divine family, but has given us stock in the business with Jesus Christ. Because we are “in Christ,” we are licensed to live with scandalous grace. Because we are “in Christ,” we are licensed by God to love people shunned by others, embrace people who others declare untouchable, and celebrate reconciliation because this is God’s dream for us, for the creation, and forever.
Because of this “if”, everything God desires for us is newly possible. Forgiveness is possible. Change is possible. Renewal is possible. Hope is possible. Love is possible. Acceptance of differences is possible. Justice is possible. Peace is possible. But not only possible, these things and more are promised.
¢ Promised because God loves us!
¢ Promised because God has always intended this for the creation.
¢ Promised because our sin will not trump God’s grace.
¢ Promised because our pettiness will not trump God’s providence.
¢ Promised because God is God, and we are not.
¢ Promised because God has loved us in Jesus Christ.
¢ Promised because Jesus Christ has loved us with God’s own passion.
¢ Promised because the Holy Spirit loves us to fulfill God’s “everything” new for us.
Who would not want to be part of all this? Who would not want to be part of the constantly and continually new work that God is doing in forgiving and reconciling humanity and the creation? God invites you and me to become part of that new creation by accepting his forgiveness, and then by following His scandalous grace that we have received through Jesus. If we have accepted the forgiveness, let us celebrate the invitation that God extends by following Jesus in loving as God loves, living as God loves, forgiving as God loves, restoring as God loves, hoping as God loves, and witnessing the loving new creation that God has dreamed come true.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.