The Three R's

SJF • Lent 4c • Tobias Haller BSG

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ...
About a month ago we ended the Epiphany season and began our Lenten pilgrimage by reflecting on the three virtues: faith, hope and love. This morning, I want to speak about three basic elements of the Christian faith — the three R’s, if you will — repentance, reconciliation, and renewal. These are the actions that put those virtues into practice. Surely they are appropriate subjects for the Lenten season of self-examination, forgiveness, and preparation for the ultimate renewal — Easter. So it is fitting that we all review these “Three R’s” and see what application they have to our lives as Christian disciples.

Repentance has suffered a fate common to often-used words. It has been confused with the similar-sounding words, penitence and penance. So for many today, repentance means feeling sorry over some past action. It is primarily an affair of the heart and mind: a matter of how you feel and what you think — a mental and emotional state.

When we hear the command to “Repent!” we tend to respond by sitting down and, like Fagin in the musical Oliver, “reviewing the situation.” In this process we think about the things we’ve done and left undone. We engage our emotions, and we experience a twinge of regret. Perhaps we say to ourselves we’ll do better in the future, then sigh, get up and go on about our business, feeling pleased with ourselves for being such sensitive, moral persons.

Or perhaps our feelings do go deeper. Perhaps we are conscious of some far weightier matter, some sin that truly troubles and weighs on our hearts — and yet that’s as far as it goes — we feel bad but simply remain in our bad feelings.

The problem with both responses: feeling good about ourselves for feeling humble, or feeling bad about ourselves because we are so awful, is that neither has much to do with the Gospel concept of repentance. In the teaching of Christ, feelings or thoughts, whether in the form of patting ourselves on the back or beating ourselves black-and-blue, do not represent repentance.

Now, I’m not saying we should not use our intellect to review our shortcomings, or that we should not engage our emotions and feel sorry for our failings— but feeling good because we’ve felt sorry is obviously shallow; and feeling so miserable that we are beyond redemption is surely presumptuous! And neither is true repentance.

What then is it to repent? What is Jesus looking for when he calls us to repent? While the repentance described in the Gospel does employ the intellect and engage the emotions, it culminates in another faculty of the human soul altogether: the will. Gospel repentance means not just that you are aware of your guilt, or even sorry for your actions, but that you turn around and act. C.S. Lewis once noted that the best thing to do when you find you’re going the wrong way is to turn around and head back! Or as the old anthem said, “Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways!” And it is the deliberate act of turning around that is true repentance.

To show us what he means by repentance, Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son. At first we appear to be on familiar ground: This young man becomes mindful of what he’s done, stuck in the middle of a pig-sty far from home, he reviews his situation and feels totally miserable.

But — and this is where repentance begins — he doesn’t stop there, with thoughts and feelings, moping to himself and feeling sorry.His sorrow and regret spur and spark him to his true repentance, which consists in getting up and turning around and heading back home.

The young man starts his journey, probably going over his confession in his mind as he goes. And here the story takes a surprising turn. The Father doesn’t wait to hear his son’s confession. He doesn’t wait to find out if the son “feels sorry.” He doesn’t wait on the porch in awful silence for the son to finish the long walk home under his unblinking eye. No, as soon as this loving Father sees his son coming, while yet far off, the Father runs to him and embraces him. For the culmination of repentance is God’s outgoing ingathering. Repentance leads us to reconciliation, our second “R.”

Now just as repentance is more than feeling sorry, so Gospel reconciliation is more than a handshake and a “Let bygones be bygones.” And reconciliation in the Gospel isn’t like reconciliation of a checkbook or an account — where the goal is to have the plusses balance the minuses. No, in Gospel reconciliation, God always tips the balance to the surplus of grace, for God is more ready to give than we are prepared to receive. God would never make it as an accountant! Reconciliation is the act of a gracious and loving God, reaching out to save what has been lost and to set things right, out of the abundance of his grace.

I need to note here, that in Luke’s Gospel, two other parables immediately precede that of the Prodigal Son: The Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin. In all three, repentance is intimately tied up with God’s gracious perseverance in seeking out that which is lost, going beyond the expected to do the astounding. Whether God is portrayed as Good Shepherd, Careful Housewife, or Loving Father, the power of reconciliation resides with God. The Shepherd could have said of the lost sheep, “Leave him alone and he’ll come home, wagging his tail behind him.” The Housewife could have said of the lost coin, “I’ll probably find it some day down behind the sofa cushions.” And the Father could have stayed on the porch, and when his son finally reached him, said, “Well, I see you’ve finally come to your senses. But since you’ve spent your inheritance, the best I’ll do is take you on as a hired hand. And you’ll have to sleep in the barn; ‘cause we don’t allow the help in the house.”

But that isn’t what happens in any of these parables. In each case the reconciliation is extravagant - it goes well beyond the expected, and tips the balance generously. The Shepherd doesn’t just find the sheep, and doesn’t just lead the sheep home, but carries it home rejoicing! The Housewife doesn’t just find the coin and put it in the sugar bowl and go about her business; she calls the whole neighborhood to celebrate — and probably spends more on the party than the coin was worth. And the Father doesn’t stand in the doorway waiting for his son to apologize; he runs down the road and meets him and embraces him before he can get a word out.

This is the glory of grace, its extravagance, that God comes to us in compassion while we are still on the road home— while we are yet sinners. It is not we who reconcile ourselves with God, it is God who reconciles us, and the whole world, to himself, in Christ Jesus, taking no account of past sins. And this brings us to our third “R”— Renewal.

We’ve turned around, forswearing our foolish ways — that’s repentance. We’ve been met on the road and embraced by our loving God — extravagant in his gracious forgiveneness — that’s reconciliation. But note that the Father in our parable doesn’t seem to pay any attention to his son’s confession; he doesn’t even say, I forgive you. No, he simply takes no account of past sins. I said before, God is no accountant — he always juggles the books in our favor. But we know who’s been keeping account, right? We know whose been keeping careful track of things. The older brother: he’s stewed over this for a long time, he’s made his list and checked it twice, and he rattles off the whole list of offenses to remind his father of how badly his kid brother has acted. But the father isn’t interested in this account of past sins. He’s too busy ordering up the fatted calf, the best robe, the new shoes, the ring. He’s completely caught up in the fact that the lost has been found, the dead restored to life. He is going to strip the dirty coveralls off that boy, hose him down to get rid of the last relics of the pigsty, dress him as a prince and hold a par-tay! — and that’s renewal.

Paul catches the same excitement in the passage we read this morning: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has passed away,
behold the new has come! All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” We too have been reconciled — had our dirty overalls stripped off. We’ve been hosed down and washed clean in the waters of Baptism. And we’ve been dressed up — not as hired hands — but as ambassadors of Christ! We, who once moped in the spiritual pig-sty of sin have been given the ministry of reconciliation. We who once languished in a pigsty in a foreign land, have been commissioned as ambassadors of our true heavenly country!

And, as with repentance, thoughts or feelings are not enough to carry us through in our work as ambassadors. It is not enough to be well-informed about the needs of the world. It is not enough to feel sorry for those who have not yet heard the good news. It is not enough to pity the homeless, the hungry, the poor, and the sick. We are called to action. Just as awareness of and sorrow for our sins is the spur to move us to repentance, so too the pity we feel for the sick, the hungry, or the poor is meant to spur us on to charity.

It is all too easy to feel sorry for someone. We do it when we see a drama on T.V. or at the movies, and those are just fictional characters! Our work as ambassadors of Christ, as ministers of reconciliation, must consist of more than feeling sorry. For just as with repentance, feelings of compassion, unless they are followed by acts of compassion, are worth nothing. If we are to be true to the one whose gracious action, in giving himself to death on the cross, saved us from the power of sin, then we too must act. God has brought us to this fourth “R”— righteousness. In Christ we have the power to become the righteousness of God to people far and near.

This righteousness is ours only as a gift— a gift of grace, which we receive like the prodigal himself, who was restored not because he felt sorry for himself, but because his father loved him so much.

For the Father did love the Son, and loves us too, so much so that he gave his Son to the end that we might not perish, but have everlasting life. By making him to be sin who knew no sin, God canceled the debt of sin, nailing it to the cross, deader than a doornail. God has rolled the stone of our disgrace away, as surely as the stone was rolled from the tomb in which our Lord and Savior lay.

And grace has been with us every step of the way. God’s grace spoke in our hearts, bringing us to repentance. Grace led us on the road of return, and fed us with the manna of reconciliation on the way. Grace renewed us and clothed us in garments of righteousness, and grace will see us through on our mission as ambassadors of Christ. Let us therefore celebrate, and invite everyone, near and far, to the celebration, for that which was dead has come to life, and the lost has been found. +