Everything is New (Josh. 5:9-12; 2 Cor. 5:16-21; Lk. 15:1-3,11b-32)
Last week we looked at the necessity for course corrections in our Christian lives – sometimes in the form of U-Turns, and sometimes not such radical corrections. They are, quite commonly, course corrections to open ourselves up to new ways of seeing and doing things that are more aligned with the values of Jesus and the Good News. And that takes work. But today, our lessons offer us more Good News, and that is, we’re not in this alone. We are constantly the recipients of God’s help through Christ, the Living Word, through the written word of the Bible, and through working together with one another in conversation with the Living Word, and the written word.
The first of our lectionary passages comes from what is one of the most troubling books in the Bible for me, the Book of Joshua. This book, as most of you know, deals with the displacement or destruction of the indigenous Canaanite population in the name of God. We have often skipped over the moral problem of doing that, and although I can, mostly, think my way through this as an ancient story, we all know the Bible is much more than that, and this story has been used to justify the decimation of indigenous populations in many places in the world (including here on this continent), in the name God and of Jesus and the furtherance of the Gospel. In my view, this is not OK and is something of which we need to repent in that biblical way of finding better values based on new ways of thinking with the mind of Christ as we saw last week. This is true whether we, personally, have actually been physically violent in this or not. I have said this to you more than once, and I haven’t changed my mind.
Luckily, the Revised Common Lectionary only uses Joshua four times, and this passage has little to do with all that violence, although the wider context does narrate forced physical mutilation in the name of God, something we may, again, understand historically, without using it as a rationale for enforced religious behaviours on others today, especially in the light of our cherished Baptist characteristic of freedom of religious expression for individuals, especially in a text that deals with freedom.
The point that our little bit of story tries to make is that the Israelites who crossed the Jordan were new people in a new land, since those who had been at Mt. Sinai, except Joshua and Caleb, had died in the wilderness. As this new people celebrated the Passover, it’s almost like a new thing they’re celebrating, because they, themselves, had this new perspective of place there in the new land. God says, “Today, I have (finally) rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” They had long been slaves, but now, in this new place, they can, finally, put all that behind them. It has rolled away. God had brought them to new (or maybe renewed) freedom.
The place where all this set is called Gilgal, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “to roll off.” At this “rolling off place” God dissipated the humiliation of Egypt’s slavery. “It’s a new day, you are a new people, that old identity of ‘slave’ that you carried as a burden, is gone.” Gilgal became an important place for Israel to remember, because it was there that these new Israelites celebrated their first Passover in Canaan, the first eating the fruit of the land. The story also says it was the day when the Manna stopped coming. That “mystery meal,” with which God had nourished Israel for a generation in the wilderness, was no longer necessary. There’s that old saying that with freedom goes responsibility, and so, here they were responsible for growing their own food. Again, the old was gone, and everything was new. Now the Hebrews had to take responsibility for their lives in a way they hadn’t either in Egypt or as they wandered in the wilderness. God invited them into a new day and a new space, and to new freedom.
When Paul wrote 2nd Corinthians, he and the congregation at Corinth were at odds with one another. After Paul wrote what we’ve come to call 1st Corinthians, the Corinthian church received some new teachers who, whatever else they taught, taught that Paul had it all wrong. Some churches always want to be on the cutting edge, so the Corinthian congregation was attracted to the new fad, with the result that Paul struggled to maintain any credibility in Corinth. In what we call 2 Corinthians, especially in the first half or so, Paul is pretty defensive about all this. And probably his words weren’t all that helpful. Paul, like the rest of us, had a hard time separating his personal from his professional life when under attack. He started chapter 5 in the same defensive manner, but in the midst of it he hit on a particular way of talking about that which motivated him. Almost out of the blue, he wrote that the motive for his ministry was simply “the love of Christ that urged him on.” And this brought Paul, I think, to a new way of seeing, a new vision.
Paul confessed he has learned to look at people and the world with the eyes of Jesus. He didn’t put it quite that way. What he said is that he has learned to look at people, ideas, and institutions not in terms of externals and appearances, but by trying to understand what was happening inside to get the substance or the essence. That’s what I mean by new vision or looking with the eyes of Jesus. At one point he even admitted to looking at Jesus externally, by birth, by education, by status. He even admits here to looking at Jesus, once, by external standards. Such a view had led Paul to reject Jesus and the community of disciples that followed him. But he says, “I know him that way no longer.” In that traumatic experience on the Damascus Road Paul gained what he called a whole new world. He wrote: “If anyone be in Christ, it is a new creation, everything old has passed away, look at it, everything has become new.” It is not just the individual that receives new vision, it is the whole world as seen by that person. There is a new creation.
The Greek New Testament has two words for “new,” one that means “new in time,” one that means “new in quality,” and this is the second one. From the risen Christ Paul has received new vision with a new appreciation of its quality. This vision is not based on outer appearances, but on inner substance. As I say, it’s as if he was seeing with the eyes of Jesus.
Once he recognized others and his world with new vision, he also realized that in Christ God was reconciling the world (not just those we like or agree with us). God made Christ the bridge across which people could walk back to a relationship with God at the deepest level of their being. And, God did that by refusing to count bad things against people and entrusting the process of bridge building (reconciliation) to people like the Apostle Paul…and us (even with our unlikely histories), so that he, the Corinthians, and we are ambassadors for Christ. And it all starts by receiving a new quality of vision and seeing the world through Jesus’ eyes.
We come, at last, to the Gospel. This so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most notable passages in the New Testament, and most of us have heard it many times. I can’t possibly say anything new. I was reminded the other day by an old mentor of mine of one preacher who summed up this parable as about the man who “went to the dogs,” “fed the hogs,” and “homeward jogs.” Well, OK. A certain man had two sons. One was a good boy and did all the right things, the other one was a bad boy and did all the wrong things. Most sermons concentrate on the bad boy, and talk about how, when, after going to the dogs, he finally, as he hit the bottom, ended up as a Jewish boy in the pig-yard (he fed the hogs). It was that catalyst that allowed him to “come to himself.” Addiction counselors still know that hitting bottom sometimes seems the necessary prelude to healing. And the lad thought of his father. Then, he homeward jogs.
I’ve also heard and read some sermons that concentrate on the good boy. Those of us who have grown up in church can read it as encouragement for us not to take it ill when those who haven’t, “come to themselves.”
Really, however, the main character in this story is the father. Most of you know that the waiting father here represents God. As Jesus presents God in this story, God doesn’t simply stand arms folded like a cross-patch old Baptist preacher with a black floppy Scofield Reference Bible, saying, “When he accepts my rules, he can come crawling back.” This wasn’t about rules, or about who was right and who was wrong. What the father did (whatever he thought), was to go running to meet his kid on the road, with hugs and, one imagines with tears, and a “Welcome home.” He offered his bad boy new acceptance. Jesus says God’s like that father. God does not punish sons or daughters with recrimination and guilt, but accepts them, and throws them a party to celebrate the fact that, not that they’ve learned their lesson, but that they’re home where they need to be.
In Paul’s language that’s the same God who doesn’t count wrongs against us, accepts us and entrusts to us the job of helping others to know that they, too, are accepted. That doesn’t mean what we or they have done is acceptable (any more than what the bad boy did was), it’s that we are all still accepted because, in Christ, God was reconciling everyone. And we’re all part of everyone. And that’s the Good News of Jesus today. Jesus says, “That’s God.”
As I say to you often, our job as disciples is to copy what we see God in Jesus doing in the world. One lesson from the Joshua text was that, with new freedom comes new responsibility. So if we have received new freedom in Christ, new vision of Christ, new acceptance by God in Christ, how, then should we live? Should we not be the human face of such things in our world? If we have been brought to new freedom then in our relationships and our community should we not seek to liberate others to be themselves and to be free of the baggage that keeps them from living full lives? Should we not seek to be agents of liberation and justice in the world? If we have been brought to new vision in Christ, then should we not see the world with the eyes of Jesus and be inclusive in our love and our concern for all of God’s creatures, whether they’re like us or not? If we have been given new acceptance by God in Christ, then as individuals and a community should we not become more open and accepting – again, this is not the same as saying all behaviour is acceptable – it is saying that we can accept others without accepting all they do and say. The more we receive, the more we give. And like the good father in Jesus’ story, we can run to meet them on the road.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.