A sermon delivered at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 6 March 2016.
Today we enter the second half of our Lenten journey.
Behind us lie the first three Sundays of Lent:
- Lent 1 – Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by Satan (Luke 4:1-13)
- Lent 2 – Jesus condemns Jerusalem for its treatment of the prophets (Luke 13:31-35)
- Lent 3 – the parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:1-9)
Those are all fairly grim texts.
Ahead of us the two Sundays that especially focus on the Passion of Christ:
- Lent 5 – a woman anoints Jesus for burial (John 12:1–8)
- Lent 6 – Palm Sunday (Luke 22 & 23)
Today we have something of a respite.
In some Christian traditions today is known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’ because it offers a slight relaxation of the Lenten fast, and something of a respite from the penitential focus of this season.
Sometimes rose-colored vestments are worn, instead of the traditional purple. (You may recall a similar thing happens on the Third Sunday of Advent.)
In the UK and some parts of the Anglican Communion today is also observed as Mothering Sunday.
That observance has its origins in the tradition that servants and apprentices were released from regular duties to visit the church of their baptism and also to see their mothers, perhaps even taking them a gift from the place where they served.
Here in this land, Mothers’ Day is observed on March 21, so we can focus on today as the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
Reconciliation as the Mission of God in our Time
Given the themes of the NT readings for this Sunday, we could consider designating today as ‘Reconciliation Sunday’. That is not its official title, but it would certainly fit with the readings.
In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself … (2 Cor 5:19)
This is a powerful piece of very early Christology. The letters to the Corinthians preserve pastoral communications between Paul and the emerging Christian community in Corinth. They date from a time in the 50s, around 20 years after Easter.
In these letters, which predate the Gospels by several decades and perhaps 100 years in the case of Luke, we get the first evidence of how the followers of Jesus were already making sense of his death as something God did for our benefit.
Everybody in Corinth realised that crucifixion was something awful. It was the worst form of capital punishment used in the Roman Empire. It reflected final condemnation and exclusion from society. There was no honour attached to such a death. Nothing could be rescued from such a disaster.
But the followers of Jesus came to see the cross as an action in which God reconciled the world to himself.
It is a far richer concept than the medieval idea that someone had to pay for sin, so Jesus suffered in order to preserve the patriarchal honor of God.
Instead, here we have God taking the worst that Rome could inflict on Jesus, and making that very act the occasion for reconciliation.
Not merely the forgiveness of sins, but the reconciliation of a world gone awry.
The prodigal and the loving father (Luke 15)
The lectionary matches that Pauline text with one of the most confronting parables of Jesus, the so-called Prodigal Son.
Here we see reconciliation at work, and also its limits.
We all know the story. It has three main characters, as in many oral stories:
- the ungrateful son
- the generous father
- the grumpy older brother
These are exaggerated caricatures, and that exaggeration invites us to reflect on those times when we are one or more of these characters.
The wealth of the father is matched by the selfishness of the younger son, which is in turn matched by the self-less love of the father, which itself is trumped by the self-righteous indignation of ‘Mr Perfect’, the elder brother.
Reconciliation is hard work, and not everyone will agree to be reconciled.
Yet it remains our work, because it is the mission of God.
… and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor 5:19)
The divine mission of turning hatred, death and rejection into an act of cosmic reconciliation has been entrusted to us.
Of all people, to us.
Of all places, here in this conflicted city and divided land.
Not only here.
But especially here, because this is where the cross become Ground Zero for the divine mission of reconciliation.
As we come to the Table of the Lord this morning and stretch out our hands to receive the Body of Christ, we ask for grace to be ambassadors for Christ, spending our lives in the mission of reconciliation.