Sermon For Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ephesians 2:11-22

“Once Far Away, Yet Now Near”

This summer’s sermons will explore evangelism through the lens of basic Christian theology.  Today: Reconciliation

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ~ Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear the podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  120722SermonPodcast

To see a video of this sermon, click HERE:  http://youtu.be/3MyxFezu5m0

NOTE: A great deal of my sermon was inspired by: Harold S. Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have To Be? A New Understanding Of Guilt And Forgiveness (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1996)

Today’s question is (and please pardon my language, but I’m being honest): “Is there anything I can do to piss off God so much that God will give up on me?”  Usually this question is asked by either one of two people: Those who are so genuinely kind, nice, and good that they bring to mind cooing babies, dancing unicorns, and rainbow kisses, or those people who have every intention of finding out just exactly how far they can push God before the fury and wrath of God are let loose upon the world.

When I was in college in Enid, Oklahoma I attended a Disciples of Christ church whose pastor had a sign along the front edge of the desk in his office.  It had a quotation, attributed to God, on it.  The desk plaque read: “There is absolutely nothing you can do to make me stop loving you.  Nothing.”  I must be somewhere in-between the two extremes I mentioned before, because sometimes I would look at that plaque and feel enormous relief and unconditional love.  But then sometimes… just sometimes… I would look at it and think to myself, “Let’s just imagine how long that commitment will really last!”

Today’s scripture lesson from the second chapter of Ephesians is the quintessential text outlining the doctrine of reconciliation.  “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” the passage reads.  Last week I referenced John Calvin as we looked at the doctrine of election.  This week will refer to no less than Karl Barth, whose series of tomes, Church Dogmatics, deals with the topic of reconciliation extensively.  In fact, one blogger writes that “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation is the crescendo of the symphony that is his Church Dogmatics!” (1)

Let me say from the beginning, again, that I don’t pretend to be a scholar of Karl Barth, and like the other theologians that I have quoted before this summer, there are some things he writes that resound in me, and there are things that scrape against my being like fingers on a chalkboard.  And much of it, I will admit, just flies right over my head.  Likewise, there is the actual theological dissertation which any theologian makes, and then there is the interpretations and perceptions and even misattributions others make to a theologians ideas and writings.  I hope I’m not contributing to the latter… too much!

But having said that, there are a few things I have come to believe about the doctrine of Reconciliation that contrast with classic theology.  In short, Reconciliation is a theological conversation about how God and humanity are related to one another, particularly when we are not our best selves, and how we are related to other human beings, especially when we are not our best selves.  Barth, and so many other theologians, ground their understanding of Reconciliation on the basis of the essential depravity of humanity.  In the words of a college friend, we are “WORMS!”  (that is W-O-R-M-S!)  As much as Barth talks about Reconciliation being about God’s grace and love, he builds his understanding of that grace and love on presumption of a “Fall” of humankind which embedded us in original sin.

However, reminding ourselves that there is, in fact, no biblical word or phrase for “The Fall,” I believe that what happened in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was that they in fact did not condemn humanity forever to be evil and sinful, but, in fact, they simply and quickly grew up that day.  They –meaning we – chose to see life from the vantage point of the divine parent.  All that is good, worthy, noble, decent, and kind in this world was as evident to us as all that is bad, evil, disgraceful, and cruel in this world, as was every option in between.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner points out in his magnificent book How Good Do We Have To Be? A New Understanding Of Guilt And Forgiveness, “The account of Adam and Eve… is a mythical description of how the first human beings left the world of animal existence behind and entered the problematic world of being human…”  Thus, life opens up and “they realize that the choices they have to make are so immensely complicated that they can’t possibly always get them right.  They will inevitably make mistakes.” (2)

Adam and Eve. Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526. Courtauld Gallery, London

Kushner concludes, Adam and Eve “enter a world where they will inevitably make mistakes, not because they are weak or bad but because the choices they confront will be such difficult ones.  But the satisfactions will be equally great.  While animals can only be useful and obedient, human beings can be good.  The story of the Garden of Eden is not a story of the Fall of Man, but of the Emergence of Humankind.” (3)  Kushner reminds us that it is the very same human qualities that make sin possible also open us up to creativity, beauty, and incredible acts of grace and kindness.

One of my first critiques of the traditional formulation of the doctrine of Reconciliation is that it tends to be intensely individualistic.  It’s formulated as a one-on-one wrestling match between God and me.  Yes, in classic theology, how I treat my neighbor is important, but not of definitive significance to my spiritual salvation.  I think this is flat out wrong.  I think how I treat God and how I treat my neighbor are forever bound together, (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”)  Not only will it mean little for me to arrive at the pearly gates having reconciled with God and not my neighbor, I wonder if I will be allowed to proceed there at all!  Certainly Ephesians 2 sets how the uncircumcised Gentiles and the circumcised Jews must be reconciled to one another alongside, and in an almost causal manner, how God and each individual must be reconciled one to another.  “[Christ] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

But even more problematic for me than the hyper-individualization of reconciliation is the sense that the reconciliation we need brings us back from eternal damnation.  So often, the doctrine of Reconciliation is set in a courtroom, with God as the Ultimate Judge whose hands are tied by the law, who has no choice but to condemn humanity to death and eternal punishment for the terrible wrongs we have done.  In this classic atonement theology, Jesus, the one who is perfect and blameless, unexpectedly steps into the courtroom and takes on the blame rightly due humanity, and thus receives the terrible punishment due each and every one of this.  I know this is what is passed off as a core doctrine of Christianity and is rarely question, and I am probably putting myself at grave risk saying this, but I think it’s wrong, unbiblical, and dangerous!

It is interesting to note that this word, “atonement,” which has become so familiar in Christian theology is only used once in the New Testament in the King James Bible, and that is in Romans 5:11.  The New Revised Standard Version also uses it a second time in Hebrews 2:17.  In both places it has a rigid connotation related directly to the blood sacrifices described in the Hebrew Scriptures, sacrifices from which most of the New Testament works to dissociate Christianity.  Perhaps if we stuck more closely the original meaning of atonement, at least in its English derivations, we will understand more fully what the writer of Ephesians 2 was trying to get at as a process of becoming “at one” with another, could mean.  (4)

I believe, and I understand all of the Bible and history showing, that God wants nothing more than to be at one with us!  Having set us free to be all that we could become, upon sending us “east of Eden,” God began immediately on a journey to follow us to and through all the heights, depths, and plains in between where we would travel.  The Creator desires nothing more than to be reunited with the creation.  I believe rather than as a magistrate sitting in judgment of humanity from high atop a court bench, God is, rather, an restless parent waiting patiently and expectantly at the front door both for the one child who has wandered far from the household to come home AND for the other child whose heart has wandered far from the bountiful grace and love and forgiveness of the parent.  Reconciliation is, in fact, an act of God’s pursuing grace and love, which are, in the end, the very same thing.

I am reminded of my “dark night of the soul.”  Shortly after graduating from college I finally came to terms with my humanity, its beauty and its ugliness.  The night that I had to call my mother to tell her that, not only was I getting a divorce from my wife only six months after having married her, but that the reason for the divorce was that I was gay, I fell apart.  I mean, I fell completely apart.  In the deep darkness of the night in the middle of the summer on a mostly barren campus I wandered around weeping and wailing uncontrollably.  I felt I had hurt all of the friends and family I loved the most and who loved me the most, and had profoundly disappointed not only ever person I knew, but I had failed the God whom I professed to love and serve.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, James Tissot, 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum

Somewhere in the midst of that excruciatingly painful night I became aware of a presence.  Quite a distance behind me, almost beyond my sight, was a person walking at the same pace I was walking, stopping when I would stop, quietly taking in my pain and making sure I would not hurt anyone else or myself.  She followed me until finally, exhausted and spent from my emotional crucible, I wandered back to my apartment, safe even if not sound.  My friend and I never spoke that night, and not really much afterwards, about the experience.  But I knew, perhaps better than at any point in my life up to then, that God existed, and God wanted nothing more than to be reconciled with me, and me reconciled with myself, and each one of us reconciled one to another.

There is another, faithful and biblically fair way of interpreting the Garden of Eden.  If we understand what happened in this fundamental story of the faith NOT as a shame-filled desecration of God, but a coming of age story in which we became fully human, then our life’s journey is to learn how to make the best possible choices that lead us back to the wholeness and fullness and the richness that God created in us.  Thus Jesus becomes God’s great desire to help us know that the One who created us knows exactly how difficult and complex and problematic this life is, that the Creator God shares our struggles, desires, temptations, and heartaches not just theoretically, but as a fully embodied human being.  This takes us back to the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Rather than a pitiful sacrifice thrown from the rim of a volcano into the fiery anger of God’s wrath, Jesus instead becomes the one like us who gives us hope, the one who reminds us of our very best selves, the scout who goes on before us, the protector that follows behind us, the friend that walks beside us.

God is the lover who whispers the truth about the abiding love of the Divine One sweetly into our ears as we, who feel unworthy of such love, cry uncontrollably in light of such unearned and long lost love.

Jesus is needed, not because we cannot return to God’s wholeness by ourselves, but because we won’t return by ourselves!  Jesus is needed, not because we cannot find our way back to God, but because we might forget to bring those around us with us.

Jesus Washes Peter’s Feet, Watanabe, 1982. Pacific Asian American Center for Theology and Strategies.

Is there anything we can do that will piss off God?  Hell yes!  Lots of what we do makes God sad, frustrated, angry and perhaps even depressed.  Is there anything we can do that will ultimately separate us from God?  NO!  God does, in fact, have a plaque on the divine desk that reads, “There is absolutely nothing you can do to make me stop loving you.  Nothing.”  But what we forget is that God has come out from behind that desk and has chosen to show us, and all those around us, that very truth in no uncertain terms in the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

THAT is Reconciliation!

Amen.

(1) For a very well done and compelling look at Karl Barth’s discussion of Reconciliation, please go to: http://www.mbird.com/2010/09/wake-me-up-inside-part-1-barths/

(2) Harold S. Kushner, How Good Do We Have To Be? A New Understanding Of Guilt And Forgiveness (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1996), pp. 24-25

(3)  Ibid, p. 31

(4) A fascinating article on the etymology of the word “atonement” can be found at: http://forward.com/articles/11632/at-one-ment-/

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