The readings that Andy read for us today share a common theme of reconciliation. In the passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul writes that God has reconciled the world to himself through Christ; that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ; and that as ambassadors for Christ, we are called to the ministry of reconciliation.
And then, in the Gospel, we have this incredible story of the waiting father, who runs out to meet his wayward son “while he was still far off.” Last week, I spoke of our “desiring God,” and this week the stories speak of God’s desire for us. God’s desire to be reconciled with us.
Whenever I hear this gospel story, my mind and my heart fix on this moment of the father seeing his son and being filled with compassion; and running out to him, and falling on him, throwing his arms around his son and kissing him.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I remember that the word we translate “compassion” is a Greek word that means “a yearning in the gut,” well, that always blows me away. This father has a yearning in his gut for his son. So God has a yearning in his gut for us.
We can talk about reconciliation as a theological category, as an important idea, which of course it is. But this image of God as a yearning father, who runs out to meet us, and falls upon our necks with tears and kisses: this puts flesh on the bones of that theological concept.
If we put these two Scripture stories together, the message is that God is a reconciling God, who relentlessly pursues us; that God has reconciled and is reconciling the world to himself, through this amazing boundless love and compassion; and that God invites us to do the same, to love like God loves. That this is how we express our ministry of reconciliation.
So a question for us to ponder on this Annual Meeting Sunday is, How do we do this? How do we love as God loves?
As I have been preparing for my Doctor of Ministry thesis, I have been reading a lot of books about United Church history, and thinking a lot about the trends that have developed in our church over the past fifty years or so. I’ve also had the opportunity to talk about these ideas with colleagues in ministry and lay people in our church.
One of the things I’ve noticed, through my reading and the conversation, is that we have come to a place where many people make a particular distinction. The distinction is between what they describe as “belief,” or “doctrine,” or “dogma”—and you know it’s pretty rare for people to talk about dogma in a positive light—a distinction between belief or dogma, on the one hand, and “behaviour” on the other hand.
So, for example, some of you are familiar with the book by Gretta Vosper, With or Without God. Its subtitle is, Why the way we live is more important than what we believe. There you have the distinction between the way we live, “behaviour,” and what we believe. In general, in this distinction, belief is seen as dry and useless at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
Belief, or dogma, is seen as the cause of conflict and war; while behaviour, shared rules about appropriate behaviour, is seen as a means of reconciliation.
This distinction between belief and behavior is particularly common in liberal churches because we have tended to privilege the practical expression of our faith over and above things like doctrine or belief. Over time the focus on behaviour has become so large, and the focus on belief has become so small, that we’ve reached a point where many are ready to jettison belief altogether, as something problematic and no longer necessary. We’re on a trajectory in some parts of the United Church that will lead us to become an atheist humanist, somewhat spiritual version of church-like community.
I recently read a description of our contemporary culture as one of “practical atheism that offers the fruit of shalom minus the tree of biblical faith that bore it.”[i] This is the idea that our good behaviour, based on Judeo-Christian teachings can still be a positive force in society even after it has become unmoored, unhooked from its source in Scripture and Christian belief.
The counter-argument to all of this is that belief and behaviour belong together, and they cannot be separated without doing a disservice to both. Our beliefs must find expression in our behaviour, or they are meaningless. Our behaviour must be moored, rooted, in our beliefs about the character and nature of God, or they become subject to our preferences and whims.
In today’s Gospel story, we might look at the two brothers as examples of these two points of view. The younger brother is perhaps an example of the emphasis on behaviour, disconnected from belief. He sets out on his own, leaving behind his family, his home, his heritage, his father’s house. He’s going to do things his own way, on his own terms. But it doesn’t go so well, and he hits bottom, ending up as a swineherd, feeding pigs, which were unclean animals for him.
The story tells us he came to himself: he remembers his father, his home, his heritage. He remembers all that as a source of life, out there in the wasteland where he is dying of hunger, of emptiness, of loneliness. And so he comes home, and is received with kisses, and restored as a son.
The older son is perhaps an example of rigid adherence to belief, to moral codes, and laws, and judgment, but disconnected from mercy. He’s got all his ideas right, but his behaviour is sadly lacking. He’s been working like a slave, obeying all the rules that he carries around in his head, and it’s left him full of resentment and bitterness towards his father and his brother. The father who runs out to greet the returning son also leaves the party to go in search of the older son who won’t come in.
The father goes out to both of them, seeking to reconcile them to himself and to one another. This father never counts the cost; he is always willing to pay the price. In the father, behaviour and belief are held together; they are connected by mercy.
The God we meet in Scripture is a lawgiver and a judge, it is true. But God’s laws and judgments are never separated from God’s mercy. They are meant to support us in living well with one another; with family members, with neighbors and friends; and with our enemies. They are meant to support us on the journey to our own, and the world’s wholeness, or shalom.
In the Gospel story we meet a God of overwhelming mercy and amazing grace, an intimate and tangible expression of this idea of God reconciling the world, and all of us, to himself. This is what God is like, the story tells us, and this is what it means for us to be part of God’s ministry of reconciliation. We are meant to love radically, passionately, beyond all limits and beyond all sense, because this is what God does.
We are not called to behave this way because it is a good thing to do; because it will make us feel better; because it will make the world a little better place to live in. Ultimately, we are called to love like this because this is what God does. Our behavior is rooted in what we know and see and believe about who God is, what God is like, and how God behaves towards us.
So, how do we love as God loves? Well, with abandon, with passion, without limit, beyond our merely human capacity, beyond our merely human preferences and whims. We love without counting the cost, because we believe God has already the price. So may we love as children of God. Amen.
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[i] Mark Sayers in Disappearing Church.