2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Movements of Restoration
I am a pastor in a denomination that is part of a broader movement that often speaks of itself as a “Restoration Movement.” Like Pentecostalism (another movement I can claim membership in during my faith journey), this Restoration Movement envisions the restoration of the church’s original purity – a return to a golden age when the church was united and full of the Spirit. Both movements often turn to the Book of Acts for guidance.
I understand this view of the church quite well, but that’s not the kind of restoration I have in mind as I write this meditation. The kind of restoration I see present in the lectionary texts for this fourth Sunday of Lent is relational in nature. Because we have experienced broken relationships, whether with God and with our neighbor, we’re in need of help in restoring our relationships to their original state. In this case, restoration is linked with ideas such as redemption, salvation, and healing.
If restoration is a theme present in these lectionary texts, finding the connection in this reading from Joshua is somewhat difficult. The passage is brief and seems disconnected from the vision expressed in 2 Corinthians and Luke. Nonetheless, there is in this passage a message of restoration. In the biblical story, the people of Israel, who have suffered through the agony of slavery and then wandered in the wilderness for decades, have now reached the Promised Land. By crossing the Jordan River, they have been restored to what they perceived to be their homeland. As we read this passage, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the crossing, but we need to acknowledge a rather dark back story to our reading. In crossing the river and taking residence in the land of Canaan, Israel is occupying the homeland of another people. They come as refugees from slavery, but also as conquerors. We see this same story played out today in the ongoing conflict between Israeli and Palestinian.
Keeping in mind this contextual reality, we can hear in it a word of restoration. When the people of Israel began their exodus from Egypt, they celebrated the Passover. Now that they’ve reached their new homeland (the place of restoration and thus salvation), they again celebrate the Passover. This time their celebration of this festival marks the end of their time of wandering. Where once they had lived as slaves, now they will live in freedom. What was seemingly lost (freedom) is now restored, by the grace of God who heard the people’s cries and then led them out of Egypt. To connect this story with the Luke’s parable, may we not envision God engaged with the people, preparing the people for freedom, even during their time of distress. It was not as if God was absent during the time of captivity. God was there in that moment as well as in the Wilderness and then in the Promised Land. God had been looking out for them the entire time.
The reading from Joshua ends with a statement concerning the manna God had provided in the Wilderness. They are no longer wandering nomads. They can settle down, plant and harvest crops, and therefore they no longer need the manna. They have come to a point of maturity in their life experience. They move from total dependence to interdependence. Is this not true for us as well, as followers of the Way?
Turning to the reading from 2 Corinthians 5, we hear in Paul’s words, a powerful statement of God’s intentions for humanity, indeed the entirety of the cosmos. Paul writes that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self.” As a result of God’s action, all things are made new. The past is the past. It doesn’t determine the present or the future. I’m not alone in finding a word of healing and empowerment in this passage. God has acted, bringing healing to broken relations within creation, offering a new beginning for the created order. But, that’s not all God has done. God has also called the church to join in partnership. We are called to be Christ’s ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors. It is our calling to inform the world that God has reconciled us, bringing salvation and healing to that which is broken by sin.
This idea of reconciliation has broad implications. It speaks of relational brokenness that in Christ is restored. What has become unrighteous becomes righteous – that is, it returns to God’s original purpose. This is, Derek Flood so helpfully points out, not just a theme in Scripture, “it is the core narrative of the gospel – the master story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). It is the story of restoration, redemption – at-one-ment.” It is, he notes, rooted in the idea of restorative justice, which is ”understood in terms of God in Christ restoring and making things right again (Flood, Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross, p. 7).
For Paul this process of restoration begins with an understanding of how we view reality. What is our perspective? The passage begins with a statement about perspective. According to most translations, including the NRSV and CEB, Paul no longer regards Christ or humanity from a “human point of view.” A better, more literal, translation of the Greek kata sarka comes out as “according to the flesh.” Flesh, for Paul, isn’t the body, but rather a perspective that is hostile to God. To live according to the Flesh is to live in a way that doesn’t produce the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5). Paul used to live out of a perspective that was hostile to God’s purposes, which is why he pursued the followers of Jesus with such a vengeance and with violence. But, now, in Christ, that has changed. That is the old Paul, the one that lives according to the Flesh. But now, in Christ, he lives according to the Spirit, and this leads to reconciliation – to the healing of the relationships with God and with humanity. He now lives inside the vision of the New Creation, the Realm of God. In this new realm of God, this new creation, the old barriers between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, no longer matter. They are expressions of the old creation, the realm of brokenness, where the powers and principalities seek to reign. In this work of bringing into existence the New Creation, we share in the righteousness of God.
The Gospel reading takes the form of the Parable of the Prodigal. This is one of the most beloved of all the parables because it speaks of hope, healing, and restoration. The reading begins with the opening verses of chapter 15, where we’re told that sinners and tax collectors were coming to listen to Jesus, and this fact wasn’t sitting well with the religious leaders. After all, “birds of a feather flock together.” This attitude has been a constant thorn in the side of the church, and the cause of great consternation to many who live outside the church. They hear a message of welcome, but experience exclusion or simply see those who claim to be followers of Jesus being hypocrites.
With this introduction, Jesus shares a series of parables that carry the theme of “Lost and Found.” In this parable, there is the sense of loss and being found, but at the same time, the Father (who most likely represents God) never loses a sense of contact with the son. They son may have run off seeking pleasure, but the Father keeps scanning the horizon, expecting the son to return.
The parable begins with the younger son demanding his share of the inheritance now, while he’s still young and can enjoy himself. There is none of the expected respect or honor that a child is supposed to show a parent. There is instead a self-centeredness that defines sin in the Jewish and Christian tradition. There is a rejection of God’s provision and guidance, the same resistance that we see in the Exodus story, which leads to the lengthy time of wandering in the wilderness. The younger son takes his share, heads out into his own wilderness – “a distant country” and spends his inheritance in “dissolute living.” In the end, he finds himself lost, alone, and without any means to support himself. He falls so far that he takes a job slopping the hogs, something that would be anathema to a Jew who recoiled at the sight of pigs. In time he came to envy the pigs, because they ate better than he did. Finally, he decides that he will return home – not as a son but as an indentured servant. He remembers that his father’s servants live better than this. And so he returns. He comes up with a speech, apologizing for his actions, but the Father has no need to hear the speech. He’s been waiting this day since the son left. As Randall Bush puts it, “restoration came from the initiative of the searching, loving father, who saw his son ‘while he was still far off’ and offered the fullest welcome before the son could outer his well prepared speech” (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, p. 151).
Now the older son isn’t at all happy with this. He wants to see some justice. Whereas the father believes in restorative justice, where forgiveness is preeminent, the older brother seems to want to see the younger brother to suffer. He’s more concerned about his own status than the father’s desire to see reconciliation take place. I sense that for Christians, the attitude of the older brother is common experience. Again, this is a reason why so many outside the church don’t sense the church to be a place of welcome. They see in the church a desire to protect turf, to protect power structures. But, in this parable Jesus offers a very different understanding, one that seeks restoration and reconciliation of all things.
As we continue our Lenten Journey, we hear the call to join in God’s movements of restoration. The result of these movements is our entrance into God’s New Creation. We have entered a new land and share in its produce, celebrating the glory of God present in us and amongst us.