Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Luke 15:1-10 
September 11, 2016[1]

“I once was lost but now am found...”[2] We sing those words and we speak about our salvation from our human perspective—from the perspective of those who were lost and found our way home. This morning, our Gospel Lesson this morning shows another side to the issue.

Luke 15 contains three parables that Jesus told after religious leaders criticized him for eating with sinners. The last parable is the story of the Prodigal Son. We spoke about that parable a few months ago. This morning, we will concentrate mostly on the first two. We typically refer to these stories as the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. It seems to me, though, that by using these titles, we lose perspective on the reason Jesus told these stories in the first place.

Jesus did not tell these stories to emphasize the “lostness” of the sheep, the coin, or the youngest son. He told us these stories to give us a peek at how salvation looks from God's perspective--about the effort God has undertaken to find the lost and to restore them into community. They are about the community of heaven celebrating the restoration of God’s children.

Take the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). It was lost, to be sure, but it was lost through no fault of its own; yet it was still lost. And that coin could do nothing to help or hinder the process of becoming found. It just remained where it was until someone or something led to its movement, further concealment or discovery.

Then there is the sheep (Luke 15:4-7). Was the sheep responsible for its own "lostness?" We might assume that the sheep wandered off on its own, although we really don't know that. Could it have been a weaker sheep that had tired in its journey and could move no further? Could it have been sick and weak? Could it have been an expectant mother sheep carrying the gift of new lambs waiting to be born, but as a result couldn't keep up with the rest of the flock?

Or could this have been a rogue sheep that simply had a mind of its own?

Jesus doesn't get into those issues in today’s Lesson, and perhaps He ignores them for a reason. Could it be that for the purposes of the point He was making, it just doesn't matter why the sheep were lost? Could it be that he simply grieves our "lostness" and refuses to rest until we have been found? Could it be that it doesn't matter so much how we got lost—that what matters most is that Jesus and all of heaven celebrate when we have been found.

In the story that follows--that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)—things get a bit more complicated. The younger son is responsible for his own decision to leave home. Reconciliation with his father does not take place until the son repents, turns around, and returns home. The older son is filled with resentment when a big party is thrown for the returning wayward brother. There is human participation in the story from all sides. And yet the invitation to celebrate remains. Both brothers are invited to the party, even though both have been lost in their own personal ways. Even here, Jesus does not engage in sacred finger-pointing. He focuses instead on a father who calls for celebration, and who even encourages a resentful older brother to come join the party.

We focus so much, and understandably so, on the human side of this mystery we call salvation. We focus on our sin, our need for repentance, our coming to faith, our discipleship, and our eternal life with God. Certainly, it is a big deal for us. But the Good News of the Gospel is not primarily about us; it’s about God—the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This Gospel invites us to consider for just a moment the event of salvation from God's point of view.

God made us to be in relationship with Him--God made us with love. That very act of creation is why we proclaim that we are Children of God. And although many of us were raised on a legalistic notion of sin--breaking the law of God--that legalistic notion only captures part of the point. The devastating thing about sin is not just that we broke the law, but that in doing so we also broke the relationship for which we were made.

Many times we talk about salvation in legal terms--"Jesus paid the debt," "He took our punishment," and "He redeemed us." Make no mistake, there are important truths in those descriptions. I have grown to see, however, that those words focus on the mechanics, the "how" of salvation rather than the deeper question of why. Out of love, God has made us, and out of love, God has reached out to us to bring us back into relationship with Him. That is why God took on human form and showed us how to live, how to love, how to love even when the ones we love turn their backs on us. How to keep on loving when it hurts so much that it kills us. Then, through the resurrection, God shows us that not even death itself can overcome the power of God's love.

In short, God invites us home and shows us the way. We no longer need to be lost. That is a reason to celebrate!

The Gospel tells us that when a sinner comes to repentance, when people like you and me find redemption, the angels in heaven rejoice. In more human terms, they have a party.

I invite you to let this truth sink in: that God loves you and takes joy in your salvation. After all, God has a huge stake in seeing us come into relationship with Him. He made us. He loves us. He hurts when we hurt. He weeps when we fall short of the possibilities that He designed into our lives. And when we come home, when we are restored into our relationship with God, then God celebrates!

Through the centuries, Christians have come to think of the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup as a celebration of our redemption. It is not only a somber moment for us to remember Christ's sacrifice; it also is a time to recognize that God celebrates in our homecoming. Holy Communion is a time of joy!

When I was in college, Pastor Jack was the pastor of the college church I attended. Pastor Jack often referred to Holy Communion as "God's Party." At the time, I thought that he was just offering us a kinder, gentler way of thinking of Communion; I didn't really get the significance of what he was saying. The older I get, the more I learning to see how important it is to God that we are reconciled in our relationship with Him. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NRSV).

Despite our brokenness, the God who makes us still loves us, and still calls out to us, inviting us to come home. This is reason to celebrate!

This morning, as you come forward to receive the bread and the cup, I pray that you will know this simple but profound truth: God loves you! (1 John 4:10). I pray that you will be reconciled to God, that you will experience the liberation of being set free from the sin and brokenness that separate us from God, and that you will celebrate the Good News—in Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven.

And maybe, just maybe, the angels in heaven will be giving each other high fives in celebration that you and I have come home.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 378.

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