A Sermon on the Third Sunday after Trinity, June 17, 2018
The Epistle, 1 St. Peter 5:5-11 – The Gospel, St. Luke 15:1-10
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. Two tax collector meals
There are two gospel stories about meals with tax collectors. One comes after the call of Matthew the tax collector to be an apostle. The other is in today’s gospel. In both cases certain religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, objected. They believed that those who faithfully observed the Torah would be made unclean by contact with those who did not. For Jesus, the infection worked in the other direction. He was not being drawn into the sin of the sinners. Rather, he was inviting them into his pathway of healing and wholeness.
The punch lines in the two stories are similar, but each has a different focus. After the call of Matthew, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:30-32). In today’s gospel, Jesus said, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Lk. 15:10). In other words, the sick need a doctor named Jesus, and God and the angels are happy when they find him.
B. The parable of the prodigal son and the reconfigured community
In St. Luke’s Gospel, today’s gospel story leads into the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which concludes with a model for a reconfigured community. In the old community, the lost son, the sinner, was on the outside and the obedient son was on the inside. After the lost son returned, he was on the inside celebrating with his father and the household, and the obedient son was on the outside refusing to come in and join the party.
In the old Israel the Pharisees were on the inside; those viewed as sinners were on the outside. In the New Israel, all who repent and follow Jesus are on the inside and many who were considered righteous are now on the outside. Repentance is now the mark of genuine faith and membership in God’s people. As Romans says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23-24). Repentance and faith in Jesus make us members of the new Israel.
Over time religious communities are tempted to drift back into the error of the scribes and Pharisees. Human nature constructs an “in” group that consists of me and those like me, and an “out” group that consists of everyone else. This kind of division permeates our culture. Jesus reconfigured Israel. The “in” group, the Israel of God, is everyone who repents and follows him. The “out” group is everyone else. The key to healthy and evangelistic ministry is to build the church according to the new pattern that Jesus established.
C. The paradox of repentance
Repentance involves a kind of paradox—like most Christian doctrines. On the one hand, Jesus welcomes all regardless of their sins. On the other hand, Jesus never lessens the demands of the law for those who come to him. On the one hand, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). On the other hand, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matt. 5:29).
Repentance is an orientation rather than an event. We grow in our repentance over time. As we come to see Christ, the Light of the world, more clearly and we come to see ourselves more clearly in his light. We make better confessions. Our experience of grace grows. In contrast, those who refuse to repent continue to justify their disobedience. They ignore their own sins and pick on the sins of others—certain others. They argue they are better than most—or they argue that everyone is okay as is.
To be faithful to the teaching of Jesus and carry out a genuine healing ministry in his name, we must cling tightly to both sides of the paradox. We must insist that Jesus invites sinners, like you and me, to eat with him. We can come even though we have done what we ought not to have done and left undone what we ought to have done. We can come even though our desires are disordered, and we are still in the process of being made whole. But we must equally insist that Jesus has not reduced on jot or tittle of his moral requirements for any of us (Matthew 5:18). After we receive his grace and forgiveness, his command is always the same: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Jesus tells us to sin no more because our sins do not make us whole. We can have compassion for the addict, but we lie to him if we tell him he can be healed by continuing to use his drug of choice. If the church is just one big pot of acceptance with no moral demand, it keeps people stuck in spiritual sickness and in a state of separation from God. However, if the church is just one big message of moral demand without accepting people where they are, the sick will never find the Great Physician.
D. A community of repentance and invitation
The liturgy teaches us to grow in our repentance. Repentance is a requirement for communion. “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent…” We confess that we have sinned in “thought, word and deed.” Jesus communes with us sinners in the Sacrament to make our bodies clean and wash our souls. Then he sends us out to sin nor more and, instead, to do the good works he has prepared for us to walk in.
We will be back next week to repent all over again. But this is a progressive cycle, not an endless loop. We are being made whole and holy. We return to the altar of God each week, and to our prayer each day, to grow in holiness. The end of the process is the resurrection. As 1 Corinthians says, “The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51-53).
The greatest miracle that takes place in this world is the process by which sinful mortals because holy and immortal. The central task of the Christian life is to persevere in the life of repentance and prayer so that God will continue to work this miracle of change in us. The central task of evangelism is to invite other sinners to join us in the process of being made whole. For “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick.” And, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”