Traditionally, the Fourth Sunday in Lent is Laetare Sunday, a title drawn from the first words of the Introit: “Laetare, Hierusalem” or “Rejoice, O Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:10)! During Lent, this Sunday serves as a respite from the season’s penitential character. Even while we weep and mourn because of our many sins, God’s mercy is greater than our sin. The theme for a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, therefore, ought to magnify the reconciling work of God in Christ. Paul gives us commentary on today’s parable and expresses it in sublime language. The key theological term for this pericope and perhaps the whole Sunday is reconciliation (καταλλαγή), and all that God’s reconciling entails for our salvation and how it shapes our life together. Your sermon will quite naturally flow from the very rich grammar of the text. I am going to walk through it verse by verse and make some observations that may give some direction to your sermon.
In hearing the familiar parable of the prodigal son, your people will be expecting a sermon on the humiliation of sin and the unfailing love our heavenly Father. But Paul wants to take our attention away from our old Adam and our life according to the flesh and point to the new thing God has done in Christ. The story is not how we slopped around with the pigs, but, while we were still sinners, our heavenly Father came running for us to give us the inheritance of His only-Begotten. Because Christ has died and rose, the preparations have already been made for the Father to welcome us. The message of reconciliation is proclaimed to declare us righteous and completely new “now” in Christ.
“From now on…,” in v. 16 encompasses the whole work of God in Christ for us. “From now on…,” means, “ever since Christ has brought us to the Father as sons” (women are counted as sons of the inheritance too), “ever since the message of reconciliation has been announced,” “ever since the Gospel has had its way with us….” Reconciliation means we have been brought together with God and God with us. No more judging your neighbor according to what he has done or left undone, but only according to what God has made him in Christ. Paul and the rest of the Apostles made the mistake of knowing Christ according to the flesh, not in the sense of sin, but they knew Him as if He were limited, that is, they thought of Him in a human way. But now that He is risen and has been exalted above the heavens, neither Paul, nor any other apostle, nor we may regard Him in a human way (As an aside, I would not make a big deal about the different uses of “knowing” in the text. It seems to be a stylistic variation).
Paul strengthens the argument he made in the preceding verses (14-15). Christ’s death is our death and Christ’s life our life. As the argument goes in Romans 6, how could we who died to sin still live in it? If Christ died for all and rose for all, how can I treat another in Christ as if they are not dead to sin and alive to God? Satan, the sinful nature, and the opinio legis (opinion of the Law) will always object to such undeserved grace and will find evidence to contradict what we are in Christ: “Sin is still there! You are not dead!” But the truth endures: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation. The old is gone, and see, the new has come.” Preachers will have to bear the crux theologorum (the theologians’ cross) concerning why some receive the message of reconciliation and why some do not. As the Church sings: “Preach you the Word and plant it home / To those who like it or like it not” (Lutheran Service Book 586:1). Some will be scandalized by your seemingly universalistic preaching. But Paul casts the widest net of God’s reconciliation, and you are authorized to preach this unadulterated grace to the whole world.
This is one of those passages where the Holy Spirit teaches universal reconciliation and universal justification. I would advise against going down the rabbit hole of anything conditional, even if Paul places an exhortation at the end of verse 20. It is a common error in preaching and in theology in general to place emphasis on faith as a condition for reconciliation to God. Although it is true that the promise of the Gospel is received by faith, Paul simply states here the reality of what God has done for all in Christ. It is universal in scope and includes all of us. God reconciled the “κόσμος” to Himself in the death of Christ and has now given to the apostolic ministry τὸν λόγον τῆς καταλλαγῆς (the word of reconciliation). There is no need to limit the atonement, as the Calvinists do, or limit God’s election to our choice, as the Arminians do. We preach the word of reconciliation because this is what is real in Christ. The only thing left for those who will not be reconciled to God is to live in a delusion. Out of love, and because the sinful flesh refuses to believe what is real, we will need to exhort our people as Paul does: “Be reconciled to God.” However, Paul is not saying, “Believe and it is true.” He is saying, “It is true already; come home rejoicing!”
As you preach this week, you are at it again, announcing the free forgiveness won by Christ, handing over the inheritance of eternal life, and distributing into their mouths the blood of the Covenant and the foretaste of the Feast to come. The Father’s arms are wide open. His promises are irrevocable. The word of reconciliation sounds forth in all the world. Perhaps we would like to make sure people do not get this grace too cheaply, but, as Paul says, “the love of Christ compels us.” And this truth of us being reconciled to God is far better than anything else we can imagine.
The whole argument comes to a head in Paul’s final statement. Christ is, as Luther would say, peccator maximus. He is the greatest sinner and God punishes Him like He is the only sinner, so all would go free and be counted righteous. And this is what we are, not of ourselves, but because of Christ who bore our sins and made an end of them, by nailing them to the cross. Now, we are what God sees in His Son, who is the Lord our righteousness. And how much does He love His Son? So, if He sees us clothed not in our sins but in the righteousness of His Son, no wonder He comes running for us and is so glad to give us in the Kingdom. All of this is from God and now it is all ours, so we can be all His.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching II Corinthians 5:16-21.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach II Corinthians 5:16-21.