Proper 19, Year C, Church of the Holy Cross, Murfreesboro

“Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15:10).

As we read the Holy Scriptures, we discover that God is the chief actor. He’s the hero of the story, if you will. The Old Testament tells the story of what God did in calling the family of Abraham to be his People; of what God did in freeing the People from slavery in Egypt; of what God did in bringing them into the Promised Land. He promised to make his People a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. Make no mistake: it’s all about what God has done.

The New Testament tells a similar story, only now its about what God has done in Jesus Christ. He is the one who is born for us; he is the one who dies upon the cross and rises again for our salvation. He is the one who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Jesus Christ is the central figure of human history and the one through whom we have fellowship with God. It’s all about him.

This is an important truth to bear in mind as we bring our concerns to understanding the story of salvation. We are the objects of divine love, no doubt about it; but it is God who is the subject of the sentence, the one who takes action and frees us from our sins. In the New Testament we do not begin with ourselves but we begin with God in Christ.

This is true in the two stories in our Gospel today: the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. There’s a common pattern in the two, one of losing, searching, finding, and rejoicing. Note how these themes are emphasized in the parables. The shepherd loses the sheep; he goes in search and finds it; there is rejoicing over the sheep. The woman loses the coin; she searches and finds it; rejoicing follows. The sheep and the coin don’t do anything. In each case the burden of action is on the chief character of the story.

What each parable emphasizes is the importance of what God does. He’s the one who loses, searches, finds, and rejoices, in common with the angels. These stories that Jesus tells in our Gospel track with the pattern we know from the larger story of the Holy Scriptures. God is the chief actor in the two parables we hear today.

This is not the whole story, however. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, of his death and resurrection, doesn’t reduce us to being mere recipients, objects of the action of God, but calls us to action ourselves. If God is the chief actor, we are called to discover our own agency, “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21), as St. Paul calls it in the Letter to the Romans. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), Paul says in Galatians. That liberty, that freedom, is what we are called to as the sons and daughters of God.

Notice the emphasis of Jesus in these two parables. Yes, certainly: losing, searching, finding, and rejoicing; all the action of God. But Jesus punctuates each story with a description of our action, what we’re supposed to do. “Repentance”: it’s the main feature of the two parables today, the distinctive mark of the stories that Jesus tells in our Gospel. There is losing, searching, finding, and rejoicing, but also our action of repentance. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (Lk. 15:7) “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15:10).

Repentance: the action of turning around when one is lost in order to go back to the point when one began to go astray. There’s no substitute for it. We can never cover the distance alone, but it’s important to orient ourselves, to know we are lost. Repentance turns each of us into actors in the drama of salvation. Repentance is the indispensable thing that we need in order to be found. There will never be rejoicing without repentance. We will never be able to save ourselves, by ourselves, but in order to be found we need to know we are lost and to start moving.

God gives us these opportunities for repentance each and every day. We can become actors in the drama, through prayer and sacrament, charity and offering: by making ourselves available for what God will do in us. We are never alone. The same God who called us will see the work through. All that we do will be inspired by God. This is the freedom we were made for, the liberty we’re called to by God in Christ.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee