Alienation and Communion

This series has attempted to normalize ‘sin’ (without minimizing it) by looking at some of the many ways the idea of sin and its positive counterpart, salvation, are described in the Bible. Each of the images offers a different perspective on what it is that has gone wrong with the human experiment, and therefore a different sense of what is needed to fix it. So far we’ve looked at pairs that describe sin as such things as debt, bondage, impairment, barrenness, and lack. Today, I’m going to explore the motif of sin as alienation — as exile or separation — and its correlating understanding of salvation as communion, return, or reconciliation.

If the ‘first act’ of the Bible can be said to culminate in the Hebrews’ entry into the Promised Land, the climax of the ‘second act’ is unquestionably the Exile. It is the part of the story where all has gone wrong. The People have been conquered and have lost the land God had given to them. It is a time of deep grief, of longing, and soul-searching (see, for example Lamentations 1 and Psalm 137). They have been separated from their land and, as they understand it, abandoned by their God. Thus exile is an apt image for us for the state of sin. It is sin experienced as alienation. All too often living in a sinful world means experiencing broken relationships, the loss of home, grief over not loving others as we should have, and the loneliness of not being loved as we should be. It is an exercise in learning to live in a world that often feels like a horrible alternate reality.

The answer to alienation is communion; the answer to exile is return. And we see both of these in the story of the exiled People of God. First, they come to see that their relationship with God is not as bound to their circumstances as they thought: If the Exile made them ask “How can we sing the LORD’s songs in a foreign land?”, it also taught them that, yes, in fact, they could sing the LORD’s songs anywhere and everywhere. They met God in a new way in Babylon; their sense of alienation from God was overcome by a renewed sense of communion with God, who, they learned, was never apart from them. And then, after Babylon fell, their new Persian lords allowed them to return home, to rebuild their cities and Temple.

This story is dramatized in personal terms in the New Testament, in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Here, a young man breaks his relationships with his family of origin by demanding his share of his inheritance while his father is still living, and running off to a far away land. When the money runs out, he returns home to beg his father to take him back as a servant. But, his father has been waiting for him, and runs out on the road to greet him and welcomes him home as a son. Again, the problem of alienation is solved by communion.

What do these stories tell us about the nature of sin? One thing that sticks out is that the cause of the alienation doesn’t change the required solution. If we look at the story of the Exile strictly from a historical, geopolitical lens, we see that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were simply caught up in a regional shift away from small independent kingdoms to large and voracious empires. In this light, the Exile probably had nothing to do with them and everything to do with their circumstances. If we look at it from within the Biblical worldview, however, the Exile is a consequence of their lack of faithfulness to their God; they understood that they had broken the covenant with God and so lost the privileges that had come with that covenant. And, in the story of the Prodigal Son, the state of alienation is unquestionably chosen by the son. But, whether the state of alienation we’re in is our own choice, a consequence of our choices, or completely outside our control, the solution is reconciliation, a return to communion.

Paul discussed reconciliation, and what the life and death of Jesus mean for it, in 2 Corinthians 5. He wrote:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (16-21)

Here we see Jesus’ entire ministry defined by reconciliation. Through his calls to repentance, through his teaching, and through the example of his humble way of life and death, he was revealing the way of whole and healed relationships that we call the Kingdom of God. Instead of the ‘bad news’ of a kind of divine accountant keeping track of all the ways we mess up our relationships, he offers the Good News of fresh starts and new creations. Moreover, because of the way things work in God’s economy, we who have received this gift of new beginnings will then give that gift to others as well. We see ourselves and others in a new way and rebuild our relationships. As I’ve written previously on the issues of repentance and forgiveness, this reconciliation is hard work. It requires true grief at the separation and a genuine commitment to change. But it is the way of Jesus, and therefore, our way too.

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