Lent 4 C: Our Augmented Reality “in Christ”

The readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent are:

Old Testament      Joshua 5:9–12

Psalm                    Psalm 32

New Testament     2 Corinthians 5:16–21

Gospel                   Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32

Just this week I had a conversation with someone deeply engaged in today’s hi-tech scene. I can’t help laughing about the way what I hear about emerging technology seems like it comes from an entirely different world than the one I am familiar with. And this includes the language that includes words like data fusion and analytics, intuitive and embedded systems, and the now ubiquitous non-fungible tokens or NFTs, and crypto currency. In the midst of all of this, my friend reminded me about the virtual reality headset he had let me experience at his home, and then said that he was far more excited about something called “augmented reality” than virtual reality.

Naturally, I asked what the difference was. He said that virtual reality is immersive—enveloping you in a world entirely different from yours; while augmented reality enhances what you see around you. The example he used was that someday soon you will wear augmented reality glasses that will digitally make the people around you appear as though they were wearing different clothing. In my friend’s assessment this could open up vast new canvasses on which creative people could beautify our world.

It strikes me that Paul was saying in 2 Corinthians 5 that being “in Christ” has been offering us an even more profound and ultimate augmented reality for the past 2,000 years.

16 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. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

First of all, what does Paul mean by being “in Christ”? Scholars have puzzled over this through the centuries, but it is fortunate that a meticulous, Oxford-soon-to-be-Yale University researcher, Teresa Morgan recently published a major work on this question (Being “In Christ” in the Letters of Paul, 2020). Being “in Christ” isn’t quite as simple as slipping on a pair of software-driven glasses, but it isn’t rocket science either. For Morgan it means two things: First of all, being “in Christ” is a change of status that is accomplished by Christ’s death on our behalf. And second, believers in Christ thereby live “in Christ’s hands”: that is, they live in Christ’s power, under his authority, under his protection, and in his care. I think Morgan is saying, being “in Christ” affords us transitional “augmented reality.” The fulfilled new reality isn’t here until Christ returns; but even now, by virtue of a life immersed in devotion to Christ, we see people and the world differently, and so we behave differently. We anticipate the reality that will dawn in fullness when our Savior returns in glory.

Paul says it all starts with a new way of seeing. The old way is “according to the flesh,” or, in the New Revised Standard Version, “according to a human point of view.” Our augmented, “in Christ” reality is that we see everyone around us as already reconciled to God. We see them released from the stain of their sins, which have already been forgiven. We see them without the distortions of our culture’s prejudices. We see them without their permanent record of failures, crimes, and misdemeanors.

And, yes, we see all people this way, whether they are card-carrying Christians or not, for Christ’s reconciling act of self-sacrifice on the cross was accomplished “for all,” as Paul points out a couple verses ahead of our reading from 2 Corinthians 5:

14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

What’s more, we realize that, without the benefit of this “in-Christ” augmented reality perspective, the others around us may well be laboring still under the curse of all these things. They may not yet be conscious of the cosmic or spiritual nature of the burden of living with their distorted identity. They may not realize that it is more than a bad “self image,” but enduring curse. So, it is our mission in life to urgently invite them into Christ—to make our appeal to them to take on the Christian augmented reality so that they can see that they are already reconciled to God. The curse is already broken; they just need to live it and live as the righteousness of God.

Luke, the Evangelist, is unique in his ability to dramatize this gift of augmented reality, using Jesus and his stories. In our Gospel lesson some of the religious experts of Jesus’ day are astounded by Jesus’ lack of discernment. Didn’t he know that associating so closely with “sinners and tax collectors” would taint his own reputation as a religious teacher? They themselves were so cautious that they avoided both the obvious, proven violators of morality and ritual cleanliness, and those so associated with the corrupt tax gathering machine of the day that they should be assumed to be crooked themselves.

But Jesus sees all people in the augmented reality authorized by God. Yes, these people he dines with are sinners, as all people are. But they are sinners reconciled by the power of a merciful God. So, too, the father of the story of the prodigal son, is also a model of seeing with such augmented reality. His son is cruel in the way he is unwilling to wait for the father’s death to receive his share of the estate. His son is foolish in squandering his wealth. His son is cursed in that he is starving among so-called friends and neighbors who refuse to share and help him in his distress.

But this is his son. He cannot look upon him as other than beloved.

The father of the story is fully and truly a model of being “in Christ” because the “augmented reality” he lives with not only changes his perspective, but his entire life. He not only sees his son through love, but also treats him lovingly. More than that, he becomes an ambassador of reconciliation—appealing lovingly and urgently to the older son to likewise see things differently and join in the celebration of the gift of reconciliation.

After my friend said he looks forward to wearing glasses that will make people look great, I said, I’d like other people to see me looking great. Not grey haired, pot bellied and limping around—but, well, better. Much better.

I have a book called Please Understand Me. I like the title, and the book that is about how unique each of us is –how different we are from one another. I like the title, because I think it hits the nail on the head. The one thing that truly moves us all is our hunger to belong; and to belong we must be understood.

But we don’t want to be seen or understood as we are, but as we can be. Think of why parties, proms, weddings and receptions, and dance clubs are so popular. We get to dress up. We get to go to the hairdresser or barber, rent a tux, buy a lavish wedding gown. We get to be oohed and aahed at. We want to be a prince or a princess for a day.

So, perhaps, in bars, or dances, where the lights are dim, that special guy or girl would look at me after a couple of strong drinks—and I’d look…hot.

But, think deeper about this. Our heart is groaning with God’s Spirit, Paul says in Romans 8.  “Please understand me,” it’s groaning. It’s pleading. “Understand me not as I am – but as I might become!” 

So, I think, all of us know we would be better and look better deep down—where the blemishes could be air-brushed away and our inner beauty would  come out and be seen in all its glory.

We want God and others to see that if we were reconciled—if we could have a clean slate –we would be all we could be. We would be noble. We would not tell lies. We would not sell out. We would neither betray our own noble character—nor those others around us who also are redeemed by Christ.

Please understand me means please understand that there is that better person here inside!

That’s how the father of the prodigal sees him. “This son of mine might have done  many selfish and stupid things—but he is my son!”

Now, the great good thing is that this is how God sees us. This is what it means to be reconciled to God.

In Christ—in the hands and in the power and care of Christ—we have that special augmented reality way of seeing both ourselves and others. We are all sinners reconciled.  In Christ everyone is a new reality. And so we see people not as they have been, but as they can be in Christ.  In Christ that is what we all are: reconciled to God to God our Father.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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