The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C, 2016 – Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Sometimes I like to think about how I could explain Christian faith to someone who isn’t really an insider to the church, or to people who believe in God, but perhaps don’t really know what belief means. What is Christianity? What is it like to be a Christian? What difference does it make whether I’m a Christian or not?
This can be a little tricky for somebody like me who grew up a Christian. And yet it shouldn’t be tricky to explain because I live around people who are mostly not Christians. In fact, when I was in public school, I could more easily relate to non-Christians than to Christians. After grade twelve, I moved to a little town in Saskatchewan to go to Bible College for a year and I quickly found out how weird it was to live in a place that was entirely Christian. There are of course countries on earth where most people are Christian–many places in Africa for instance. So, if I were to drop you into a totally Christian town in Canada, it would sort of be as big of a culture shock as going to Africa. At least that’s how I found it. That’s because certain things were normal in this Christian bubble that weren’t normal outside of it. Christians just have their own way of doing things; they have their own culture. We have our own kinds of music, our own kinds of art, our own ethical code, sometimes our own way of dressing, our own way of talking. All of this is important for understanding what Christianity is, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter unless you realize that Christianity is primarily about conversion.
This shouldn’t be hard for non-Christians to understand. There are a lot of differences between Christians and non-Christians, but at the same time people are also similar whether they are in or out of the church. Because many people both inside and outside of the church are seeking after God. Many people both inside and outside are like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable. I’m going to read it again for you:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.'”
Let’s say the son drops out of high school because he doesn’t think he needs an education. His dad is rich, he thinks he can plan his future on his own, and he insists that his father just give him his inheritance now. This is more than just a bad idea. This is a rejection of his father’s wisdom, his teaching, his timing. What if on the father’s plan he would have inherited more in the end–the whole family farm or something.
But put yourself in the son’s shoes? When you’re young, you can’t always understand the value of the things you’re learning at the time. When I was in school I thought French was the most useless class in the world. Now that I’m older, I realize that if I had been in French immersion, I could have become prime minister. Instead, I’m stuck here as an Anglican minister.
Some things you can only learn when you’re young. For me it was the fact that I had hours and hours to draw in order to become an animator. I would never have the time now as an adult. And there are so many things I’ll never experience because I never put in the practice when I was young, like the feeling of pulling off an amazing drum solo or whatever…
The same goes for our spiritual lives.
This life, we believe, is practice for the next. If we ignore our heavenly Father’s instruction, we will be totally unprepared for eternal life, which is like adulthood.
There are so many things we don’t understand right now: why are there only 10 Commandments and not more? Why is God a Trinity? Why did God create the appendix? It doesn’t do anything! Why is there suffering? Why did God say in the Old Testament that people shouldn’t mix wool and linen in the same clothes (Deut 22:11)? We can only begin to answer these questions with time, practice, and humility. That is what the son here rejects when he messes with his father’s timing. He would have eventually received his inheritance–a better inheritance, but he wanted it all now.
“So he [the father] divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.”
It’s tempting to think of the son as some snotty rich kid wasting thousands of his dad’s dollars partying with his bros. But the parable isn’t supposed to make us judge the son; we’re supposed to identify with him. He’s no idiot; he stands for everybody–you and me, Christian and non-Christian.
All of us should be able to relate because in one way or another we have all run off on God, taken advantage of his goodness, done wrong.
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘So he set off and went to his father.”
It’s one thing to believe that nobody’s perfect. It’s another thing to feel that in your soul about yourself. I’m not talking about low self esteem, I’m talking about “I did something dirty, really dirty. This is not who I want to be, I want to change, but I can’t get rid of this sickness in my heart. I’m hungry for something more. Where can I get full?” Everyone at some point will feel like this, but what is a Christian?–a Christian is someone who “comes to himself” and thinks, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…”” To become a Christian is to convert. To be a Christian is to turn around. It is to be transformed. It is to become a new creation. It is to face a different direction from everyone else who is running away from God. It is to remember you are his child, and it is to come home; because we are not home. Many of us, however, are homesick. And if we run back, even before we get there, even while we are still far off, it says…
[our] father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
What difference does it make whether I’m a Christian or not? The difference is that I know where I’m running. The house that I run back to is God’s house. “Yes,” you will say, “but there are many gods!” Indeed, but the God of Christianity is the God who runs with open arms to meet me. What other God does this? What other God became man in order to pursue me? What other God sent Jesus to join heaven and earth in one embrace.
Here’s my analogy for the doctrine of the Trinity in this parable:
Jesus, the Son of God, is like the Father’s face, which is always seeking us out. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” Jesus said. God the Son, Jesus Christ, is like the Father’s lips, which kiss us even when we’re still all dirty in our sins.
One question about this story remains for me. What if the son hadn’t come back while he was young, but when he was old? What then? Wouldn’t he have failed to learn what he needed to learn in order to successfully take over the family farm? When is too late? You know for some people it’s just too late to learn how to use email or an iphone.
The answer to this question really depends on what we are supposed to learn in order to be prepared for the next life. For, our Father only wants us to learn one thing in life. We can learn it at any time, but we are never done learning it.
What we are supposed to learn in this life is to turn around and trust him.
That is what we are here for, nothing more, nothing less. Prior to death, we can really learn this lesson at any time. But when you’re dead, you can’t learn anything.
You know that when I was five years old I sat in church listening to a preacher call me to conversion. So that’s what I did: I went up to the front of our church and I turned to the Father. It’s never too early to learn to run to God. I’ve spent my whole life, on and off, just trying to learn one thing: to trust Jesus. And yet it’s not too late at any age to learn to trust him. No matter how long you’ve been running away, you can always “come to yourself” and say “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…” You can rest assured that when you do, the arms of Jesus will wrap around you and lift you out of your ways.
Return to yourself, therefore, and run to your Father in heaven. Amen.