(This is an excerpt from a sermon I gave on Sunday, March 30, at Greenville First Presbyterian Church.)
Ever heard the story of The Prodigal Son? (If not, take a moment to read it here: Luke 15:11-32)
In this story, we see three main characters.
The first and main character in the story is the younger of two sons. This is the son referred to as the prodigal or lost son. This son requests the inheritance that is rightfully his and then runs off and squanders all that he has. It comes to a point that the young man is slopping pigs for another man and wishes he could eat what the pigs are eating. He eventually decides that working as a servant for his father would be preferable to the life he is currently living, so he heads off for home, seeking nothing more than the life of a servant on his father’s estate.
The next character that we get a good look at is the father. The father wants the best for his sons, so when the younger asks for his inheritance, he freely gives it. But when the younger son leaves home, the father is constantly watching and waiting for his return. He misses him. He wants to see him again. And on that day when he recognizes his son as he comes up the road, he runs to meet him. He offers him not what the son asks for, a position as a servant on his estate, but he offers forgiveness and a return to the rightful place in his home, as his son. The father rejoices and celebrates the son’s return.
The third character in the story, one that often times gets overlooked, or at least villianized for not being joyful at his brother’s return, is the older brother. In the NRSV, the heading actually reads “the parable of the prodigal and his brother,” possibly an indicator that there is something to notice about this older son. This brother has spent his life working on his father’s estate, doing what is right and fulfilling his duty. Upon his brother’s return, we see him questioning the servants and father about why there is a celebration for this wayward son who squandered his resources and shirked his duty. We see him refusing to participate in the celebration of his brother’s return, because he sees only the wrong that his brother has committed and compares it to the faithfulness that he has shown to his father. (Anyone recognize the story I told earlier here? Have you ever been like this son?)
Lately, I have been thinking about the church, the church being all the people of God. I have been considering what it means to be the church, what it means to be a Christian, and a follower of Christ. I have read lots of books about the church, what the church should be, what the church members should be, how we are to be the hands and feet of Christ, welcoming and non-judgmental, and so much more.
Then last week, I met with a friend and we started talking about this story. And we talked about it in terms of the church, and it really got me thinking about how we have much we can learn about ourselves as the church and as Christians if we look closely at this parable that Jesus told.
This is a picture of Rembrandt’s oil painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. This painting depicts the moment the son returns to his father. We see him as he kneels before his father in repentance, wishing for forgiveness and a renewed place in the family, having realized that even his father’s servants had a better life than he was living. Notice how his father receives him with a tender gesture. One description of this picture suggests that his hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture. Standing at the right is the prodigal son’s older brother, who crosses his hands in judgment, just like we read in Jesus’ parable recounted in Luke. The others in the picture are possibly servants, taking in the whole scene.
So what does this story have to do with the church?
I want you to think back, for some of us it may be way, way back, to the moment that you realized that you were a sinner in need of salvation. To that moment when it finally dawned on you that you needed Christ in your life. For some it may have been a truly rock-bottom place of desperation much like the prodigal son in the story. For others, it may not look just like that because you were raised in the church and have always thought of yourself as a good person. But regardless of which it was, there was a moment when you decided to humble yourself and ask Jesus to come into your life in such a way that it would be changed forever. In that moment, you became the son in our picture. God opened His arms wide for you. He embraced you. He offered grace and forgiveness. He ran to where you were and brought you into His house. The angels in heaven celebrated. You, God’s precious creation, were back home where you belonged.
But now time has passed. We are in God’s good graces. We are good people. We are doing what we are supposed to do. We come to church every week. We help out when we have to. We are doing good. Things are as they should be.
But we have forgotten something or at least distanced ourselves from something. We have forgotten what it was like to be that prodigal son. We have forgotten that we are broken, worn-down sinners who are still in need of grace; that same grace we received when we came to Christ. Not the punishment we deserved; not shunning; not slamming doors. We received the grace of open arms. But instead of offering that same grace, we begin acting like the entitled son. We think we know all the answers and how people should be treated based on their actions. We stand watching and looking at how right we have been, how we have done what we were supposed to do and we start groaning that we aren’t getting our due.
In the meantime, there are more prodigals that want to come home, but because we have forgotten what that is like, and we have kind of become Pharisees – more worried about how we think things are supposed to be than the salvation of souls – so they are afraid to come.
They are afraid to come because they might be judged and rejected for their sin, their clothes, their piercings, their tattoos, and their speech. They are afraid to come because they might not fit in and find friends because of friendships that have been long-established. They are afraid to come because they don’t know how to act, what to do, when to show up. They are afraid to come because we have become the older brother in this story.
I want you to note in the story that the older son had been doing all the right things. He stayed and worked for his father faithfully. He didn’t run off and squander money. He had the right actions down pat.
But his heart was where the issue lied. He thought he was missing out on something because he felt he should be rewarded for his good behavior. He thought it was unfair for someone who screwed up royally to be celebrated.
Too often, the church gets caught up in this older brother mindset. It’s the mindset of “we’ve always done it this way,” “we like the way we do this,” “this is who we are and how we do things.” The older brother mindset is one of making our accomplishments and our faithfulness of prime importance while looking down on those who don’t live up to our standards. Much like the Pharisee’s of Jesus’ time.
But the thing is, we have to consciously choose to stop acting like the older brother. We have to move to a different position in the picture. We have to become like the father. We have to start acting like our Heavenly Father, one who opens His arms to all who would come. He is always watching for those who may still be far off. He runs to them and embraces them. He is compassionate and loving and he offers grace and mercy instead of fear and judgment. He celebrates the return of the lost instead of turning them away. He doesn’t give what is deserved. As we emulate the Father, we are constantly in a position from which we can see where we once were, where we came from, how we were accepted and loved, forgiven and celebrated. God’s point of view is one of welcoming, knocking down walls, doing things based on need rather than based on ought.
I am reading a book entitled, When Bad Christians Happen to Good People, and I love the description the author, Dave Burchett, gives of what he calls the sinner-sensitive church.
The SSC would model non-judgmental attitudes. Issues such as having tattoos, body piercings, weird hair or ugly shoes would not be equated with demon possession. The SSC would pledge not to gossip, because we would realize that it’s only the grace of God that we are not the current targets. The sinner-sensitive church would value every spiritual, physical and financial gift, no matter how big or small. This church would appreciate but not elevate the person who made possible the new multipurpose wing through his or her enormous financial gift.
The SSC would make it a practice to reach out and care for one another sacrificially because we know that we all fall down in life. At the SSC we would have corporate executives holding hands in prayer with laborers and not thinking twice about it. Blacks and withes and Hispanics and others would break bread together because we all are sinners in the eyes of a color-blind God.
The sinner-sensitive church would give freely out of profound gratitude to a God who somehow saw fit to give us undeserved chance. The sinner-sensitive church would practice the prodigal-son ministry, running to welcome those who are returning home from mistakes and bad decisions and sin. Our members would get involved in other people’s lives. We would lovingly hold our brothers and sisters accountable to godly standards. Marriage would be cherished and taken seriously as a body of believers. Families would have a community of support during problems and trials.
Congregation members would not be so self-centered that they would demand the undivided attention of the pastor at every little crisis. Other believers would help meet many of the needs that Christians often prefer to leave to the “professionals” on staff. The people of this church would come on Sunday with hearts ready to be fed but also realizing that God has provided resources beyond any available in history to meet their spiritual hunger. Should they walk out the church doors still feeling needy, they would know they can draw from the marvelous resources of Christian books, music, radio, video, digital downloads, and studies to meet their needs.
The sinner-sensitive church would also delight in the company of other spiritual travelers and make it a priority that no one would ever feel alone. We would make each other feel valuable, but on occasion, a little uncomfortable. Being comfortable in church is not the primary goal. I am not always comfortable at the dentist’s office. I often arrive in pain because I have neglected to do what I should have done. The staff always makes me feel welcome and even cared for. Then the dentist confronts me with the truth: “You have let this go too long, and I must hurt you (a little) in order to heal you. You will have to pay a financial price and spend time recovering before you are completely well.” Those are the facts of my dental-hygiene sin.
Likewise, the sinner-sensitive church would not back off the truth, but we would seek God’s love to communicate that truth with grace so healing could take place. Decay, whether it appears in tooth enamel or the soul, must be addressed. We will tell one another the truth and explain that the process might be painful. We would participate in ongoing preventative maintenance and help one another deal with problems as soon as possible, before they become even more painful and expensive to fix.
The SSC would worship with enthusiasm, whether singing hymns or praise choruses, because God is worthy of that praise. The sinner-sensitive fellowship would have a sense of profound reverence because we have received God’s grace, the most amazing gift ever offered. The sinner-sensitive church would be so excited about this grace that the incredible news of the gospel would be as much a part of who we are as our jobs and our families.
Doesn’t this church sound like one in which the people of the church have truly learned how to become like the father in this story? Where arms are opened, where grace is extended, where healing occurs and hope abounds?
Each character in this story sees something different. The prodigal son sees only his sin and he recognizes that there are consequences and punishment needed for that sin.
The older son sees only his self. He is angry when he realizes that his actions and his righteousness appear to mean nothing to his father.
But the father sees something altogether different. He sees salvation. He sees the promise of a life restored.
And this is what the church, we the people of the church, must focus on. We can’t focus on our sin. We can’t focus on ourselves and our perceived righteousness. We must focus on the salvation of the world. The salvation of our neighbor. The salvation of the person who looks nothing like us and acts nothing like us. We must always be watching for them. We must be on the lookout for any hints that they might be turning into the lane and heading toward Christ. We must be ready to run to them with open arms full of grace and love.
There is something that is freeing about taking the focus off of our self, recognizing our sin and need of grace, and offering that same grace and salvation to others. It is a lot more fun to be a part of the party, celebrating the return and salvation of another of God’s children, than to be standing on the sidelines pouting because the party isn’t for us.