First Sunday in Lent 2018
Canon Leonard Doolan
We begin another journey through Lent. Our gospel reading reminds us again, as it does every year, why we set aside these forty days – kali sarakosti – which culminates for us in the Great and Holy Week and the mystery of the cross.
You will note that I have not said the mystery of the empty tomb, for it is the cross that stands central to our faith, and even our Lord’s resurrection is dependent on the mystery of the Cross. It is through the cross that he is glorified, and it is through the cross that we participate in resurrection or theosis – the word that is so familiar in the Eastern church for our journey with the risen Lord towards our own inclusion into the divine glory.
If that all seems a bit much, and a bit heavy going, let’s unpack it all a bit, because no one can make our journey into the divine glory more complicated than the church and her clergy. The Cross is mystery enough without me making it even more mysterious.
Some of you, if you have lived in the UK or watched UK television here in Greece will be familiar with that wonderful series Yes Minister, which morphed into Yes Prime Minister, when to his astonishment Jim Hacker MP becomes Jim Hacker PM. In his ministerial and Prime Ministerial role he is guided by his ever present nemesis, the loquacious and ever devious diplomat, Sir Humphrey Appleby.
There is one episode where Sir Humphrey describes to his Minister a hospital of pure perfection. It is efficient, effective, well governed, within budget, and very smoothly managed. This hospital is held up as a shining example both to politicians and to their civil servants. The problem is that this exemplary model of a hospital has one vital ingredient missing – sick people. The hospital was brilliant, but its one main object – the care of sick people – was entirely lost in Sir Humphrey’s description.
This model of missing out the people that matter, can often be the way clergy and theologians go about describing our Christian walk towards salvation. We begin by putting people through the trudge of reading and ‘understanding’ the Old Testament; this, we get told by clergy, is the only way to understand the Messianic aspiration in God’s chosen people as they await the coming of his Anointed One, the Christ. Understand that if you can.
Then we think we are clarifying Christ’s role on the cross by inviting people to read the Letters of St. Paul, and there are plenty of preachers who make a right mess of doing this, and folks end up even worse off than before the preacher started. Rather than opening up the theology of St. Paul we add yet more the mystery – or is it adding more to the confusion.
We are so good as preachers at describing the perfect gospel, rather like Sir Humphrey’s perfect hospital, but our construction, just like his, doesn’t hit the mark. Just as his hospital didn’t help the sick, so also much preaching and theology is no medicine for the spiritual well being of God’s holy people.
So, in all this confusion, we may well say in desperation, to whom can we turn this Lent, to have some idea of what our faith is all about – what is the gospel that we are asked to share with others.
Well we turn to Jesus! He didn’t ask people to go through theological hoops, or brush up the ‘salvation history’ in the scrolls of the Law or the Prophets. What did he do? He told a story. This story is the best description ever of what our religion is all about; a story that is about us, and about God, and how we inhabit what seems to be a huge gulf between us.
This story is known popularly as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or it can be called the Forgiving Father. So that we might think about this there is a small illustration on your service sheet, an early ‘cartoon’ of Rembrandt for his famous painting, a copy of which is on the altar.
Jesus sums up the human condition, and the journey of a person who firstly walks away from his Father, but in remorse for his human state, he chooses humbly to return to his Father to discover, in amazement, that the Father has been standing on the balcony all along, just waiting to catch a glimpse of his son’s journey back to him. On the return there is rejoicing, even though the boy’s brother, also like us, passes judgement on the other and is blind to the Father’s rejoicing.
It is this parable that enshrines 2000 years of our Christian theology and history. It is this parable that describes the divine enterprise, which is that humanity will find in its heart that something is missing; and through the divine love we are reconciled once again to God our Creator, God who wishes us to share in his divine glory – the glory of God, as one of the ancient fathers once famously said, is man fully alive. Man fully alive, and woman, fully alive to God’s reconciling and forgiving character is what our whole purpose is about.
In putting some human flesh and bones on this wonderful parable Christ journeys towards the mystery of the Cross, and through the cross of the ultimate in the human condition, he is reconciled to God the Father, and through Christ’s cross and resurrection, we too exist basking in the divine glory.
What a call this is to us through this Lent! What a glorious destination as we travel together, all of us prodigal in one way or another, back towards our primitive true selves; you and me, made in God’s image, divine beings becoming divine, sharing in the eternal celebration of God’s presence with us.
So let the story told by Jesus be the one that translates the Christian narrative into the practical reality of who we are and where we are going. His story really is the perfect construction, because it doesn’t miss out you and me, unlike Sir Humphry’s hospital.