03.06.2016 Preaching Text: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20b)
There’s an adage that helps define the parameters of the Christian life: we are “in the world but not of it.” The scriptural passage most closely associated with this comes from Jesus’ “farewell discourse” at the Last Supper. Speaking of his disciples, Jesus prays, saying, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
However, living successfully in the world but not being of it is easier said than done.
Augustine of Hippo, one the most influential theologians in history, wrote his The City of God as one way of explaining it. Written in the early 5th century, Augustine sought to restore the confidence of his fellow Christians, a confidence shaken badly by the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 A.D.
Here Augustine draws a distinction between the heavenly, eternal Jerusalem (the true home of all Christians) and the transitory worldly power represented by Rome. Though our truest citizenship is in the “City of God,” we nonetheless live now in the earthly “City of Man.”
When things fall apart, when hope seems absent, Augustine directs us to that which remains steadfastly untarnished and ever-present, the City of God.
His point is not that Christians should pretend they are not bound by this world, but that the perspective, or mindset, we bring to daily living is of a different sort. It’s a vision thing.
Though all of creation was made good, as the biblical witness attests, it has been misused and mismanaged. Having chosen to act as independent, self-centered gods (Original Sin), we ignore God and thus separate ourselves from the Source of Life. Such grandiose attempts to control and manage God’s world amount to gross malfeasance. Disorder ensues, as night follows day, altering and distorting God’s goodly design for all of creation.
But in Christ this distant relationship with our cosmic parent is overcome – a gift initiated by a rightfully aggrieved God. In and through this gift we are reconciled and invited to live the life God intends. Able to see life as God sees it, we are freed to share it with others in the here-and-now.
We are mistaken, in other words, if we assume being “in the world but not of it” means we can ignore the world. Christianity demands that we share God’s vision with our world. We don’t have the luxury of simply avoiding it.
The Christian life is akin to walking a tightrope, balanced between the competing demands of heaven and earth. It’s easy to fall away in one direction or the other. History is replete with examples of the church becoming too this-worldly, ignoring its heavenly mandate. The other extreme is for the church to seek a forced purity in separating itself from the world around it.
In Protestant mainline churches today, we risk identifying too much with the earthly, the secular. In so doing we domesticate the “otherness” of God as we attempt to build a perfect world here on earth. I talk about regularly.
But there’s another equally great danger to the health of the church, one where we stand aloof from the world while assuming a stance both superior and self-righteous.
Which brings us to Jesus’ parable of the “The Prodigal Son.” While we’re apt to focus mostly on the wayward son who takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country, we’re less aware of the dutiful son’s spiritual offenses. In his case, the often hidden sin of pride comes to the fore.
In Jesus’ parable he begrudges his younger brother’s redemption, perhaps especially as he sees how eagerly his father forgives and celebrates the Prodigal Son’s return. After all, the older son had done everything asked of him. He hadn’t rebelled against his father. He was nothing if not honorable and virtuous.
I’ve always considered the parable of the Prodigal Son as the gospel in miniature. It has it all. The younger son lives under the protection and benign tutelage of his father (the Garden of Eden). But wanting more he chooses to disobey his father (the Fall), thus separating himself from his father’s beneficence. He then travels to a far country (East of Eden), living a broken, reckless, dissolute life. In despair, he returns to the father and is not only welcomed but forgiven (Reconciliation in Christ).
Perhaps the most surprising turn in the parable is the father’s decision to forgive his wayward son prior to his contrition. The father, unbeknownst to the son, actually comes out to meet him “halfway.” The father’s love here is as complete as it is unconditional.
It is this part of the gospel that we find most unfathomable, as does the older son. That’s because we find it hard to believe that God’s love for us is this powerful. We simply can’t believe that God loves us as we are, imperfections and all. And because we can’t believe it, we try mightily to earn that which cannot be earned.
Not surprisingly, Jesus tells this story for the benefit of the Pharisees. They are, after all, the prototype of the older son, dutiful, self-righteous, and desperate to earn God’s approval, as well as that of others. In this they judge and condemn those lesser “prodigal sons” around them, those who fail to meet their idiosyncratic, self-serving standards.
Deep down their sin is based on the false assumption that they don’t need God, because their exemplary behavior and outward conformity to the rules is superior and demands admiration and respect. Only those who sin require God’s forgiveness.
Yet the gospel is clear. There isn’t a single human being who can claim perfection. For the law of Jesus is actually far stricter than any human law. It demands that we love both God and neighbor perfectly, something none of us can rightly claim. We all stand in need of God’s mercy and grace.
Thus, rather than celebrating the miraculous spiritual turn-around of his brother, the older son, the Pharisee, looks down on him with a strange combination of envy and pride. “I’m more righteous than thou,” he thinks to himself.
The “pharisaic” church of today, priding itself on eschewing the sins of our sullied world, boastfully claims not to be “of it.” Yet its outward obedience to Christ merely blinds its members to the fact of their inevitable shortcomings, those from which no human being is exempt.
Whenever the church forgets that the gospel is, at its core, about God’s mercy and forgiveness, it inevitably lapses into pride and false notions of virtue.
We can even see this every time the church is attacked for its imperfections and we find ourselves getting defensive. Of course the church is imperfect. That’s because the church is made up of imperfect people, people who are nonetheless aware of their imperfections while seeking to overcome them.
More than anything, the church is that group of sinners who celebrates their good fortune at having received the gift of forgiveness. It is this grace in which we stand, thus avoiding the hypocrisy of touting ourselves as “found” while still mostly “lost.” Amen.