So here's another homily, preached August 18, 2019, at Christ Church Anglican, Summerville SC, where I am the non-chalcedonian, West Syriac Rite Orthodox\Old Catholic priest in residence (or something). On the traditional American Anglican/Episcopalian Ordo Kalendar, this was the Ninth Sunday after Trinity.
First, here's a link to the audio. If you can only listen to read the text, I would recommend listening since I did occasionally, as they say, "depart from the prepared text."
Homily on the Prodigal Son
And here's the text:
Readings: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Luke 15:11-32
These Readings Are Found Here
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I get to preach on the Story of the Prodigal Son!
But first, the Epistle: There are two major things here. The first is the sacramental realism that one also finds throughout the New Testament. There is not a single example in the New Testament that can be stretched to infer that the sacraments are not spiritually efficacious. No, baptism is, in the words of St. Paul elsewhere, “the washing of regeneration” and the eucharist is, in the words of St. Paul immediately following this reading, “communion with the body and blood of Christ”.
I am not going to focus on the latter section, vs 14 to the end of the chapter, but a couple of things should be noted in passing. First, in saying that one cannot partake at the “table of the Lord” and “the table of demons,” St. Paul strongly implies that the Eucharist, like the rituals which involve killing animals in pagan temples and offering these animals to pagan deities, is indeed a sacrifice. However, perhaps now is not the time to discuss this further, but only to note that such implications are found throughout the New Testament as well as the Old.
But back to the epistle reading for today: the Children of Israel participated in what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “shadows” of the sacramental realities that we have. Nevertheless, they sinned and their lives were often cut short. Thus, let us never think that just because we participate in the sacraments, our perseverance is faith is assured. We can, and often do, wander. However, such wandering is really to be expected. Thus, the question then becomes, what do we do next? Do we repent and return to the Lord? We have a sacrament for that as well, BTW. And what does repentance mean exactly, anyway?
Well, one thing that Luther was right about, at least in his 95 Theses (and I don’t think, actually, that Roman Catholic theology, then or now, disagrees): The Christian Life is one of perpetual repentance. There are a couple of ways of illustrating this. One is a statement from a monk, I think of the East. He was asked what the monks did all day. Said he, “We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up.” Now, the immediate, literal reference was to the fact that monks, and other Eastern Christians, literally fall down many times a day during prayer, prostrating themselves, and then, they get back up and do it again. Of course, there is also a less literal meaning: we fall into sin, and then, and repent and we stand back up. If the monks continue to lie on the floor, they will fall asleep (monks don’t sleep a great deal so they are often continually fighting off sleep). If we don’t get back up, we too will fall into a different sort of sleep, a spiritual stupor.
Another way of speaking of “repentance”, a word that, in Greek, literally means “to change one’s mind,” is to consider how we drive motor vehicles. Even going in a straight line, we must remain alert and continually correct our direction of travel. If we don’t (assuming we are not driving one of these new, self-driving cars), we will either end up on the curb or in the ditch on the far right or, in the wrong lane. This is a vivid picture of repentance, I think. Constant vigilance and constantly correcting course.
So now, on to the Gospel reading: but before I say I anything else, I want to say that the Father in this story gives us about the clearest picture we can have of God the Father and of, indeed, the other two Divine Persons, as well as of the Trinity that is the Godhead. When we read, “God is Love," in I John, John is serious.
We know this, of course, intellectually. But do we know this, do we experience this, down in our gut, in our heart, in the depths of our being. Do we experience the fact that God is Love?
As you know, I grew up in a very devout, Evangelical/Holiness household with a lot of Pentecostal influence. While my father, a lay preacher who indeed filled many pulpits on many occasions in the very rural part of the world where I grew up, would have said he believed that “God is Love” because the Bible says so (my father stated that if the Bible stated that Jonah had swallowed the fish, he would have believed it), he would immediately have found ways to qualify it. Also, my parents were pretty old school when it came to discipline, and, while perhaps some children benefit from this, I did not. I was already a “good kid” and the last thing I needed was to get spanked for the occasional mistakes, or even worse things, that I actually did.
So this is not to complain, but I want to make the point that I grew up with deep ambiguity about God’s love for me. Now, my father was an Wesleyan Arminian. This means that he thought that it is possible, once reborn, to become unreborn. Now, he was right about that, but not really in the way he thought. Anyway, such teaching, coupled with an Anselmian view of what Christ accomplishes on the cross, did not help matters.
So, at some point, around my sophomore year of high school, I encountered Peter Gillquist, then a “once saved always saved” charismatic Baptist, along with similar teaching from Hal Lindsey, and became convinced, at that time, that “once saved always saved” was correct. This lifted a huge psychological and spiritual burden and allowed me to begin developing more normally, not only as a Christian, but as an adolescent.
Fast forward a bit: I’ve graduated high school, gone off to Marquette University, become Roman Catholic, and eventually dropped out of Marquette due to majoring more in “politics and partying” instead of any academic subject. I soon find myself in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Charleston at the Naval Hospital. So, I eventually take some leave and drive northward, back to my old stomping grounds, to attend the graduation of an on-again/off-again girlfriend in Milwaukee (This was before I met my wife.) Her brother, a high school senior, is also there, and he and I hit it off, so he and I talk his mother into allowing him to stay a bit longer, and I will bring him home via Pittsburgh.
So, when we leave Milwaukee, I drop him off in Pittsburgh and head South. Now, bear in mind that at the time, the nation-wide speed limit was 55 and, while I was something of a prodigal son myself, I was not one to drive any faster. So I drive south through W.VA and VA and into NC. In Southern VA and into NC, I had to detour off the Interstate and take mountainous two-lane roads for a time due to roadwork and finally, I get back on the southbound freeway in NC. It is getting dark and I am not at all sure that this little Pinto will make it. I have to be back in Charleston the next morning or I will be AWOL. So I am praying quietly: “Lord, please let me get back in time! Please don’t let me be AWOL!” And so on.
Now, I have had some rather profound experiences with the Lord, generally letting me know that I should stop being a twit. I include this statement to make it clear that I am NOT bragging. Well, this was one of those experiences. I distinctly “heard”, in my mind, the Lord say, “I LOVE you! Do you really think that I am just out to get you? I LOVE you!” While I did not immediately begin living a less prodigal life myself (I was, after all, young and in the Navy), that had a profound effect on my spiritual life and my expectations of God.
So yes, God loves us, each and every one of us, and when we “come to ourselves” in a far-off place, and return to God, to the Church, God is waiting with open arms to welcome us.
But then, we have to say something also about the older brother. These are the people that most concern me, although there are times when I am tempted to move in this direction as well.
I know a woman who, at least when I last had any contact with her, maybe 5 or more years ago, was the “older sister”. She lives a respectable, responsible lifestyle. Works hard, pays her bills, goes to church, volunteers at church. But she thinks, and she has said this, that God owes her something because of this and she is not fond at all of the prodigal types nor of the fact that God loves them as much as God loves her.
So here’s the deal, to cut to the chase so to speak: we’re all going to die into God, into the immediate, undiluted experience of God and the Divine Nature which, as we said, is “Love”. Now we also read in Scripture that God is “consuming fire” and we read that in the age to come, Satan, the demons, and yes, apparently some humans will be consigned to a place of torture, a “lake of fire”.
So how can we reconcile these two things? Well, first, if God is “consuming fire”, what will be consumed? Our sin and the things that it produces, of course. As with gold, and we read this in Scripture as well, God will purify us, as God is indeed now doing in our lives as Christians. These are the things that burn when they come in contact with God and the first of these is self-righteousness. “Love covers a multitude of sins” we read. “Cover” here basically means to remove, resolve, heal from. The more we love, the less self-righteous we become, and, in the end,the only sin that God cannot deal with is self-righteousness. It stops us from allowing God to heal us of everything else.
Now, such self-righteousness can take many forms. I have known people, for example, who were struggling with the Church’s teaching, with Christ’s teaching, on this, that or the other thing (okay, so especially with young people, this is usually related to sex, but it can be other things as well, even the command to treat others like we want to be treated), and so they stop trying and they stop praying. Now, I suspect many of us stopped trying to conquer this or that sin in the past, but the real problem is when somebody stops praying. What happens is that they usually eventually lose their faith completely. This is a form of cognitive dissonance.
So, a word to pass on to anyone in this situation: keep praying no matter what!
Finally, something that must be said, speaking of sex: Divine Love is not merely detached, as we read of in I Corinthians 13. It certainly starts there, but it also includes interpersonal affection, and finally, God really does DESIRE, infinitely DESIRE that we be in communion with the Divine Persons. This is the purpose of which we were created. God desires, infinitely desires, to be in communion with us humans. Thus, a Divine Person became human, as was the plan from the beginning.
Again, this stuff excites me! God loves ME! God loves US! God loves EVERYBODY!
So, with that in mind, all we can do is offer praise and thanksgiving, glory, honor, and worship, to this one God, the unoriginate Father, the only-begotten and incarnate Son+, and the all-holy, good, and living-giving Spirit, proceeding from the Father and resting on the Son, eternal, adorable, and one in Essence, both now and ever, in both worlds and unto the Aeon of aeons. Amen.