Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lost and found: an Easter parable, Mar 14, 2010

Text: Luke 15 (Parable of the Prodigal Son)

What do we mean by the phrase "resurrection from the dead?" In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which Phyllis just read, the Father twice says of his younger son that he "was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!'" In telling this parable, is Jesus trying to teach us what resurrection means?

The parable uses the words "dead" and "alive" metaphorically; they are synonyms for the words "lost" and "found." The younger son, by hitting rock bottom, repenting, and returning to the Father metaphorically comes back to life.

The Parable may help us with the phrase "repent or perish," which we discussed last week. When the Prodigal Son lives a life of sin, he is "dead" though yet alive. But when he repents, he finds new life. Seen in this light, "repent or perish" is more of a wake up call than a warning that God is going to get us. It says, "Wake up sleepy heads. God's grace is waiting here for us" . . .

The season of Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. It is a period of 40 days . . . except that there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The solution to this riddle comes from the fact that the six Sundays in Lent are not considered as part of Lent. The church considers every Sunday to be a "mini-Easter" where we celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And so on this fourth Sunday in Lent, we hear again the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Parable is, among many things, an Easter story -- a story of repentance, which also makes it a story of resurrection.

But what about other resurrections and resuscitations in our Scriptures? In the Old Testament, the prophets Elijah and Elisha each raise a dead boy back to life. Jesus in his ministry revives several dead people. The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus reviving his friend Lazarus. Mark, Matthew and Luke tell a story where Jesus revives the daughter of Jairus, a leader in a synagogue. Luke tells a story where Jesus revives a widow's son during his funeral.

Matthew says that at the moment of Jesus' death on the cross, tombs in Jerusalem break open and the bodies of holy people are raised to new life. Also in Matthew but in no other Gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to not only preach the reign of God and heal the sick, but also to raise the dead. And indeed, the book of Acts says that the apostles Peter and Paul each revive a dead person.

But of course the main resurrection story in our Scriptures is the raising of Jesus by God following his crucifixion. Mark as the oldest Gospel contains no resurrection appearances, but only a statement by a young man in Jesus' empty tomb that God has raised Jesus. Matthew adds to Mark's account an appearance to his closest women followers on Easter morning and to the disciples in Galilee.

Luke adds several other appearances by Jesus to the disciples-- on the road to Emmaus, and in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. John has different post-resurrection appearances -- to Mary Magdalene in the garden, to the doubting Thomas, and a breakfast scene on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Resurrection is the central message of Christianity. But what, again, do we mean by resurrection? As in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is it a born-again life following repentance from sin? Or is it continued life as an individual in a new heaven and earth following bodily death? Or is it both?

When we read stories about Jesus reviving dead people, we perhaps take take them more seriously than revivals by lesser biblical figures such as Elijah, Elisha, Peter or Paul. After all, Jesus is God in human form with all of God's power, whereas the prophets and the apostles are fully human. Did Peter actually raise the dead woman Tabitha back to life as told in Acts? Some of us might not ever think about it.

And while we are followers of Jesus, only a few fringe churches think that this involves trying to literally follow Jesus' command found in Matthew to raise the dead. Nor do we seem to put much focus on the story of bodies walking out of tombs in Jerusalem when Jesus dies, especially since only Matthew records this story.

But the raising of Jesus on Easter is different. It is the cornerstone of our hope for eternal life. Paul spends all of First Corinthians chapter 15 focusing on this resurrection hope. He writes, "if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith . . . But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive."

Paul in this chapter sometimes seems to use the word death metaphorically. In verse 31 he says of himself, "I die every day." And when Paul writes in Galatians that "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" he is not saying that his body has died. Instead, Paul clearly means he has undergone a spiritual death to an old way of life and he is now living a new life in God through Christ.

Hope is a central Christian virtue. Our hope in resurrection is what gives many of us the courage to metaphorically pick up our cross and follow Jesus to Jerusalem during Lent. This hope involves a kind of death: losing our lives in order to save them. It is the death of egotism; dying to our addictions like the Prodigal Son. When with the help of Grace our egos die, we are reborn to a selfless life. In this born-again life we participate in the Divine Spirit through Christ. As Paul puts it, "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."

If a repentant born-again life is beyond ego, it seems to me that I can hardly then hope that my ego will survive the death of the body. My resurrection hope is for today: a free and joyous life in touch with eternity. With bodily death, I trust that an inner divine spark will merge into God's Spirit. The latter probably means that my ego will not continue to exist -- though who can really say?

In any case, the story of the Prodigal models resurrection through repentance. Sin is a form of death in life. Repentance leads to a second birth in life.

The parable then goes on to show the resentment felt by the older brother at the return of the younger one. What the story doesn't show is the reaction of the younger son to the extravagant welcome offered to him by the father.

Can we imagine that the younger son might be horrified by his father's gracious welcome? The younger son's repentance is based upon humiliation: losing his wealth in dissolute living and being forced to feed pigs even as he himself starves. With humiliation comes the possibility of humility. If the Prodigal has fully repented, then he might, with humility, be able to accept the party thrown for him by his father. But if he hasn't fully repented, he might not be able to stomach the acceptance shown to him. Instead of accepting the party as a moment of Grace, he might suffer through it as yet more mortification.

The Grace shown in the Parable is God's acceptance of the repentant son. But full repentance only occurs when God's acceptance then leads to self-acceptance; and that can be quite painful. Self-acceptance means owning up to our individual and collective reality; that we are mortal, broken, often in pain, trapped by various forces, and sometimes violators of our own values.

The good news is that God accepts us no matter what. The pain involved in the good news -- and it is a pain like unto death -- is that we can't fully live into the joy and wonder of this acceptance if we don't face our own reality. Paradoxically, the acceptance of our own broken reality leads to selflessness. When we receive the grace to soberly accept reality, more and more we see God in us and less and less our own proud ego.

The Parable implies that the Prodigal has fully accepted himself and his reality. It also implies that the older brother has not yet accepted himself.

Perhaps the older brother, too, must lose his life in order to save it? This process of "losing our lives" can take different forms. Martyrdom and self-sacrifice come to mind. But perhaps another way to lose our lives is to rebel against convention and family, travel to a far country, and engage in dissolute living!

As individuals and communities, we come by our sins honestly. We are born into a violent world made up of dysfunctional families. We care for our children as best we can. We take up citizenship in a nation that is competing with all other nations. We earn a living in an economy that exploits and destroys. As individuals and as nations, we seem to have little choice but to conform ourselves to violent and destructive systems.

This is the difficult existence given to us in a Fallen world. So those among us who travel to a far country and flout conventional morality may be no more sinful than those of us who conform to the violent and unequal world into which we are born.

The younger son, after losing his wealth and self-confidence in a far country, comes to his senses, confesses his sin, and asks for forgiveness. When this forgiveness is given and accepted, he enters the born-again, selfless life that is promised to us all.

The older brother may be in deeper trouble than the younger one. By hitching his ego to duty and conventional wisdom, he may have found a trap that is more effective than his brother's. The path beyond ego sometimes comes from humiliation and disaster, as addicts who follow the 12 Steps attest. The older brother tries to avoid humiliation by being "good." In doing so, he may have cut himself off from a path to humility and a resurrected life in God.

The good news for the older brother is that even when his self-righteous anger cuts him off from his family, the father still accepts him. Perhaps this conflict with the loving father ends in the older brother's repentance too . . .

This morning as we let the many colours of this famous Parable sink into our hearts again, we also hear again the assurance that even in this Fallen world and in broken lives, God's Grace is here for us. In the words of our closing hymn, we are met again and again by Amazing Grace.

But though it amazes us, Grace does not come without pain. Our journey to new life with Christ during Lent is a painful one towards the death of our egos. In some ways, our journey to the cross can be like a journey to a far country where we lose everything. And yet, it is only by losing our lives that we are saved.

With God's help, we are assured that we will find the courage to let our egos die and so also taste the joy of life within the Spirit of Christ. This is the eternal life beyond self promised to us by Easter. It is a new life given to us free of charge, though not without cost.

God assures us that this born-again, eternal life is available to everyone -- to dutiful older brothers and sisters and to sinful younger brothers and sisters alike.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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