In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
One of the mysteries of church life, which after all these years I’ve still not solved, is the fact that so many church people seem to regard their role as preventing and hindering change. If you asked people beyond the church what they regarded as typical attitudes of religious people, they would probably say something like ‘conservative’ or ‘traditionalist’ or even ‘old-fashioned’. Religious people seem to find change difficult- it’s always been done that way is a familiar cry. Even change for the better is too often a subject of suspicion.
It may well be that in many religions, that is the correct attitude to take. And, no doubt, there are many things in our fast-changing world which Christians ought to be suspicious about. But the idea that Christianity is fundamentally not in favour of change is not, in my view, supported by the Bible. In fact, the opposite is the case.
In his very old age, God calls Abraham to leave his home and found a new nation. Moses encounters a burning bush in the desert, and hears God calling him to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. In the book of the prophet Isaiah, God says to the people, ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43.18-19). The Bible is a continuing story of people who discover new think about God. God unexpectedly bursts into their lives, and they are changed, and they go on to change the world.
Saul of Tarsus was a traditionalist Jewish leader. He was very concerned about the effect of a new religious movement on his faith. Jesus of Nazareth, preacher and healer, had been found guilty of heresy and blasphemy be the leaders of his faith. He was been handed over to the Roman governor of Palestine, who found that he was a threat to public order, and had him executed. Yet his followers would not keep quiet. They claimed he was alive, and were coming close to treating him as a god. So Saul set out to silence this new Jesus movement. But on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the followers of Jesus, Saul met the risen Christ. This mysterious experience changed him, which changed the world.
He went on to start churches, not persecute them. And writing to one of those churches, Saul- now known as Paul (for even his name has changed) tells his fellow-Christians, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ For Paul came to believe that the coming of Christ changed everything. God, he claims, is reconciling a fallen world to himself through Christ.
Change is at the heart of the Gospel. In Christ, all becomes new. You and I are renewed, because God has dealt with the failures of the past. So much of what we are is our past. But now we are a new creation- changed, renewed, as if God has started from scratch with us. And our world is being renewed. Sin, death, hatred no longer have the last word. It’s the resurrection of Jesus which has the last word. The old world is changed, because now it’s not the hatred which sent Jesus to the gallows which rules, but the love of God which raised Jesus from the dead, which has the last word. For those of us who, by baptism and choosing to have faith, are now ‘in Christ’, the world has been recreated: ‘there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’
Today we heard again the parable of the Prodigal Son. Some say it ought to be called ‘the Lost Son’. I think it should be called ‘The Found Son’. You know the tale- of the lad who takes is inheritance and squanders it, and eventually comes to his senses and think, ‘I’d be better off back with my Father’. So off he goes, this worthless boy. Surprisingly, the Father- portrayed as a respectable, but rich, farmer, is waiting for him. And when he sees his son, his joy knows bounds. he gets his son dressed in the finest robe, with a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, and to celebrate his return the fatted calf is killed for a feast.
There is another son, the elder son, in this story. He’s often overlooked or criticised by preachers on this story. But the elder son understands what has happened. He understands what it means that his brother has been given a ring, and a robe, and sandals, and a big party. He understands that the Father has changed the status of his brother, and he is furious. He will not join a party for a boy who did nothing right, who squandered his father’s money on loose living. He will not join a party of a boy who had reached the depths of degradation, who does deserve to have his status as the son of this respectable father given back to him. For by giving him robe, ring, sandals and the fatted calf, the Father has changed how he wants the world to consider his previously lost son. ‘[T]his brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found’. The dead son has been brought back to life; the lost son has been found; the worthless philanderer, the feckless pleasure seeker, is once again a prince in his Father’s kingdom. The elder son understands very well what has happened to his brother: he is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new. That’s why he’s angry.
God promises change. Not the kind of change which so annoys us in our technological age- another software upgrade, a new mobile phone which has even more features to master. God does not offer mere upgrades, but a totally new start- a new creation. Love triumphs, death is destroyed.
But such change, such new creation, disrupts the order of things, and upsets some people. The elder son can’t quite bring himself to share in his father’s joy. He resents what his father is doing. Quite often children (even adult children) are, consciously or unconsciously, rivals for the affection of their parents. There is nothing worse than treating one child better than its siblings. Oh, the Father does try to reassure the elder son that he loves him equally (‘all that I have is yours!’ ‘But you’ve never even given me a goat for my friends!’). But the way he treats the younger son just seems too incongruous to the elder son. There is no justification, in the social mores of the time, for treating the younger son in the way the Father does. It is so unexpected, so undeserved, that it is shocking.
Yet if we will turn to God, God will treat us as the father treated his lost son. All this is symbolised by the sacrament of baptism. The water of baptism represents a washing away of all that stains and dirties us from the past. Going down into the waters, indeed, represents a death that past, and our participation in Christ’s resurrection to a new life. Paul told the Christians at Rome that they were baptised into Christ’s death, symbolically buried but brought back to life, as if we ourselves were going through the death and resurrection of Christ. Just as Jesus was raised from dead, so we in baptism we are raised to life, he says, ‘so we too might walk in newness of life’ (Romans 5.3f). There it is again- change, renewal, newness of life. ‘[T]his brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found’.
That is the Christian experience. Baptism is not a once-only rite. The font there reminds us that, for those who turn to God, forgiveness, renewal, new creation is something which shapes us every day. Paul says to the Romans, ‘if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him’ (Romans 5.8). We have been dead, and have now come back to life- that is the experience of the man or woman who, like the younger son, remembers that he would be better off back with his father, and turns again, turns to go home, expecting nothing- but is given a robe and a ring and sandals and a party.
The setting of the parable of the Lost Son is not, in fact, a setting with which the first hearers of the story would be personally familiar with. For it is a story about rich people- and most of those who heard the story first were not rich.
I must confess that I have a weakness for the TV series Colombo. The late Peter Falk created a wonderful character in his dishevelled, absent-minded detective. Colombo is a brilliant detective who solves the most fiendishly difficult puzzles, and outsmarts people who seem to have committed the perfect murder. Yet he never, apparently, achieves promotion. He’s quite happy with his battered car, his lazy dog, and his wife whom we never meet. But he only ever investigates rich people. Whenever there is a mysterious death in a million dollar mansion, the Los Angeles Police Department always sends Colombo. He’s thrilled to meet them- novelists, film stars, directors- and is invariably polite to them, almost fawning (‘you have a lovely house, sir’; ‘my wife is a great fan of yours’). Yet his pleasures are simple- a plate of chilli at a roadside diner. The great pleasure of a Colombo episode watching this fundamentally working-class detective slowly take down the smug rich person who think they’ve committed the perfect crime.
I think there must have been something of that pleasure among the farm hands and peasants who first heard Jesus tell the story of that rich landowner (so wealthy he owns slaves) and his two sons. The eldest son is angry because all the norms of that section of society are upset. He can only understand life from that point of view. For him, status is linked to money. If you squander it (or you never had it in the first place) you’re not entitled to the best robe, the ring, the good sandals, the fatted calf. No doubt those who first heard this story enjoyed imagining the reaction of the eldest son as the father put him in his place, just as we enjoy watching the smug rich murderer being undone by Colombo.
When God changes things, when a new creation happens, it can create friction. Even among religious people. Most of Jesus’ opponents were religious people- they did not like what he said, they saw him as a threat to orthodoxy. Even after he was dead, Saul of Tarsus thought that Jesus was a threat. God does a new thing, God brings about a new creation. But there will always be those who will feel threatened by it all, who will resent the killing of the fatted calf.
We live in a world in which new things, of course, are happening all the time. And frankly, many of these new things are not worth celebrating. The disaster of the Middle East in recent years, where people tried to change things for the better, and instead ended up with war, starvation, persecution, disaster, terror- is nothing to celebrate. It is no wonder that there are thousands of people attempting to get away from war and violence who see Europe as a safe haven. The conflicts of the Middle East have come to our doorstep, as we saw again this week as the migrant camp at Calais has once again made the news.
There are those who worry that our culture will be swamped, all these immigrants are going to change things for the worse- and across the world, in Europe and America, politicians who have simple solutions to the problem of foreigners and migrants are finding they have support. These issues are complicated. There are no easy solutions. Quite often the solutions suggested are devoid of compassion or humanity.
But we are Christians. We are a new creation. We believe in life, and not death, love not hate. And so our response must be care and compassion for suffering people. As people of the new creation, our response must be hope that we can find an end to this disaster.
That means that we don’t treat people as ‘foreigners’, but as children of God as we are. Our faith calls us to be generous, and not to be like the resentful elder brother complaining about the fatted calf. And believing that God is in charge, we should look be hopeful, since we believe that life can come from death, and the resurrection can come even where there is nothing but violence, execution, blood and despair.
‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation’. If we turn to God, it is as if we are made new. And God in Christ is making the world new. So reconciliation, peace and hope and justice- all this we can hope and pray and work for. For God is at work, God is making all things new, for God in Christ is reconciling our broken world. And are all called to be part the change God wants to bring to the world. We cannot to content to be traditionalists, conservatives, thinking that because it’s always been this way it’s meant to stay that way, pessimists with no hope for a better world. No- we are people who believe in resurrection, life from death. We are people of hope. For we who are Christians are already a new creation!
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the NRSV
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo