“Rejoice with me” S. Luke 15. 1
The parables in today’s gospel are powerful illustrations of the teaching in the epistle: not only does “God resist the proud and gives grace to the humble”, but that grace conveys us unto glory for God “himself shall restore, stablish and strengthen you ... after that ye have suffered a while”. God is “the God of all grace” and here is a wonderful illustration of the nature and the immensity of God’s grace.
The parables come as a response to an accusation. Christ is accused of receiving sinners and eating with them, thereby identifying himself with sinners, being made sin himself, as it were. But Christ’s response shows that he does, not so as to be defined by sin, “him who knew no sin”, but for the sake of our redemption “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. He tells three parables, two of which comprise today’s gospel: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin. Beyond them but as the fulfilling of them is the parable of the lost son, the so-called prodigal son.
Sheep, coins, sons. There is a progression to these images. They belong together. If we were to think about this artistically, we could say that they form a kind of triptych of divine grace in which the centre panel would be the last, the parable of the prodigal son. But we can only come to its central message through these first two parables which stress the priority of divine grace in our restoration. What is emphasised is God’s reaching down to us in the gravity of our sins which separate us from God and from the community of divine love. There is, after all, a kind of passivity to sheep and coins, but this only serves to heighten the priority of God’s grace. Yet the effects of that grace are to be realised in us which is what we are given to see in the parable of the prodigal son. In him we see the motions of God’s grace in us effecting our restoration to grace, our establishment in grace and our being strengthened by grace.
The parable of the prodigal son completes the illustration of the teaching about God’s redemptive grace. It signifies, as the first two illustrations do as well, the strong and exultant note of God’s mercy towards us. What, after all, is the recurring theme here except the theme of rejoicing? “I once was lost but now am found.” Here is the illustration of the “amazing grace” of God that “saved a wretch like me.”
God seeks the lost and God accepts the penitent who makes some motion of return to him for that motion is the motion of God’s grace in him. The first two parables make this point unmistakably clear. The sheep and the coins are utterly unable of themselves to move towards God. It is God’s grace which literally picks them up and carries them, gathers them up to himself and to the community which his love alone creates. We are reminded that our joy is to be found in the free gift of God towards us in the giving of his son.
These are communal joys; they are the joys of the Church. They are not solitary pleasures. They embrace heaven and earth, angels and men, neighbours and friends.
The note of rejoicing is the meaning of our prayers and praises. It places us upon the foundation of divine grace perfecting our natures at once in principle and in process. The dialectic of sin and grace constitutes the pattern of our lives, indeed our very identity in Christ means the acknowledgement of sin and the greater acknowledgement of God’s grace.
Maudlin sentimentality and judgementalism are but the two sides of the same coin. They are both repudiated by the teaching of this epistle and the illustration of this gospel. We are not to wallow in the easy acquiescence of our sins, nor are we to presume upon our own righteousness. Jesus’ point against the complaints of the Scribes and the Pharisees is that we are all sinners in need of constant repentance. We are all less than what we should be.
Our reformed tradition, in stark contrast to both Tridentine Roman Catholicism and post-reformation Anabaptist spirituality which assert the static quality of our lives in sin or grace, argues for the principle so wonderfully articulated by Martin Luther, that we are simul justus et peccator, at once justified and sinners. Our Anglican liturgy gives eloquent testimony to this understanding, an understanding which in no small part derives from these three parables. The pattern of contrition, confession and satisfaction runs throughout the liturgy. It is the dynamic of the dialectic of sin and grace. The creative tension or paradox in the awareness of sin and grace leads us into joy. In no small way, it is the cause of our rejoicing.
We are sinners all who stand in constant need of God’s redeeming grace shaping our lives into holiness. We are lifted up out of the wilderness of our waywardness and out of the dusty forgotten corners of our own spiritual self-neglect. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” It is what we are given to see in these parables. Like the lost sheep and the lost coin we are lifted up into the joys of heaven. We are returned into the fellowship of joy. Even more, in the parable of the lost son, we are returned into the joy of the Father’s love.
Humility is the simple recognition of ourselves as sinners and our grateful acknowledgment of God’s redeeming grace given for us and at work in us. It is the condition of our rejoicing. We rejoice in the mercies of God “to whom be glory and dominion for ever and ever.” We rejoice with him who has reached down to exalt us into his love. Jesus calls us to rejoice with him in his love for us in his love for the Father.
“Rejoice with me”
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church/Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne
Bendigo in the Central Goldfields,
Victoria - Australia