Monday, March 24, 2014

Receiving from Jesus - Being Loved

This Sunday marked the start of something new at Highbury.  Karen, commissioned last week as our Discipleship Ministry Leader, introduced a new series that will go to the heart of our Christian faith and encourage us to think of all that we have received from Jesus as we receive nothing less than the love of God in him.  Karen also introduced us to the Prodigal God Course that will be starting on Tuesday, 1st April.  You will shortly be able to follow Karen on her discipleship blog.

Discipleship - Receiving from Jesus - Being Loved  (Luke 15: 11-32)

Although we expected to start this new phase of Highbury life with the theme of personal discipleship, we didn't initially plan to use the "Parable of the Two Sons" (Luke 15:11-32). As  the new Discipleship Ministry Leader shouldn't I be telling you to pray and read the bible more? Then after many discussions and a visitor who recommended the Prodigal God course to our minister Richard after a service, we decided to start with a series about Receiving from Jesus. We need to receive from him before we  give out to others. We need to let Jesus love us first - for our own sake's and others' too. This parable takes us to the heart of the gospel and is a good place to start this new phase of Highbury life.
The Parable of the Two Sons is not just for ...
i.            Sunday school
Childhood immunisations are a good thing. We receive a small dose of diphtheria and its painful at the time but gives life-long immunity from the disease. However, it is not good if childhood understandings of bible stories "protect" us from their adult impact. Jesus told this story to adults. We teach children to "behave yourselves"  and "be nice to your brothers and sisters" but there's more to this story than that.

ii.            the "unsaved"
Some of us look back to a key "coming to faith" moment  or period in the past and even if we haven't frequented evangelistic gatherings, we know this story as the "Parable of the Prodigal Son". The father represents God and the younger son - the Prodigal - is  a lost sinner who must return to God in repentance to be forgiven, justified, and made righteous.  I look back on a special moment - Good Friday, 1976, Withyditch Chapel to the south of Bath - which included "turning" to God and forgiveness. We do all need to "come to our senses" like the son but I can't "park" this story in 1976 and think it's only for others now because  I've got my ticket to heaven. There's more to this story and salvation than that.

iii.            long-suffering parents
Those who've brought up children readily sympathise with the father in this story - kids today! - and some years ago there was a "Bringing Back the Prodigals" initiative for parents disappointed that their adult children were no longer in church. But God is the Father in the story and we're all sons. This story isn't just for other family members.

iv.            other people
And this story isn't for any other groups - hopeless with money, jealous, disrespectful  - because this story is for us. It takes us to the heart of the gospel and is for all of us.

The Parable of the Two Lost Sons is ...
i.            contextualised
Stories are told to a particular group of people at a particular point in time - they have context. At the beginning of chapter 15 Luke tells us that two opposing groups were listening to Jesus - the Pharisees and outcasts. The Pharisees adhered to a strict moral code and were religious. They complained that Jesus ate with the outcasts who were immoral and irreligious.  The Pharisees are like the older son in the parable and the outcasts like the younger. This message is for them both. It's the Parable of the Two Sons.

ii.            disturbing/unsettling
Jesus tells three "lost" parables in Luke 15 - the lost sheep, lost coin and lost sons. I've never owned sheep so that story doesn't affect me in a personal way but we've all been children. This third parable can affect us in a deeper way. Protests can form in our minds - But I'm a daughter! I never knew my father! I miss my dad! I've got three if you count step-dads!  - but by prompting childhood feelings this story can make us more receptacle to it meaning. Children are more teachable than adults.  This  story can "open a chink" in a "door".

iii.            living
The bible doesn't use words such as infallible, inerrant or boring to describe itself. It uses inspired or God-breathed (2  Tim 3: 16 All Scripture is God-breathed GNB) and living  (Heb 4:12 (the word of God is alive and active, sharper than a double-edged sword GNB).  Just as I believe that the bible was written through a mix of human activity and the Holy Spirit, so I believe reading the bible or listening to its words can be a mix of human activity and the work of the Holy Spirit, especially if we approach it a teachable mood. With the Holy Spirit's assistance we can encounter Jesus as we read it. It's the living word of God.

iv.            good news
This story take us beyond Pharisees and outcasts, religion and irreligion, morality and sin to the heart of the gospel itself.  Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again and it's good news because the lost are found, the separated are joined and the hungry sit at the banquet.  God's love can transform us.

Please consider three images from the Parable of the Two Sons ...

Image  1 - Wrapped in the Arms of God
The younger son returns having lost everything, he prepares his speech asking to earn his way back but his father won't hear of it. He runs out on the road - no respectable Jewish father would run - and hugs his son. It's a static picture out on the road.  So much has gone before, so much remains for the future but in that moment there are just the two of them together. Nobody else. Nothing else matters.
If a child gets lost in a supermarket and is then re-found, nothing else matters to that child in that moment. He or she is back in the adult's arms.
Prodigal means "being extravagant" and "over-spending". It is God who is extravagant and over-spending in his love for us. This  may not be an easy image for you. There can be many reasons why it's hard.  It can take months or years before we can allow God to love us like this but he'll wait patiently for us like the father in the story. 
I've always used swimming as a metaphor for faith and there are so many useful comparisons - believing the water will hold us up, crossing deep water etc - but I reached a time when I had to learn the importance of floating too. Lying back and letting the water hold us up is a good analogy for being loved by God. Discipleship isn't all about action and effort.

Image 2 - Outside the Door
The older son won't come into the banquet and he tells us why:  "Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends!" (Luke 15: 29)

 "It's not fair." I yelled it at my mother and expect she yelled it at hers. Fairness is continually in the news -  bankers' bonuses, extra bedrooms, pension annuities - it's usually a money related complaint.  Like people today, the older son had his own moral code. He works and expects his father to reward him. He wants the father's wealth as much as the younger son but he's gone about it in a different way. He isn't interested in the father himself.

John Robinson was an early separatist and congregationalist in the early seventeenth century who became the pastor of the group who sailed to N. America as the Pilgrim Fathers. He likened the bishops in England to tenants living in a wonderful house. They had the fine furnishings, cathedrals, palaces etc but never knew the landlord himself. They missed having a direct relationship with God. We don't want to follow suit here in a congregational church. We don't want to make religious rules of any sort come between us and God.

Image 3 - Eating at the Banquet
This scene works better as a video than a still picture. People are eating, drinking, laughing and joking. The younger son has the robe, shoes and ring with the father's seal and he eats the fatted calf in the presence of neighbours and friends. The lost is found. The separated  joined. The hungry fed. It's a great meal.
I've shared this story whilst working as a part-time prison chaplain. Those who society looked down on and who felt worthless in themselves were greatly affected on hearing that God loves them like the father in the story. But one woman asked a question afterwards, "That's great but will it get me off drugs?" She helped me to see that being loved by the father and welcomed into the banquet isn't a one off event - it's an on-going meal.  We may not be addicted to heroin or morphine but we have weaknesses, issues, fears and hurts that drag us down. We need to constantly draw on God's resources rather than rely on our own.

Finally, three questions in the present tense to consider ....

·         are you like the younger son?
·         are you like the older son?
·         are you eating at the banquet?
Over the last few weeks as I've reflected on the Prodigal God course material,  I've started to see both younger and older son traits in myself from the start and since my  "coming to faith" moment in 1976 I've popped in and out of the banquet. It's often the times of crisis and when I'm "out of my depth" that I feed most.  I still need God's love to help me in old familiar areas and new ones I've created more recently. 

Are you eating at the banquet? Is being loved by the father making a difference now?

Please consider these questions over the coming week.

No comments:

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light