Almost two years ago now, shortly after we moved to Latvia, we made a trip back to the UK for the wedding of a much loved niece. It was a GREAT wedding, with a mixture mostly of Latvian and Scottish guests, which turned out to be a brilliant combination. Singing, dancing, games, food – all lubricated with a modicum of locally sourced refreshment.
However, as an antidote to all the fun and jollity on Saturday night, on the Sunday morning I took myself up rather a steep hill to the local Church of Scotland church. The congregation was not huge, and not terribly welcoming; but we were treated to a real old fashioned, hellfire and damnation sermon. This is not something to be recommended each week, but on this occasion it almost felt nostalgic. There was a solidity and ‘straightness’ to the preaching; and, of course, one felt suitably chastised afterwards.
I was reminded of this in the last few days, when a Facebook comment about Women’s Ordination led to something of a discussion with a young pastor, who, by the sound of it, makes hellfire sermons something of a speciality. One short quote:
‘There are those Christians who keep to God’s Word, and then there are those who imagine themselves to be Christian, but for whom the Bible is more like literature…..Those who do not support Women’s Ordination know well that this is not a question of clericalism, but the authority of the Bible. Whoever has eyes to see, let them see how the dragon sweeps stars from the heavens with its tail’ (an indirect quote from Revelation 12)
…and there was a lot more about the duty of a pastor to point out the sins of their congregation members. For me, there are several problems with this mindset.
Firstly, the sins that such clerics choose to point out: which usually turn out to be homosexuality (that was the implication of the point my correspondent was making). Setting aside completely the tangled arguments about whether committed, faithful relationships between people of the same sex are sinful (and assuming that promiscuous, manipulative relationships between people of whatever sex are not only sinful in the eyes of the church, but often also risky, damaging both psychologically and physically), let us also assume that it is the minister’s job to keep pointing out sin to members. So – that includes lying, stealing, covetousness, adultery, disrespect of parents, and – above all – not acknowledging that God is Lord, and that we are to have no other gods before God. All of those would be breaking the 10 Commandments; and yet we know that people around us commit all these grave sins all the time. When did you last hear of a dishonest billionaire being banned from church? [And Rupert Murdoch, a man about whom many have raised doubts concerning his probity, has just had his fourth marriage blessed in church…. in each case, his previous wife was still alive when he married the next one].
Secondly, while of course it is essential that we recognize our failures, our wrongdoing and sometimes just our sheer pigheadedness (or, in Christian jargon, sin), for most of our congregations, coming from a secular environment that has no notion of ‘sinfulness’, this is meaningless. In a world where greed is good, where sexual experimentation is lauded, and where often really the only sin is ‘to be caught’, hellfire preaching is so remote from people’s lives that I don’t believe they are able to hear or understand it. For people to be able to turn back to God (to ‘repent’ in Christian jargon) we have first to see that we are facing away from God; and only then can we expect ourselves to look at our lives in the light of God, of Jesus, of the Gospel, and begin to recognize our wrongness and distance, not just from God, but also from our fellow human beings.
All of this is, in any case, in stark contrast with the wondrous story of the Prodigal Son which we read in church this morning. Forgiveness, love and reconciliation, and no hellfire in sight. So, with some hesitation and extreme diffidence, I offer up a different view on sin and forgiveness.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What a wonderful story this is! Over the centuries Christians and people of all kinds and all ages have resonated to, been moved by, have wept and laughed at this parable. Without any sort of deep analysis, the simple of picture of the wayward, lost son returning home to be embraced by his Father is touching. For any of us who have ever hurt someone by our actions, and been worried about whether our victim will forgive us, this parable rings very true.
At the same time, I’d guess that many of us have also ever fantasised about taking revenge on someone who has hurt us. There was an extraordinary story in the British press some years ago. A rich man, a banker, stockbroker or something along those lines, cheated on his wife with a younger model. Nothing extraordinary in that: it happens, sadly, every day. You only have to look at the pictures of Rupert Murdoch with Jerry Hall to see how attractive money and power are when combined. Anyway, in this particular case, the abandoned wife decided to take her revenge. Her husband, being a rich man, had a very well-stocked wine cellar, with expensive, rare, aged wine. The collection was worth many thousands of pounds. So the wife took all his bottles of wine, and went round the village, giving them all away to all their neighbours, telling them they were presents from the husband. And I admit to some admiration for her imagination and desire for revenge; because, of course, it’s very human, normal, to feel like that. When someone hurts us, we want to hurt them back.
But that is where we need to remember the words from 2 Corinthians that we heard earlier. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! [2 Corinthians 5] Actually, perhaps we also need to remember the verse from the psalm this morning about not being like horses or mules, without understanding…. [ Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you – Psalm 32.9]
But the point is that Paul is calling us to a new way of doing relationships, of living together with our fellow human beings, based in Christ, inspired by Christ through the Holy Spirit. This new family of Christ is to learn from their Lord, to imitate him, and be ambassadors for Christ in the world with a message of reconciliation.
And this leads us back to the beauty of the Gospel. For this is a worked example, if you like, of living reconciliation. The father is generous beyond belief to his son. He hands him his half of the inheritance – how much would that hurt! Not the money, but your child saying they would rather have your money, turning his back on you and leaving. And yet, when the son returns, no word of anger; no word of reproach; no turning away in disgust – and certainly no revenge or punishment.
Even more than that; the father doesn’t wait for him to come; abandoning all thoughts of dignity or care, or social status, he runs towards him, embracing him
And then – the father orders a feast, singing and dancing, beautiful new clothes, new sandals – whatever the son might have been fearing or worrying about, he certainly wasn’t expecting a warm welcome, unconditional love and open arms.
The son had done his father great wrong; he had hurt his father badly. He had sinned against him. But the ever-loving father, who surely represents God in this story, is that; he is ever loving. He doesn’t wait for the son to come and confess; he doesn’t demand penance, or for the son to give back the money he took. He doesn’t bother to tell his son off, explaining to him exactly where he has sinned; none of that. The father is just glad that his child is back home, that he is safe, and that he can hold him in his embrace once again.
This is such a lesson for us all, but especially for churches and ministers. For people, Christians – yes, we have this model before us, this ideal of reconciliation and forgiveness which we must struggle to live out, with God’s help. But churches, pastors, priests, bishops – this must be our model, too. Forgiveness of sin does not depend on what we do, ever; it springs, pours, gushes abundantly from God’s mercy. If God is waiting, like the Father in the story, to embrace his wandering children, what on earth are we doing, if we put hurdles and barriers in the way? Yes, say priests and church leaders – God will forgive you, but only if you make more effort to be good, only if you obey church rules, only if you say 25 Hail Mary’s.
Is that what the Father says to his returning son – yes, come home, but first promise me you will be good, first go and wash your dirty feet before you put on the new sandals? No! It is enough that the young man’s heart has turned back to his Father. He just opens his arms, his heart, his house, and orders a feast. For us, too, it is enough that our hearts turn back to our Father; once we turn back and come home, once we are forgiven and embraced, of course, our lives begin anew. We don’t know what the prodigal, reckless, returning and repentant son did next; of course. Did he start over, and live a decent, loving life with his father and his family? Probably; it would take a very wicked person to break his father’s heart all over again. And that, too, is a lesson for us; once we turn back, knowing ourselves to have been in the wrong, knowing that God loves us and forgives us – to use Paul’s words in the letter to Corinthians – once we are reconciled to God, we start to become new. We become ambassadors, messengers ourselves of God’s reconciling love.
Wonderful words; but challenging. But how different would the world look if we could only put them into practice in our daily lives, and in our relationships….”