The Transforming Love of God

The Transforming Love of God
Holy Cross Seminarian Ron Burkhard
Sunday of the Prodigal Son

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere. Bibles laid open, millions of surprises, fine nets and schemes. God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

These words were spoken by a young man who had grown up in a Christian home. He had been given the beauty of the faith from the time of his birth. But the older this boy grew, the further he departed from that faith until he had left it behind completely. 

He had strayed so far from the church that he began to despise God and mock those who believed. He had become an atheist. One who does not believe in God.

This young man was C.S. Lewis.

Many of you may have heard of C.S. Lewis, he is one of the greatest and most beloved Christian authors of the 20th century and this is the story he recounted in his autobiography titled Surprised by Joy. Most might assume that a man who has done so much for Christianity would not have had a beginning such as this but that is not the case. It wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he finally repented, admitting that God was God, and was received back into the loving embrace of the church.

God joyfully and lovingly receives every repentant sinner.

In today’s Gospel reading we heard the parable of the prodigal son. It is a very similar story to that of Lewis. A story about a young man who after having been given his inheritance leaves his father’s household to squander the wealth in a foreign land. Only when the last penny has been spent and he has been forced to live and eat with the pigs does he realize the error of his ways. It is at this point that he returns home to seek forgiveness from his father. Upon returning to his father he is not only forgiven but is embraced with love and compassion.

The message found in this parable is that God, like the father, joyfully and lovingly receives all his children who turn back to Him in sincere repentance. The word repentance is used a lot in our faith but how is it to be understood?

Christ paints a beautiful picture of sincere repentance in this parable when we hear the son returning to his father exclaim, “Father! I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

This is our example of repentance. It is not merely asking to be forgiven of sins but it is the radical change in a person as when the son, recognizing his shortcomings, returned to fall down at his father’s feet, wishing never to repeat his mistakes again. 

This radical change, this U-turn if you will, may come about in many ways. For C.S. Lewis this change was much like the story in today’s gospel reading. Writing about his life prior to returning to Christ he said, "I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.” What he refers to here is the reality that even after he had spent so many years with his back to God, the divine love of Christ overcame all he had done and welcomed him back with open arms.

This is the reality that we live in today. In our own ways we each become like the prodigal, falling away from God. But this does not have to be our end, for all fall short of the glory of God and like C.S. Lewis, we too can experience the compassion and perfect patience of our Lord.

This is the good news of the Gospel that we rejoice in. As Saint Paul wrote in First Timothy, “…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”

Christ accepts us on these terms. He doesn’t only accept the repentant, for the word “accept” does not do justice to the love and compassion that we are shown. It is more rightly said that He embraces us with His unconditional love. In the parable we see that upon his return, the father is so filled with joy that he gives his son a robe to wear, a ring for his finger, shoes for his bare feet, and a fatted calf that is brought out for the celebration. This is the love of God that awaits us.

Just as the father of the prodigal did not respond in anger or resentment towards his son for his actions, neither will Christ towards those who return to Him. For those who seek Him, He embraces in love and compassion, for they were dead but now live, were lost but are now found.

How then are we to return to Christ in order to receive His loving compassion which waits for us?  The church seeks to help all make this journey and provides us with the tools to do so. Maybe the most important tool offered for this task is confession. Just as one who hikes through the mountains must use a map and compass to remain on the path that leads to his destination, we also need confession in order to return to God.

It is through this sacrament that we are able to reach sincere repentance. Among the prayers read in this service, we find Psalm 50. The second verse reads, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleans me from my sin, for I am well aware of my iniquity, and my sin is before me always.”

In the reading of this Psalm we acknowledge that we too have become the prodigal son and in our own way have taken the inheritance of our Father Who is in heaven and misused it. But remember that the story of the prodigal ended in joy. It was joy for the prodigal son and can be for us also, C.S. Lewis writes, because “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation."

As we prepare to begin our journey through Great Lent, let us use the tools that are given to us that we might be embraced by the love and compassion that awaits us all. 

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