Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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Prodigal Grace

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (NRSV)

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father.

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father[e] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


What an obnoxious man. What an obnoxious and irresponsible man. What was he thinking? Can you believe he did that?

Oh, sorry, some of you have blank looks on your faces. You know who I’m talking about, right?

You might assume I’m referring to the younger brother. After all, he’s the one who goes to his father and demands his inheritance (which is essentially the same thing as telling his dad he wished he was dead). And then he goes off and loses all his money on gambling and other examples of loose living. There he is starving to death and thinks, “I know, I’ll go back to dad, say I’m sorry and then he’ll forgive me for my unforgivable actions.” And by the way, we can’t even be sure that his apology was sincere. And then, what, he thinks he’s worthy of the huge celebration his dad throws for him? Give me a break. Yeah, he’s pretty obnoxious and irresponsible; but actually he’s not who I’m thinking of.

You might assume I’m referring to the father. What a gullible and irresponsible dope. What, he can’t say “No” to his son? He didn’t have to give him the inheritance. Oh, and don’t forget that when he saw his son approaching, he ran to him. A dignified and wealthy man of his time would never run. It’s so inappropriate – it was something only poor people would do. And he certainly didn’t have to forgive his son. Well, not only forgive, but throw a party? Give him the best robe and the best meat? Certainly not! He can’t even be sure that his son’s apology is really sincere. What a obnoxious and irresponsible man. The word “prodigal” means “wastefully extravagant.” Maybe the story should be called the “Prodigal Father?”

Sometimes I scratch my head wondering why this is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible because it bears such little resemblance to what actually happens in the world.

First of all, in the real world, people rarely go to such great lengths to say they are sorry. Most people just can’t bring themselves to say that they are sorry; even when they know they are wrong. As a society we put such a high value on winning that we condition everyone to be afraid of saying “I’m sorry.” We are taught that it is a form of weakness and vulnerability.

The other thing that is odd about this story is the enthusiasm which the father displays. Is anyone really that eager to forgive someone who has offended them? I mean, if someone told me they were sorry I would be happy, but I certainly wouldn’t go throwing them a party. I wouldn’t hold them in higher esteem than I did before they wronged me. There’s still a little bit of guilt we can hang over their heads, right?

Well, maybe this is exactly why this is such a well-known story – because it illustrates just how radically different God is from what we would expect. The world teaches us to believe certain things about human nature. But here, as the Word of God often does, we are confronted with the true reality and the good news that God is not beholden to our ideas of justice and forgiveness.

No matter how low we are; no matter how much of God’s blessings we have squandered; no matter how captive we are to sin; God is ready to run to us with open arms, sweep us off our feet, and throw a feast in our honor. The apostle Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. There is no “rock bottom” from which God cannot pull us out.

As it turns out, the prodigal father and the prodigal son are actually very accurate representations of the Christian faith.

So, which person is actually the obnoxious and irresponsible one in the story? The older brother. Boy, jealously does not look good on him, does it? Why is he so bitter and ungrateful? Just a reminder, this family is rich… filthy rich. And his dad says, “Everything that is mine is yours.” But is that enough? No, he wants a party too. He just can’t allow himself to forgive his brother so he goes off and throws a temper tantrum in response to the extravagant love demonstrated by his father.

Whereas the father and the younger brother show us how ridiculous the Christian faith looks in relation to worldly standards; the older brother shows us how ridiculous worldly standards of entitlement and justice look in relation to the Christian faith.

The older brother felt entitled to something greater than the grace and blessings which he had already been shown. And that is perhaps the greatest sin of all. What could our lives look like if we lived them in full realization that the love, acceptance, and grace we so desperately seek for our lives is found in God alone?

May you, like the younger brother, be surprised by the extent of God’s grace and love.

May you, like the father, breathlessly pursue opportunities to lavish forgiveness on those who have wronged you.

And may you, unlike the older brother, be eager to celebrate with those who experience God’s grace that is freely bestowed equally to all people.

Amen.

Peter's Sermon He Needed to Hear

Acts 3:12-19

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,


I want to dig deeper into today’s reading from Acts, which is essentially a sermon from Peter. So, yes, you are about to experience a sermon about a sermon.

There’s a saying about preachers – that we tend to preach the sermons we most need to hear. I’m not sure if this idea is meant to be affirming or dismissive; but regardless, it is true.

I would like you understand that the ideas I address in my messages are ideas that I wrestle with. They are ideas that I strive to understand. They are ideas that I feel are important. They are ideas with implications that are played out in the world that we share. 

My preaching is an exploration my questions, struggles, experiences, joys, as well as my grasp of what is true and beautiful in this world. It is all I can ever hope to do since no matter how many perspectives I try to explore, I cannot ever fully see the world through anyone else’s eyes. 

Occasionally you offer me feedback about my sermons that goes beyond comments like “I liked the message” or “You went a little long today.” Sometimes you say, “That really made me think” or “I feel like you were talking about me.” 

When you hear a sermon and think I wrote it about you, please acknowledge that experience as a point of connection between us. If something makes you stop and think, it’s because I’m thinking about it too. If something makes you upset, it’s because I’m upset about it too. I’m not preaching what you need to hear, I’m preaching what I need to hear. That’s the best I can do. 

It is helpful to keep this idea in mind as we explore Peter’s sermon from the 3rd chapter of Acts. I’m not sure if it left an impression on you when you heard it earlier in worship, but it’s a pretty damning message. In fact, these verses have a shameful history of being used to support anti-semitic causes and atrocities. However, like everything in scripture, there are layers to explore and often the good news is hidden under the surface. 

Here’s the wider context, beginning with Acts 3:1:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

This is another example of God working through Peter to achieve miraculous ends, and Peter is still coming to terms with this new power and reality. 

Recall Peter’s role in the events that led up Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Peter was one of the disciples who fell asleep in the garden while Jesus prayed. Also recall that Jesus had announced that Peter would deny him three times. Sure enough, three times people accused Peter of being in cahoots with Jesus. Each time Peter says, “I don’t even know the guy.” When Peter realizes that Jesus’ prediction was true, he breaks down in tears and does not reappear in the story until after Christ’s resurrection.

But almost immediately in the book of Acts Peter goes from a failed disciple to an outwardly successful one. His first sermon results in 3,000 people being baptized. He has started healing people. Amazing things are starting to happen through Peter – the disciple who fell asleep when Jesus told him to stay awake, denied Jesus, and played a role in Jesus’ death.

Peter has to reconcile the truth that he is as unworthy as they come, and yet God is working through him to accomplish divine healing and restorative purpose in the world. 

And suddenly it makes sense why he is yelling at the Israelites – his tribe – gathered around him and blaming them for Jesus’ death. He’s conflicted. He’s working out some issues. And preachers preach the messages they need to hear. 

He looks out at the Israelites and sees himself. His sermon is little more than an inner monologue dripping with frustration, shame, and confusion.  

See what I mean when we re-read the sermon but replace the pronouns “you” with “I”

Peter thought to himself, "Why do I wonder at this, or why do I think that it is by my own power or piety I made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom I allowed to be handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But I rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to me, and I killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. I witnessed this. But faith that is through Jesus has given this man perfect health. And now, I know that I acted in ignorance. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. I must repent therefore, and turn to God so that my sins may be wiped out.

The idea that this message should stand on its own accord, independent of its larger context, as proof of Jewish culpability or condemnation is dangerous and misleading. This is a message by Peter to Peter; it is a message of condemnation and grace that resonates in our own hearts because we, too, are God-killers. We, too, would turn our backs on Jesus if the stakes were high enough. And we, too, are used by God to bring grace, beauty, and healing into this world despite our fears and failings. 

As for practical takeaways from this sermon:

– take this as permission to tread lightly with scripture and refrain from using it as a weapon to assault others. The truth as revealed in scripture is always nuanced and should lead us towards grace, hope, and love. 

– also, be encouraged to do your own mental and emotional work. Human beings tend to redirect internal anxieties as arrows aimed at others. Pay attention to your hangups – the things that bother you and you wish you could change about other people. These are typically indicators of issues you need to address in your own life. Admit this and seek assistance before others are made to suffer. 

– take heart that God is able to accomplish incredible things through imperfect people like Peter. Your final chapter has not yet been written. There is still time to expect and demand God’s miraculous and restorative presence to work through you. 

Amen.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.