Acts 10:34 – 43
Our scene is a massive Victorian church, on a huge council estate in Birmingham. It is Easter Sunday, nearly forty years ago; and the church is full, for a special service. Everyone’s been welcomed, and we’ve sung the opening hymn, and said the opening prayers. And now, several oddly-dressed young people stand upon a stage, somewhat flimsily constructed over the chancel steps. For this is the climax of a week-long church mission in the parish of Bloxwich. Before the sermon, and in place of the gospel reading, the students act out a sketch, based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
It’s a very well-known story, of course; even to the many people there who are not regular church-goers. The younger son’s head is filled with dreams of Life Out There. Frustrated by the restrictions and the tedium of village and family, he demands his inheritance from his father. Pockets bulging with cash now, he sets off to see, and more especially to enjoy the world. The students portray his awkward leave-taking; and, so far as is proper in a church building, his subsequent life of shame and debauchery. Anyway, you all know the story. The inheritance is squandered, the money runs out, and the prodigal finds himself reduced to feeding pigs. In his squalor, he comes to his senses, and determines to return home to throw himself upon his father’s mercy.
But as he walks up the drive (what a useful prop a church aisle can be!), he is met, not by his father, as in the original parable; but by his older brother. Who takes him by the shoulder, and explains that their father is furiously angry with him. With the way he has wasted the family fortune and brought shame on the family name. Will be allowed back home? Yes, but only on condition that he behaves from now on with absolute propriety. One more mistake, one further misdemeanour, and he will be out on his ear forever. And there is no sign whatever, as the sketch closes, of any fatted calf being prepared for the celebration of the prodigal’s return.
Because you have to behave yourself near God, don’t you? A little boy I heard of once was told not to shout in church ‘because it was God’s house’. ‘But I’d let God shout if He came to my house’, retorts the youngster. For adults have this sense that you have to be on your best behaviour when you come anywhere near God, because he’s probably still angry. So you can only come to church and worship and pray if you are Respectable and Above Reproach.
Is the church really, like the elder brother in the sketch, some sort of policeman, arresting and charging us for every moral failing; only releasing us into God’s custody once we have made ourselves perfect? And is the church really here to protect God from what people are actually like? Must we treat God as though he were making a royal visit, only showing him a well-behaved, tidied-up, newly-painted version of our lives? Or must we treat God like a maiden aunt, whom we must protect from any unpleasantness or hint of scandal? So that all our real feelings, all our raw emotions, all of the times when we fail each other, or hurt each other; all must be hidden away, lest God, disapprove or become upset.
But the sketch-writer twists the ending in order to sharpen the impact of the way Jesus concludes the parable. His ending is totally at odds with the sketch, as he tells of the father’s unconditional welcome of his returning son, and celebration of his return.
We miss the Easter message, if we think of the church as a policeman, or God as a maiden aunt. This whole business of incarnation: Jesus’s life, and ministry, and death, that St Peter is going on about in Acts. It is to show us that God knows what we are all really like; that he is not scandalised by us until we can somehow better ourselves.
Let me tell you about another little sketch I once watched. A court-room. God is in the dock, on trial, for making the world the way it is. And various witnesses come forward to accuse him. A political prisoner steps forward, and tells how he was torn from his family one night. He tells of the screams, and the look of terror in his wife’s eyes as he is dragged from their bed, and the howls of his children that haunt him still. Of how he languishes in jail for years, until a rigged court condemns him on a trumped up charge for a crime he did not commit.
And a pregnant teenager tells how she was taken advantage of by someone she had loved and trusted. Of how she has been disgraced in the eyes of family and school and friends, and will have to bring up her baby alone, fatherless and in poverty.
Next, a refugee tells how the soldiers burned his home, murdered his family, and forced him from his land, simply because he was of a different race. He tells how bone-cold it is in the winter in the camp, and how blazing hot in summer. How he despairs of life, and how he has no future now but death, and in a land of strangers.
And so these accusers join together, and are given leave to pronounce sentence upon God, for creating a world in which the innocent suffer so. ‘Let him be born into this world he has made, to see what it feels like. Let him be thought of as illegitimate. Let him be born a refugee. Let him be misunderstood, ridiculed, insulted. Let him be betrayed by one of his own, someone he trusted, and arraigned on false charges. Let him be condemned unjustly, and put to death in the cruellest way, abandoned by his friends, and buried in a stranger’s grave’.
I’m sure you can see where this is heading. The sketch ends with the cross revealed to them all, for in Jesus their sentence has already been carried out. It was no Royal Shakespeare Company performance, just a group of earnest young students from the Christian Union, trying to portray to their friends the drama of the Easter Story. The set was only a student common room; the acting was mediocre, to put it kindly. But that sketch is the more poignant for those who saw it performed, because Sally, who portrayed the teenage mother, died of cancer a year later, at the age of twenty-two.
So God knows what this world is like, and doesn’t need the church to protect him, or tidy people up before they can meet him. He is not waiting for a respectable, sanitised, world; it is to transform all this mess that he raises Jesus from the dead. The drama of Easter is played out on the stage of real life, in the horror of Sri Lanka this morning, in the bloodshed of the Islamic caliphate, in the numb desperation of a run-down estate in Bloxwich, in the life of a friend dying too young, as well as in the tension of Roman-occupied Jerusalem. But on all these stages, the drama of Easter is the drama of hope, of triumph, of solidarity with each one of us, of God’s longing to welcome each of us back to him. It is the drama of resurrection.
© Jon Russell 2019