|The Return of the Prodigal, by Rembrandt c.1667|
I’ve used it to accompany a display that’s all about home – the children and adults at Messy Church this morning made some junk-model houses to accompany it - because it seems to me, that’s what the story is about. It’s about home – leaving home, returning home, but also about the more subtle sense in which we can feel “at home”, or not, as the case may be.
The younger son’s journey away from home and back is obvious. He asks for his inheritance, which his father gives without comment or judgement, and leaves for a distant country. When the money runs out – and so do the friends and the fun – eventually, in desperation, he comes back, only daring to hope that his father might take him back as a servant.
His father has other ideas, though, and the picture captures the moment when he embraces his son, having run to meet him. He doesn’t just take him back into the heart of the family. He throws a lavish party to celebrate.
But the story isn’t just about the younger son. There’s an older brother, too, who has been dutifully, if rather resentfully, working on the family farm throughout all this. When he hears the noise of the party, he’s furious. He’s never even been given a goat to feast with his friends, he says to his father, never mind had a fatted calf killed for him. But his father answers, rather bemused, “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” He only had to ask, and he could have had whatever he wanted. He has been at home all the time, but somehow never seems to have felt “at home” able to trust that his father loves him, that he can, in the best sense, take this love for granted and relax into it. The younger son has wasted his inheritance on “loose living” as some translations put it, but the older son wastes it on tight living, because he never dares to call on it at all.
But what, you might be asking, has all this got to do with Good Friday, this day when we remember Christ dying on the cross?
Well, it seems to me that the death and resurrection of Christ also have profound things to say to us about our sense of home. On the cross, Jesus comes to a place where no one would want to find themselves. He comes to a place of suffering and death - the killing fields of Calvary – where he is literally pinned down by hatred. He comes to a place where people are looking for someone to scapegoat, someone to mock and belittle. He comes into the midst of the power struggles and political turmoil of his time and allows himself to become the whipping boy on whom the Roman and Jewish authorities take out their jealousies and fears. He comes into a situation where he is helpless, just as so many were in his day, and still are in ours.
He comes, in other words, to places where we all find ourselves at some point, and which some have to inhabit all the time. He comes to places where we find ourselves estranged from one another, estranged from goodness, estranged from hope, estranged from God. We may not know not quite know how we got into there, when we are in these places. But what we do know, deep down, is that we are a long way from home, a long way from where we should be, a long way from where we need to be.
“Father of all,” we pray in the Communion service, “we give you thanks and praise that when we were still far off, you met us in your Son and brought us home.” Christ comes to these places in which no one wants to be, and brings us home. Or perhaps, more accurately, he comes to these places and, simply by being there, turns them into home, transforming them – and us - with his love. “Father forgive them” he prays for the soldiers who nail him to the cross. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he says to the thief who hangs beside him, as if he’s the king of the universe, not just another crucified man – and of course, he is right. He is the king of the universe, and the cross becomes the gateway to his kingdom.
“Be at home in God,” says one anonymous proverb, “and the whole world will be your home.” Or, as Jesus put it, “The Kingdom of God is among you… within you… close at hand.” If that is true at all, if the Kingdom really can be right here and right now, it means that God isn’t just at home in the good things of life, in the glorious sunset, or the unfolding bluebells. He’s also at home in the squalor of a refugee camp, or the hopelessness of a prison cell, or the agony of grief. In fact, if God can’t be in these places, can he be anywhere at all?
For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the proof of God’s presence in the worst of human experience, and the darkest of places, transforming them by his presence. Where God is, there is home, a place where we are loved and ultimately safe.
The hymn we are going to sing later in the service reminds us powerfully of this, and even more so when we know the rather convoluted story behind it. If you followed our daily reflections on hymns this Lent you may remember some of that story. The first couple of verses were originally a Swedish poem, written in the late 19th century, which was then translated into German and set to what is probably a Russian tune. The German hymn was in turn translated into Russian, and was discovered in that form in the 1930s by a British missionary, Stuart Hine, when he was working in the Carpathian mountains, on the border between Poland and Ukraine. He translated it into English. But that wasn’t the end of the tale.
When war broke out, Hine and his wife had to come home to England where during and after the war they worked with some of the many thousands of European refugees. The question those refugees often asked them was “will we ever go home?”
It was this question which prompted Hine to write the fourth verse , the verse which ends the hymn now, as a reminder to them that wherever they were, their true home was in Christ, and nothing could keep them from it. That’s why I wanted us to sing it today, because that’s just as true for us, not just after death or at the end of time, but here and now, every day, as we discover God’s presence with us.
We might feel like the younger son in Jesus’ parable. We might be aware that we have walked away from God, or just drifted away, till he is out of sight, off our radar. One day we wake up and realise we are home-sick. We need to come back. And when we do, God is right there, by our side, welcoming us back to the home we’ve longed for.
Or we might feel like the older son. We have doggedly, perhaps unadventurously, stuck close to God all along, tried to do the right thing, played by the rules, or at least our understanding of them, and insisted others do the same. But we’ve never really felt “at home” with God as he would want us to. We’ve never really felt sure of our place, secure in his love. And as a result our faith has become smaller and smaller, more and more exclusive, more and more fearful and judgemental. We need to find out what it means truly to be “at home” with God, relaxed in his presence, knowing we are infinitely loved, just as we are, not for what we do. And when we do, God is right there, delighted that we have finally decided to trust him. We have come home.
Wherever we are, in Christ, God comes to us and calls us to discover what home really is. It’s not a beautiful building with all the latest gadgets and elegant furniture. It’s not the advertiser’s dream of a happy family, mum and dad and 2.4 children, all smiles and sweet agreement. It is anywhere where we are in the presence of God, where we know we are loved and secure, precious and treasured, noticed and valued, and anywhere that we make others feel those things too.
Preaching that message – that everyone can be at home with God - cost Jesus his life, but in his death, even death itself was transformed into the home of God, not an end, but a beginning, not a failure, but a triumph, opening the gates of glory to let the love of God flood into the world.