Pastor Albrecht Kostlin-Buurma gave the following sermon after the Reading from St Luke 15 vv11-32 (the Prodigal Son Parable):-
We have just heard one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible: A new life is given to a man who has fundamentally destroyed his life. ” This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” That’s how God is dealing with you, Jesus tells us with this story. You can start your life again thanks to His love, and what you have failed to do before will do no lasting harm to you.
This story is at the centre of Christian life, and however we understand our Christian faith, however we express it or however we arrange it in our ecclesiastical structures, with this story we find a common witness of the love of God that is stronger than all human guilt .
If I now hear this story as a Protestant Christian, 500 years after Luther’s Reformation, in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I have an image of Pope Francis emerging in my mind, who celebrated the beginning of the Reformation anniversary in Sweden a few months ago, and a voice whispers to me: You see, the Catholic Church returns to the roots of faith.
A beautiful picture – until I put myself into the shoes of my Catholic friends. They see the Pope lovingly welcome the Protestant siblings and hear the voice whisper: See, the Lutheran Church returns into the open arms of the church from which it had once separated.
Anglican Christians may now think, perhaps, that the clashes between Lutherans and Catholics show that there are actually two lost sons in history who have yet to learn how to unite two different directions in one church. It is nice that they return to our ecumenical form of the Christian faith in the Reformation year.
And since there are also denominations in this country, which see the connection of the Anglicans, Catholics and Lutherans with political power as a dramatic mis-development of the Christian faith, the number of lost sons in their eyes should be at least three.
Perhaps you are smiling about these associations between the confessional differences and the story Jesus told. This is good. Humor helps us to see the point of view of our own religious group self-critically. Of course I can do this only with my own Protestant tradition, and a little more precisely, with my particular stand within German Protestantism, but it will be easy for you to translate this into the world of your own experiences.
As a Protestant Christian, I ask myself now: Is it really true that we Protestants have remained in the house of the True Faith, while the other denominations have all moved into the world of error and can now be glad that God allows them to return home, where we have always been?
As a pastor of the German-speaking United Synod, I ask myself: Is it really true that we have remained in the house of the True Faith, whereas the Lutherans and the Reformed with their denominational differences have hurt the attractiveness of Protestantism and that they only come back home because we live in a post-Christian society?
And as a liberal theologian, I wonder: Is it really true that I have stayed in the house of the True Faith while the dogmatic traditionalists and the biblical fundamentalists have taken themselves to the wrong place and can be glad that God is not annoyed with them?
I am convinced that each one of us finds himself or herself in this story first in the role of the son, who has remained faithful to the Father in principle, and therefore needs no repentance. We therefore understand this story of Jesus as a call to lovingly deal with the wandering brother and to facilitate his return. And I do not deny that this loving interaction with the lost is the goal of the second part of Jesus’ narrative.
In the first part, however, this story clearly places us in the person of the lost son. We see how this man terminates his communion with the Father against all reason, and seeks his happiness in fellowship with men who destroy his life. I used to wonder again and again: Is it really possible that a person can be so stupid? Meanwhile, I have learned that this stupidity is widespread, and it is a great pleasure for many people to destroy their livelihoods for the sake of an ideology. But today, this story is asking me: Is it possible that you are the stupid one? Where are you going to with your way of proclaiming the Christian faith? Is not every of your attempts to press the Christian faith into a dogmatic system misleading? Can you really transform into a catechism what Jesus only could express in a parable? Can you really transform the communion which the Risen One creates by means of His Word into an organised church? Why should your tradition or theological direction be the home to which the other Christians should repent? Are not you the one who should return to the Father?
The story of Jesus can make us humble. It can make us confess the familiar words “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It can create a community of lost ones who are on the way to the Father they once left. It is a good story for this week of prayer because it replaces our longing for a united church with the longing for the unity of Christians with Jesus Christ. We are united in the firm confidence that God is the loving Father, whom Jesus presents us with his story. We are united in the promise that there is a new beginning and that the theological errors and the errors of the churches in the past will not determine our future. And we are united the hope that for our own churches, the relieved words of the Father will also be valid: ” This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”