s191g01 Sunday 24 16/9/01

"rejoice with me" Luke 15.9 (reworked from three years ago)

One of the catch phrases of the Church is "repent". However it is actually not a specifically Christian concept, for even before Jesus, the prophets of the Old Covenant as well as John the Baptist called the nation to repentance. I suspect that no prophet would have even be begun to be listened to if they hadn't called people to repent.

I suspect it is here that Jesus comes closest to calling individuals to repent. My difficulty with the word is that by and large it is used in Church circles to exhort individuals to change certain aspects of their lifestyle, whether that is possible or not, before they are "acceptable". This seems quite contrary to the way Jesus exercised his ministry.

Perhaps the classic case is the Samaritan woman at the well. Here was a woman who had been married five times and was presently living with someone else. If there was ever a time when (in my perception) Jesus could have legitimately asked an individual to repent, either of past misdoings or of her present living arrangements, it was this. But no, what does he do? He asks the woman for a drink. He calls her to help him in his need. Let me say that I believe that Jesus only draws attention to the woman's past to give her an indication of who it was who was asking her to: "Give me a drink" (John 4.10) not to get her to change her lifestyle. She needed to know that she too had been "found", and her words to her neighbours indicated that she perceived this to be so: "He told me everything I have ever done" not "he told me everything I should have done".. (John 4.39)

The clarion call to repent contained in the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin is actually both times a rather tacked-on after-thought in Jesus argument, and after we have looked at that argument, I will return to consider why this might be so.

Jesus describes the very natural actions of a shepherd and a woman - and I want to focus on the very naturalness of the responses for a moment. It is natural to be acquisitive. This is in stark contrast to the words from last week's gospel: "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (Luke 14:33). The lost sheep and the lost coin must be looked for. To give them up for lost without a search is foolhardy. It would be quite unnatural not to do so. Such things do not happen on earth.

But less familiar is the party over the finding of a sheep or a coin. It doesn't take much for Jesus to want to let down his hair and enjoy himself. Perhaps celebrations in heaven are much more frequent than here in this world. I hope that the claret is good ;-)

But the reality is that the whole focus of both stories is not on the repentance of the sheep (?) or the coin (?!), but the seeking and finding by their respective owners. For, of course, these parables are spoken in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and the scribes: "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." (Luke 15:2). They explained to them and they explain to us what Jesus was doing. In Jesus, God was seeking out sinners. It was the whole of the gospel, and indeed this had been going on from the beginning of time. In Genesis 3.8 God has to look for Adam and Eve who have hidden themselves because they had suddenly realised that they are naked, and presume that God will be offended.

There is another shift in thought also in the sense that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners, and the sinners were therefore the hosts of the celebration - those who had been found, not those who had done the finding. In the parables, of course, it is not possible for either sheep or coins to repent, and it is even less possible for either to throw a party. Therefore the finder arranges the celebration. No matter who arranges and hosts the party, a celebration there must be.

The call of Jesus therefore is not "repent" but "rejoice with me" - "rejoice with us". The scribes and the Pharisees are invited to put away their grumbling and join in the celebration over these who were lost and had been found.

This they seem to find difficult to do - and perhaps it was because they still wanted the sinners Jesus was so readily accepting hospitality from, to live up to their own expectations for the religious life. Jesus seemed to disregard this aspect completely. It was enough that they were found.

I want to focus on the shepherd and the woman a little longer, and to say that they search diligently, because that which is lost is precious to them. So we, whoever and wherever we are, are precious to God, whether we are "found" or whether we are still to be "found". We are precious to God, while God is still looking for us. There will be times when we who are "found" are bidden to rejoice with God because someone else is "found". But, as the religious leaders realised, that was not as easy as it sounded, because the people God finds and brings into our fellowship and communion are always different, they always have different things to contribute, and God seems to keep accepting those contributions without question. The only contribution God doesn't accept is that which is at the expense of someone else.

Indeed there are quite likely to be some whom God will bring into the fellowship of parishes other than "ours", denominations other than "ours", faiths other than "ours".

Repentance, of course, means turning to God. It may mean trying to turn away from sin, but that is not always possible. I note that Jesus does not say: "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents and never sins again than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." Neither does he say: "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents and never sins again." (Luke 15:7, 15.10).

God is content that we are "found", and has enough on his/her plate finding everyone, that conceptions of worthiness are simply an extravagance.

We turn to God because we see that God, in Jesus, diligently searches for and has found us - just as we are. Having been "found" as we are, we are now called, like the people around Jesus, to rejoice that Jesus was still looking for and finding more people, just as they are. If repentance is called for then it is a repentance from expecting more from others than God has asked of us. We are called to repent to a God who freely accepts - to turn away from a conception of God who sets up hurdles for people to successfully jump over.

It is, of course no accident that these two parables are followed by the (so called) parable of the prodigal son, which would be rather more appropriately named the parable of the prodigal Father. Again it ends with the picture of the father pleading with the elder of his sons to join in the celebration - and to extend his charity to someone who hasn't lived up to his (the elder son's) expectations.

So Christian "repentance" means "rejoice with us", directed not by members of the Church towards those who are not, but by those who are not members of the Church towards those who are members of the Church, as they see in themselves God's acceptance of them as they are.

Let me bring this from the abstract to the concrete. How many Anglicans for the first time participating in an ecumenical Bible Study, have been surprised, even astonished, to find members of other denominations actually believe in terms little different from our own?

As we go through life and we meet and relate to all sorts of people, whose religious affiliation or lack thereof, we are completely oblivious to, yet by and large (unless they are notorious people) we see the best in them. We acknowledge that they are reasonable people trying to make the best of life.

I have little personal experience with the indigenous people of this country, but the little I have had has always been a refreshment to my experience. I am particularly thinking of a situation where I found a comparison between a woman of aboriginal descent and a man of Anglo Celtic origin. The caucasian man involved could only be described as the nastiest piece of work I've come across in a long time, whereas the aboriginal lady was a person of great graciousness. This is reality for all of us. As we meet, as Jesus met all sorts of people, we too find our opinions of people raised.

I am told that there are no guilty people in prisons, and in part I guess I believe this. All have mitigating circumstances to a greater or lesser degree.

So often we lump people together here in Church in a quite unreal way, yet when we leave we relate to people as Jesus would have us do. I am sure that my experience is no different to yours. It is as we are involved with various people in society in an ordinary way, God shows us the very presence of the divine.

I thought only recently, God must have a huge sense of humour. We are so very serious about our faith, yet God brings along a person from a quite different denomination or faith to our own and we suddenly realise that the issues they face are precisely the same as ours.

Another example springs to mind, some years back we had a Governor General who was not a theist, he did not believe in God. Consequently he (quite rightly) declined to become patron for the Scouting movement, whose first object was to honour God and the Queen. In doing this he demonstrated a deep and unapologetic desire for integrity, which we should applaud as God given rather than criticise. I am sure that if any of us were to actually meet him in real life, we would consider ourselves privileged. It is that sense of privilege to meet people that Jesus encourages us to foster and express.

So the clarion call to repent, perhaps can be viewed as defined by these words of Jesus as "rejoice with us". They are deliberately tacked-on as an after-thought to do precisely this. This means that we can no longer as the Church sincerely call the "world out there" to repent, but to do as we are already doing, to mix with people - as Jesus himself did - to experience their goodness, whoever they are and whatever they believe, and to acknowledge and rejoice with them that God is at work in their lives.


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