SERMON: Sunday of the Prodigal Son (2020)

This sermon was delivered on the Seventeenth Sunday of Luke—the second Sunday of the Triodeon period, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), February 16, 2020, at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York.

Audio (not recorded live)

Don’t ruin the family name.

THIS IS AN EXPRESSION that, I am sure, many of us have heard or said in our time. It is an admonition usually given by an elder family member to a younger one who has “come of age” and is in a position to start making choices with consequences. The gist of the message is more-or-less this: “don’t do anything reckless that will bring shame on you or us”.

As significant as this sense of family honor is, to one degree or another, it barely registers in terms of the honor borne by those of us who have been baptized into Christ, and it would benefit us to spend just a little bit of time on this point. To do so, I will highlight four areas of Holy Scripture.

The first passage comes to us from the book of Genesis, which chronicles God’s creation of all that is, including humanity. We learn that God made everything that is, and declared those things good. Last of all he fashioned humanity out of the earth, as the crown of his creation. He made humanity in his image and likeness, giving us freedom to choose between God and something else. We chose poorly, and were expelled from paradise. Thus began the tumultuous and tragic history of the human race, nevertheless forgiven and loved by God time and time again.

The second passage comes to us from the Gospel of John, which chronicles the renewal of creation in Christ, reminding us that: “In the beginning was the word [that is, Jesus], and the word was God, and the word was with God; all things were made through him…in him was life, and the life was the light of men…He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not recognize him. He came to his own home, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

The third passage comes to us from St. Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Philippi, where he wrote: “Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

And, finally, we turn to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he says “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant your inner self to be strengthened with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.”

This short but powerful retrospective on both our biological and spiritual genealogy and origin leaves it very clear for us: those of us who have been baptized have become children of God, we bear the name of Christ, which is the name above every other name, and it is the name for which every family in heaven and on earth is named. We have quite the family name—certainly a name worthy of the admonition, “Don’t ruin it.”

Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, it is probably true that all of us have transgressed this wish somehow. Maybe it was a dishonest conversation at work. Perhaps we gossiped. Maybe we are delinquent at school. Maybe we dabble in drugs. Maybe we scoff at the Church’s moral teachings. Maybe we have taken part in an ongoing family feud. Perhaps we allowed ourselves to get swept up in a romantic encounter. Maybe we have allowed ourselves to incur great debt. Perhaps we live a secret life that not even the people closest to us have a clue about. Maybe we expose our children to profanity and salacious imagery and music. Perhaps we drink too much.

Obviously, this list could go on and on, and it would eventually apply to all of us at least once. While we could spend a lot of time developing it, we would fail to leave time to consider today’s significant readings, which do not concern themselves with great detail, but with great meaning.

Both St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, address sins of the flesh—gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual immorality. These two readings are grouped here on this Sunday that is preparing us for the season of fasting and repentance. They call out clearly to us that these sins in particular, sins of the flesh, are not like others, for they resonate with our body. Sexual immorality is particularly offensive—not because of some prudish, puritanical view of this aspect of our being, but because it corrupts a foundational order intended by God, namely that it is only in holy marriage that one man and one woman are joined and there blessed to express and experience a chaste sexual union. In other words, such things deeply wound the likeness of God in us. Like any deep wound, they are not easy to recover from, and can even be fatal.

And so St. Paul said to us today, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which belong to God.” In most cases, if we are in possession of something of value belonging to someone else, and we damage it, break it, lose it, vandalize it, or steal it, we understand the consequences are likely to be severe. How much more, then, must this be the case when we disfigure what God has given us—body or soul? It would be reasonable for God to be furious with us.

Yet as Jesus so lovingly showed us today using the parable of this wayward son—who had foolishly decided it was his right to enjoy the supposed pleasures of life—when we come to our senses, when we remember our divine family name, and when we come running back to our Father with nothing to give but tears for our failure and for what must surely be our pending doom, the Father is not seeing a horrible sinner worthy of punishment, but a dead person who has resurrected before his very eyes. “My son,” he says, “was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And so it is with each and every person who shall sincerely repent in this life.

Brothers and sisters, you are here today, in the Father’s house. No doubt what was heard in today’s readings and in these words here applies to all of us in some way, including me. But the fact remains that there are many of our brothers and sisters who avoid the Father’s house. We may never be able to go get them and bring them back. But we can be imitators of our Father, always waiting with eagerness to see them on the horizon, returning. When we encounter people in such a state, it is for us to take what we have learned, as good children of the Father, and apply it: to embrace them, to bring them into the house so that all can rejoice. It could be the case that from time to time we might see people in church that had a bad reputation, and we may see them receiving Holy Communion. Please! Fight with every fiber of your being the urge to judge and think ill of such people, acting like the older brother in today’s parable. Such people may have returned home while we were not looking, being welcomed to the banquet by the Father.

With these things in our hearts, we will continue to walk together, step-by-step, not only through the upcoming period of the Fast, but through this new life we have been given in Christ. Each day can be a homecoming if we wish it. If it is time for us to come to our senses and run home, let us do it with zeal and tears and humility. If it is time for us to receive a repentant fellow believer, let us do it with zeal and tears and humility. For in that meeting, our Father will embrace us, our brother Christ will be in our midst rejoicing, the Holy Spirit shall bring us the best robe, and we shall, as St. Paul said, “glorify God in our body and in our spirit, which belong to him.”