Back Home Again
We began this study emphasizing the believing community and stressing that Christ is not an adulterous husband to the church. He has only one bride and each individual believer is included in the believing community in the eyes and thinking of God. So very soon in the process of the new redemptive life made possible when we returned to the Father, we find that this redeemed family is all around us.
Some of us almost immediately experience the rudeness of judgmental family members, much as the prodigal did with the older brother in the parable. When I was a youth pastor, I recall a teenager in our youth group who became pregnant. She and her mother elected to remain in the church, seeking to find love and support. Sadly, some in the church, even one very loud fellow associate pastor, condemned this girl and wanted her out. In a very frustrating conversation we had he argued for the exclusion of the girl from the youth group for the sake of a warning and example to the other young people (his own daughters among them!), and I pointed out to him that the girl had repented and was doing all she could to make things right and needed our support, that I had no right to exclude her from the fellowship. He did not like my answer. Whereas it would have been more comfortable for many if she had been whisked away to a shelter for unwed mothers (I believe this is what they finally chose to do), at the same time the grace of God should dominate our thinking on all levels and in every instance. The issues of crisis and catharsis come to play here – without a crisis of faith there is no catharsis of joy. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy (Psalm 126:5), but when as a believing family we fail to work the soil or sow the seed for fear of getting ourselves a bit dirty, or even for fear of offending grandma, we also opt out of the experience of reaping with songs of joy.
Especially relevant are the many all-encompassing and even idealistic statements in the Bible of the love and life of God that are to exist in the midst of the fellowship of the body. We often point to Ephesians 3:20 that identifies God as the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, but we must also read the preceding verse that addresses our experience with God, that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. And then in 4:13, Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. So the Bible does not let us off the hook on this issue, that if the fullness of God and the fullness of Christ are clearly enough to revolutionize our thinking along terms of grace, and those two phrases represent a supply of grace that does go far beyond all we could ask or imagine, and if they are clearly ours to receive as a believing community, then why do we hold back in any life situation in need of grace?
To be sure, some situations may need to be handled with discretion, in privacy, and maybe through the help of specialists, and there is a time and place for church discipline as well, but no situation is to be rejected simply because we think we don’t have the grace or patience to handle it. The truth is that we all need grace and forgiveness, we do not know all the sins of the older brother but surely he had some, and when we say no to extending grace to one person we are encouraging a graceless spirit to spread in the family, ultimately depriving ourselves of grace when we need it. A sad footnote to the entire event mentioned above was that my fellow pastor who argued for discipline against the pregnant teenager divorced his wife just months following that incident, and left the church and ministry out of shame. Perhaps the grace that is most needed in many situations is the patience with those who are not quite to the point of believing that the fellowship of faith they associate with can experience the fullness of God and of Christ. The older brother very much needed the grace and love of the Father, and the patience of the prodigal.
Another challenge we experience in joining with the family of faith is the many other former prodigals we meet there, who make the mistake of confusing grace that covers our sins and helps us move on to maturity with an attitude that excuses or even unwittingly glorifies wrong behavior. We find it terrifyingly easy when we look back upon our past, upon the years spent feeding pigs, for some type of twisted thinking to enter our thoughts, where we either believe ourselves too wounded to continue toward maturity, or we just find a new and perverse thrill in talking about what it was like to slop pigs. In some church settings it is the only way these things can be acceptably spoken about but in so doing the tantalizing sense of getting away with something naughty, if only vicariously, is experienced. Can’t you just see the temptation of the Prodigal to entertain his friends with tales of what it was like when he was at his wildest moments away from the father? That temptation was surely there for many dreamed of doing the same thing, running off with Daddy’s money, but lacked the gumption to pull it off, so they moped around the farm not realizing the real blessing was to be with the Father. Of course, the Prodigal could add, “And now I am back home with the family,” and it may sound fine, but somewhere the mixture was not right, too much salt and not enough sugar, and the impression given is that you had better sow your wild oats when you are young and can get away with it. Though testimonies of “great redemptions” can build up our faith, there is an inherent danger when the discussion ceases to be about righteousness and more about sin, less about Jesus and more about self.
Another lesson learned the hard way as a youth pastor was when I invited an ex-convict to share his story of redemption – he had committed armed robbery while high on amphetamines but came back to Christ in prison. Though it was shared with good intentions and with all the right words, after that a few impressionable teens began to brag (there is really not another word) to one another about all the sins they had committed. The tragedy of sin is not only the pain it has caused others but the missed blessings it has deprived others of experiencing and sharing.
The thing to be avoided, the matter that grace causes us to wrestle with is the attitude that celebrates forgiveness but misses the point on the price that was paid that we might be forgiven, and the sadness of years wasted away far from the Father’s love. Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace.”
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution with our personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Some have sought to limit the application of Bonhoeffer’s words to the state of Germany’s Christianity in the 1930’s, but his points are relevant for every generation. We return to God as prodigals who have wasted the opportunities and resources that the loving Father supplied, but we also return as sheep that had willfully gone astray and were found by the seeking Shepherd. Grace demands true repentance and recognition of the price of our salvation, at least to some degree.
One of the areas of doctrinal weakness among many believers is in the area of the nature and meaning of the incarnation of Christ. We acknowledge the physical suffering of Christ on the cross for our sins, but then in poor laymen’s theology imagine that Christ then returned to being God again. Here is an important point we dare not miss, that something in eternity changed for Christ through His incarnation. Even after He ascended He is still called “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Just as He did not cease being God when He came to earth, He laid aside His glory, not His deity, so He has not ceased to be man now that He has ascended on high. 1 John 3:2, in speaking about our future inheritance in heaven, states, But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The scriptures state that we have become Christ’s inheritance, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints (Eph. 1:18), meaning that in the process of paying for our salvation Christ gave up some of His eternal inheritance for us. Though our dull earthly minds can barely begin to conceive of what this payment must consist of, certainly the point is clearly made in the New Testament that Christ paid a great cost for our salvation, and this is not to be taken lightly.
These two temptations, to judge and to too-lightly excuse, are not only the tendencies we find in the lives of a few, but the temptations that lie within each of us, so it is essential to consider these matters. But this is not all we experience in church, nor even mostly what we experience. When we return to God the Father, when we come to be a part of the Bride of Christ, we also run into teachers, lovers, faithful supporters, doers of the will of God, healers, leaders, encouragers, those who come alongside to help, servants, workers, prayer-warriors, evangelists, and these all become our fellow-pilgrims on the journey to know what it is like to be bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh. If we can get past our weaknesses, we find that His Spirit is there within us and He is using His truth and one another to build us up in the faith. Step by step we are being transformed to the point where we begin to bear fruit that can only be understood in the light of the grace and power of God.
Though it helps us to acknowledge our weaknesses, so that we might improve and grow, it helps us more to focus on the good and growing among us. As a teenager, a young businessman in my church had a simple goal, to live his life completely for Christ. Philippians 1:21, For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain, was his credo. Whatever problem we faced, he brought prayer into it. When we spoke with him he looked past our adolescent immaturity and saw Christ being formed within us, the hope of glory. He took some of us out onto the streets of downtown Dallas to share our faith with whoever would listen. He believed in Christ and because of that he believed in us. Through his influence the attitude of our youth group began to change, when we came together it was no longer the “good kids versus the bad kids” but many of us began to be drawn to Christ and to accept the weaknesses in those around us. They were, perhaps weaker brothers and sisters, but precious all the same. We began to listen to Christ and expected to hear His voice and to be led by His Spirit. These attitudes more than rubbed off on us, for they were being rubbed into our hearts from the inside by the Spirit.
And this is how God works in churches: The Christ in me appeals to the Christ in you, and together we find ourselves on a journey, and our own individual experiences, gifts, insights, and personalities become helpful at the right moments to the advancement of all.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship , originally written in German in 1937, translated by R. H. Fuller, (The MacMillan Compan: New York, 1959), p. 36.