Living into God – a Lenten sermon series by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Lent 4: Theosis – living into God (number 4 of 4)

31 March 2019

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Joshua 5: 2-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-32

Theosis – living into God. Through these first four Sundays of Lent we are thinking about Theosis – living into God. In this, the fourth and final in the preaching series as part of our Festival of Living Faith, let’s begin by noticing a few key points in the Eucharist – the service which we are celebrating this morning and which goes by a number of different names: Eucharist, Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper, the Mass. Among the many different things we do when we come together for this service are praise, confession and reconciliation, the sharing of a meal, and the sending out in God’s name. These movements within the liturgy are particularly clear in the service we use at 10:30am, which is still often referred to as the ‘modern’ or ‘new’ service – even though the order of things goes back, not to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but to much older liturgies coming out of the very early Christian centuries. (You’ll notice the various elements clearly set out in today’s offertory hymn, A&M 436.)

Theosis – living into God – means that we must come to God with an open and enquiring attitude. We come singing God’s praises, we come with the joy of knowing that God loves us, we come believing, expecting to be touched by the worship experience, we come because we believe Jesus has commanded us to gather together and remember him. We come as a cross-section of society – the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the ones with years of experience and those who are beginners, those who know the profound love of God in their lives and those whose faith is shaky, who find themselves at a cross-roads, perhaps wondering why they still come or if they are allowed to come. We come because ALL are welcome at the Lord’s table.

We come even when we know we are not worthy in and of ourselves to stand before God. A fundamental notion embedded in Christianity is that, on our own, and in our own strength, we have nothing to offer God. It is God, always God, who takes the initiative. God reaches out to humankind. We saw that in the first of this sermon series – God called Abram. We see it in the strange (to our ears) reading from the Book of Joshua. And I suspect that those preparing to be baptized at Easter are thankful that circumcision is no longer regarded as a necessary step along the theosis journey! The Christmas story is about God becoming human and dwelling among and as one of us – Emmanuel. The Good Friday story is about God, in Jesus the Son, taking on himself the sins of the world and dying on the cross. The Easter is about God raising Jesus from the dead and so offering Life to all who believe. The Pentecost story is about God flooding the world with the Holy Spirit – of life and energy, a new creation. In today’s second reading from 2 Corinthians 5 St Paul actually says: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” In all these, and many other examples, God takes the initiative in reaching out to us.

But let’s pause for a moment and go to the Gospel reading from Luke 15. It is known variously as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Jealous Son, the Forgiving Father. It’s a story Jesus told as he spoke to his disciples about God and what God is like. Jesus, ever the master story-teller begins: Imagine there was a family – a father with his two sons. They were comfortably off and had everything they needed. Like many young people, the younger of the two sons was impatient. He wanted to see the world, go places, live life to the full. So he badgered his father for his share of the money. After all, having to wait till he was twenty-one and come of age, or even worse, for his father to die, was in the far distant future. He wanted to live life now.

Jesus invites us into the story which follows the life of the younger son. We go with him and enjoy the wine, the dancing, the fine meals, the plentiful friends. It’s eat, drink and be merry and never a care for tomorrow. As happens, tomorrow comes sooner than expected, and Jesus takes us with the younger son into poverty – deserted by his friends, far from home, lonely and very very hungry. It’s hard for us to feel the horror that the listeners to Jesus would have felt in learning that the young man could only find the most menial of jobs in the far country, that of feeding pigs – the most unclean, the very worst, of animals. As if that wasn’t bad enough he had nothing to eat except what the pigs did not. As a picture of degradation you’d be hard put to beat this one of the younger son.

We know well how the story develops. The young man thinks long and hard and works out a beautiful speech. He knows he can’t possibly ask to be taken back as a son – but maybe, just maybe, there could be a job somewhere on the farm. Enter the father, heartbroken and full of love for this wayward child of his, who rushes out to meet him, won’t listen to his carefully crafted story of apology, and instantly throws a lavish party of celebration. Take a deep breath with Jesus and then remember the older son. Where is he in the story? Faithful, honest, frugal, utterly reliable – intensely jealous of the attention his younger brother is getting.

Jesus ends the story somewhat abruptly with the father’s beautiful words to the older brother, “You are always with me … we had to celebrate … because your brother was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found.” What do you make of it? What did the disciples make of it? What did the Pharisees and scribes listening to Jesus make of it? Where do you place yourself in the story? With the younger son? With the older boy? With the loving father?

If the Greek word theosis invites us to live into God, another Greek word, scotosis, speaks of the things that blind us to God. Who is blind in the story that Jesus told? Certainly the younger son as he takes the money and sets off to spend it in good living. He is completely blind to the long term consequences of his choices. We could argue that the father is blind. He appears blind to the foolishness of the younger son, and is blinded by his love for the boy as he welcomes him back with open arms and fatted calf. The older boy too is blind – blinded by his jealousy; so blinded that he is unable to recognise the constant love of his father.

The period of Lent has traditionally been used as a time of giving up things. But more importantly it can be a time for looking into our blind spots. What is it that we are not seeing about God, about our relationships with other people, about ourselves? Every time we come to the Eucharist there is opportunity to make confession – to say, God, I have done these things, spoken these words, thought these thoughts – and I am not proud of them. Please forgive me. It’s as if the torchlight of God is shone into our hearts. Like the forgiving father in Jesus’s story, the priest speaks the words of forgiveness and restoration from God. We are able to get up – not perfect people at all, but forgiven sinners. People who know that, despite our sinful ways, God loves us. Using St Paul’s language, God has made us a new creation. We are reconciled to God.

Back for a moment to the Book of Joshua and that bizarre story of circumcision. Today’s passage (Joshua 5:2-12) ends with the renewal of the ancient Covenant between God and God’s people. They keep the Passover – the family meal during which the mighty rescue operation to free the Hebrew slaves from the oppression of the Egyptians is remembered. Still to this day Passover is celebrated in Jewish households, and the story of the Ten Plagues, the flight into the desert, the miraculous escape from the pursuing army in the Red Sea, is told. In our Christian context we don’t have the Passover – we have the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday. As Jesus took bread and wine he gave it new meaning with the words, “This is my Body; this is my Blood – do this in remembrance of me.”

Part of our journey into God, part of our theosis, is to renew our covenant, our baptism vows, as, together, we celebrate the Eucharist, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in bread and wine before being sent out into the world.

We began this journey into God with a reminder that God called Abram to leave the familiar and go to the new; that through Abram’s obedience would come blessing to the world. We paused on the 2nd week to try and make sense of the horrendous acts of terror unleashed on innocent worshippers in Christchurch. We were reminded with the Corinthians last week that in order to do real theosis – to really journey into God – we need to know the stories of the past and reimagine them into our context. Today I want to end with recognizing the privilege of being charged with God’s commission – to be ambassadors for Christ. To so live our lives in our world that people will see something of Christ in us. In doing so, we will, like Abram all those generations ago, bring blessing to others.

We are called to Theosis – to live into God. Thanks be to God.