Praying Disciples: Growing in Faith Through Prayer and Celebration
Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 15:1–15:2
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
"Praying Disciples: Growing in Faith Through Prayer and Celebration"
On this St. Patrick's Day weekend when everyone is Irish, many people think of celebration as drinking green beer and staying out till the wee hours of the morning at raucous parties. In the land of St. Patrick - Ireland - the day that honors their patron saint is much more subdued; it's more of a holy day than a holiday. The parades and green beer are uniquely American. As we enter into this Fourth Week of Lent, we continue our focus on growing in faith through spiritual disciplines. We've examined prayer as the foundation for all of these disciplines, coupling prayer together with fasting, self-denial, perseverance, fellowship, repentance, and study. Today, we focus on prayer and celebration. Huh? How is celebration a spiritual discipline? The old phrase is "everyone loves a party" - that may or may not be true; however, holy Scripture again and again uses the image of a banquet, a feast, a party - a celebration - for the kingdom of heaven (see Exodus 24:9-11; Isaiah 25:6-8; Matthew 8:11, 22:1-10, 26:29; and Luke 14:15-24). Even God loves a party! Today's Gospel gives us great insight into how celebrative our God really is. May the Lord's rich blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word, for Jesus' sake.
It may be counterintuitive to think of celebration as a discipline, but it is, especially within the Body of Christ, the Church. It is always appropriate to take time out to celebrate the gifts of God - that He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Taking time out to celebrate the gifts of God in the people of God is also a very appropriate thing to do. It's important to recognize, affirm, and rejoice in one another. This celebration can take many different forms - a personal word of thanks, taking that person out to lunch, organizing a thank-you celebration for a ministry area,. The celebration can be public before the whole congregation, but not everyone wants that. What is always appropriate is a hand-written note of appreciation that spells out specifically why you value this individual and his or her contributions to building up the Body of Christ. People hold on to such notes because they are so meaningful. The celebration of God's gifts in God's people is so important that it is reshaping an entire ministry area in our congregation. Ministry Support, one of our Church Council leadership positions, is morphing into the Ministry of Discipling and Equipping. An important component of discipling and equipping Christ's people is celebrating how God is working through them. This means putting people before programs and paperwork. It means we have to stop and think about who is serving where, and what is going on in that person's life, and what will build that individual up in their faith. This is a call for each one of us to exercise that discipline of celebration here within this congregation.
So how does this connect with Scripture? Today's Gospel lesson is a wonderful example. The theme for Luke's Gospel is found in the opening verses of Luke 15: "Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus made himself available to people who were considered outsiders - beyond God's grace. Jesus welcomed them and sat down to eat with them. That's good news for us! Luke 15 is a trilogy of "lost and found" parables: 1) the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7); 2) the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10); and 3) the parable of the lost sons (Luke 15:11-32). We usually call this last story the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but a better name would be the Parable of the Lost Sons (because both were lost). Or even better, the Parable of the Forgiving Father! And how do each of these parables end? "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep/coin" (Luke 15:4, 9), and "... let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (Luke 15:23-24). When God's lost and straying people are found and come back home, how can we not rejoice and celebrate? God calls us to join in the celebration and rejoice with him!
Do we see ourselves in that Parable of the Lost Sons? Can we celebrate God's amazing grace in our lives through the younger, prodigal son? The older, obedient son? The forgiving father? As Henri Nouwen writes in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, God calls each one of us to become that forgiving father in the parable - something that may be very hard to do. Maybe our background is more like the younger prodigal son. Maybe we've alienated ourselves from family and friends through selfish choices. Maybe we've "traveled to a distant country" and blown everything we had on things that do not honor God. Maybe we had to hit rock bottom before we finally came to our senses. Returning home to make peace is no easy thing, but it is a necessary thing. Perhaps our background is more like the older obedient son - the dutiful, loyal member of the family who is always there, always helping out. Perhaps under the surface we've grown resentful that everybody looks to us when they need something. Perhaps we feel that the members of our own family take us for granted, and expect us to pick up the slack for them. Perhaps we've put our own plans on hold to meet the needs of everyone else. Do these scenarios sound familiar? Jesus' parable touches us very deeply - in the core of our being. Whether we are the younger prodigal son or the older obedient son, our forgiving Father comes out to meet us where we are., even as the father in the parable came out to meet both of his sons. Whether we have sinned against our Father openly and publicly, or secretly in our heart, He is more than ready to receive us back again. Can we share in our Father's joy? Can we join in his celebration? This is the discipline of celebration: to leave the past behind and see one another as God sees us. Paul the apostle describes this in today's second Scripture reading: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ... For our sake God made him [Jesus} to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:16-17, 21).
Friends in Christ, we are that new creation through Jesus' cleansing blood. God calls us to celebrate his amazing grace in our lives here on earth, and in so doing we are given a glimpse of heaven. May God help us to exercise this discipline of celebration for Jesus' sake. Amen.