St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’
The discovery that his father could love his wayward brother as much as he could love him, the upright and loyal son, was a profound shock.
.........It always is!
The conventional, law abiding citizen lives by the expectation that his decency will be noticed and rewarded. Such a view of life is fuelled by the belief that God, society, the family should prefer nice people; but people with such attitudes to life are fuelled too by the shocking discovery that both the world and God seem to reward the risk-takers, the adventurous and the unconventional.
But the sense of disappointment such people and their communities feel are exacerbated by the constant feeling that they are at best ignored by the advantaged, mobile, courageous and at worst are trampled on by them. To add insult to injury the God who is thought to reward uprightness, is now shown to be neither White, nor a Christian!
And suddenly we realise that today the story of the two brothers would be a story of many brothers – each with differing expectations of the father. That forgiving, grace-filled embrace would need multiple arms to do justice to the various perceptions represented in this road:
And when the media tell them that these exotic migrants are taking their housing, and in jobs which their grandchildren can't have, and are using their health service for free, their resentment is palpable. Faced with the bewildering kaleidoscopic versatility of this mini-cosmos here, it is no surprise that the press and voices of reaction have had and continue to have active breeding grounds for racism and xenophobia.
But it is our delight and our awesome responsibility to declare that this road with its vitality, vibrancy and rich cultural diversity is a picture of the world writ small and it is God's world; here the favoured and unfavoured; the privileged and the forgotten; people in the prime of life and those on the cusp of death, those with world horizons and those with the narrowest horizon are all celebrated as daughters and sons of God.
Thus the image of God with arms outstretched to extend a warm embrace to the outrageous and unwise as well as the prudent and careful is powerful. It helps us focus our minds on the discovery that is one of those recurring surprises, like the delights of the daffodil, that God is greater than any boundaries we impose upon her.
The God discovered in Christ is disturbing and discomforting because those arms are not just extended to embrace me, but you as well! and not just you and me and our friends but also people whom we might not think really deserve that embrace.
So the image of the God as seen in the father of the returning son and his indignant conventional brother comes close to the image of God with arms outstretched, helpless before the power of the occupier, Pilate. This God we celebrate as affirming and forgiving is also the God who in Christ stood helpless before Pilate, and was crucified because truth and love were and are worth dying for.
The embrace extends therefore to this whole road – a truly cosmopolitan microcosm. And in this road where the interface between the hopeful and hopeless is a reality, we know that it is both a political and theological issue.
The embrace of the Father, and the open arms of Christ crucified are political statements, infinitely more powerful than arguments, or armies and bombs for that matter.
This road therefore asks us: Can we truly come to terms with the God who is worshipped in so many diverse languages, who is called upon with so many different names; who to some is all-powerful, and to others is vulnerable and is seen to die?
Maybe we can only answer the questions by reconsidering what we are as a church, and living the answer. We all understand the cost of the debate where arguments are overstated, and become conflictual - conflicts which are represented in this road too. So could it be that we say less, and simply do it and be it?
If the church is the embodiment of the outstretched arms of the One on the cross, it is also the embodiment of God with the outstretched arms of the grace-filled father. Gareth Dyer today is at the other end of the road, worshipping with Withington, a church which has worshippers from every continent and, like St Peter's, serving people from most points on the spectrums I have drawn earlier.
The challenge for the church is through all the chaplaincies here in HE, the work in the hospital by all those engaged in chaplaincy, the work that the Methodist and other churches are doing in Fallowfield and Rusholme to empower local people, the quiet engagement in inter-faith exploration is to gently but consistently serve the open-armed, gracious, love centred God by all that we are.
Learning to say less, and act more; facing in ourselves the vulnerability of the welcoming embrace which says more than words ever can is the only gift we have to give to a world torn apart by the clamour of words turned into swords.
The world does not need to hear what we believe, it needs to see how we live; it cares not a jot what narrow confine of dogma we hold, what it can celebrate is a community which believes in the grace which welcomes both good and bad, and has no boundaries and simply invites all to share in a generous deed of open handed loving and sharing.
I finish with one of Antony de Mello's stories: The World Religions Fair (adapted) –
I took my friend to The World Fair of Religions. Not a trade fair; the competition here was far more intense.
We came to the Jewish display stands: here we saw that God is the One true God, who chose his people the Jews. No people are as Chosen as they.
We then moved onto the Islamic stand. Here they proclaimed that God was All Merciful, and that Mohammed was his chosen prophet. Theirs was the one way to perfection.
Then we came to the Christian stand. Here God was proclaimed as the God of Love, whose only Son Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Follow him, we were told, or go to eternal damnation.
So as we left I said to my friend: ‘so what do you think of God?’
‘I think he is cruel, vindictive and divisive.’
When I got home I said to God: ‘you have had to deal with this for centuries, how do you put up with it?’
‘Oh I don't’, said God, ‘in fact you wouldn't see me inside that fair.’
Maybe this road is that world fair, and we can together from our two ends of it turn it into a place where the God of all is celebrated as Parent of all. So that both may come known as the places and people where God is truly the God of grace.