There’s a lot of murmuring disapproval (Luke 15.2 REV) around at the moment. I murmur disapproval (perhaps something stronger) about bishops and about those Christians, straight and LGBTI, who themselves disapprove of gay marriage and of gay people who allow themselves sexual pleasure and intimacy. In turn they disapprove of me as a Christian priest and activist who welcomes equal marriage and derides the formal stance of the House of Bishops.
The murmuring disapproval in Luke 15 came from the Pharisees and scribes because tax collectors and sinners were crowding in to listen to Jesus. Jesus not only attracted them to listen eagerly, he welcomed them and ate with them.
Jesus responded to their disapproval with a parable about the one lost sheep out of the hundred and the woman who lost one of her ten silver coins, and then (or at least, this is how Luke has edited his material) with a parable about a man with an estate who had two sons – best known as the parable of the prodigal son.
This wasn’t a one off occasion – the Pharisees and scribes were always murmuring disapproval of the open welcome Jesus gave to tax collectors and sinners and others thought to be unworthy of attention. Jesus doesn’t respond directly to their murmurs, doesn’t directly criticise them, but tells them parables which reveal his awareness of the nature of God and God’s relationship with creation and with humanity. He speaks of joy in heaven and joy among the angels.
And he speaks of a father whose son has squandered his inheritance in dissolute living and ends up starving and jealous of the pigs he is looking after. The son comes to his senses and with great courage decides to return home and risk the wrath of his father.
When he was still a long way off his father saw him and his heart went out to him. He ran to meet him, flung his arms round him, and kissed him. He ordered the best robe to be brought, a ring for his finger, sandals for his feet, and celebrated his return with a lavish feast. There was music and dancing.
Well, you know how the crabby, jealous elder son reacted. And how the father assumed his elder son knew, because he was living with him on the estate, that everything he needed was already available for him. But the elder son wasn’t aware of what he already had.
Jesus knew. Jesus knew in the core of his being that everything he and any other human being needed was lavishly available right now – not wealth and possessions but infinite, unconditional love from the Father who is always already running towards us, arms spread wide in welcome. Jesus knows this is true of God, and knows this unadulterated, unconditional love of God transcends everything else. Feeling the unconditional love of God in our hearts and souls and guts, in the core of our being, transforms us.
As a priest and psychotherapist I know this to be true from my own experience.
If you sit with someone, quietly holding them in your gaze, and say to them, God loves you, unconditionally and infinitely and tenderly. God loves you absolutely right now, as you are, all of you, all the pain and guilt, memories and grief, sadness and loss, God loves absolutely everything about yhou and every part of you.
Still held in your gaze – You are tenderly, generously, infinitely loved. God sees to the core of your being, sees your goodness and beauty, God yearns for you, opens God’s heart to your heart.
I see the person held in my gaze melt, weep, touched to the core of their being, where disbelief and aching pain is greatest and where the need to be welcomed unconditionally in love is greatest.
This transforming, intimate, personal message is the truth about Jesus and God and the core and heart of the Gospel.
It should be the core of all our worship and teaching and praying, the core of worship every Sunday and at every service and meeting. Praise is good, but there is something far more valuable, God’s infinite, unconditional love. This is the message all human beings yearn to hear – and don’t hear – either because it isn’t proclaimed or because their disbelief in their own innate goodness and love is too great.
I rarely hear the good news of God’s unconditional love preached or proclaimed in worship.
The core Gospel message is submerged beneath layers of accretions. Some of the accretions add value and are healthy. But there are many accretions to the message of Jesus that are decidedly unhealthy for human flourishing and for the opening of hearts to come to a confident, responsive trust in God’s unconditional love which is the ultimate transformative experience.