Today is known as the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, but it might also be called the Sunday of the Repentant Son. Children, this is the Sunday when we remember a young man who said he was sorry and wished to change the way he was behaving and relating to other people. He had run away from home and wasted a lot of money that his father had given him, but then he repents. He is genuinely sorry for how he has lived so far and admits he was wrong and changes his behaviour. Those words that we have just heard about this young man in the Gospel of St Luke, Chapter 15, are spoken from the heart to his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.” However, the father’s response is to welcome his younger son home and to rejoice because this son “was dead and is [now] alive, was lost and is [now] found.”
The Church has placed this Sunday just before the Sunday of Meat Fare when we begin to fast from eating meat in preparation for Lent. Today we are the prodigal sons and daughters of the Lord. We are each being asked, just like the Prodigal Son, to change how we live, to change what we eat, to change how we relate to God and to other people, to recognise that we each have within us the ability to change how we live with the help of the Lord.
Metropolitan Kallistos has pointed out, and I quote: “Repentance is the door through which we enter Lent, the starting-point of our journey to Pascha. And to repent signifies far more than self-pity or futile regret over things done in the past. The Greek term metanoia means ‘change of mind’: to repent is to be renewed, to be transformed in our inward viewpoint, to attain a fresh way of looking at our relationship to God and to others.”
I think those words from Metropolitan Kallistos express very well indeed my own purpose for the next few months as I prepare for Pascha on April 16 —to lay aside any regrets about the past, “to be renewed, to be transformed in [my] inward viewpoint, to attain a fresh way of looking at [my] relationship to God and to [you].” I invite each of you—children, teenagers and adults—three different ways of experiencing life—to join me in that search to reach out to the Lord and to find “a fresh way of looking at our relationships to God and to [each other].” We each have journeys of learning to make—learning about God and learning about ourselves.
How can we do this? It’s not going to be easy to change. It’s never easy to change. Old habits tend to be repeated and to set our personalities into a fear that change is not possible. We suspect that our present way of living will continue for the next few months. After all, I and perhaps many of us have enough problems just keeping up with the present, much less trying to change my (and our) relationship to God and to others. So what can we do to remove our inertia—to remove that tendency to not want to move or act or think in such a way that real spiritual change becomes a reality for each of us?
The Repentant Son, starving among the pigs in a foreign land, gives us a clear path to follow. He considers his situation, and he says to himself and to God, “I will rise up and go to my father.” That’s the first step. We have to be honest with ourselves and consider our own situations. Why are we eating so much, especially sweet food (that I like very much)? What is stopping us from spending more time in prayer? Why can’t we come earlier to the Divine Liturgy and be prepared to receive Holy Communion as a member of our church community? We have to be honest with ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us—sinners who wish to be repentant, sinners who have the God-given ability to be repentant of their past sins, to confess and to reach out to find peace with the Lord and with others.
I can’t do that on my own. None of us can. We have to take the advice of St Paul in his Letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, verses 6 and 7: “Let your requests be known to God” and then “the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in [unity with] Christ Jesus.” Children, teenagers, adults—it’s OK to ask God for what we think we need. If God doesn’t think we need what we are asking for, I can assure you from many years of experience, that God will not give me or you what we ask for if He decides it’s not good for us. But we can “let [our] requests be known to God;” and He will listen, whether or not he gives us exactly what we are asking for.
So, once we are honest with ourselves and trust God enough to ask Him for what we want, we can be confident that God loves us. That’s the key: God loves each of us here today and those of our extended families who are not here. God loves us however young or old we are, whatever the sins for which we are asking God for forgiveness, whatever our previous church attendance has been. Once we experience that love of God then we receive the power to love God back and to love other people.
In July 1536 Thomas More made a final confession before being beheaded in the Tower of London. In the book, Two Thousand Years of Prayer, Michael Counsell presents that prayer in modern English. The focus is on repentance. God’s love reaches out to each of us, whatever the period of history or the particular culture or situation in which God expresses that love. Thomas More prayed, and I quote:
Good and gracious Lord, as Thou gives me grace to acknowledge my sins, so give me grace in both word and heart to repent those sins and utterly forsake them. And forgive me those sins which my pride blinds me from discerning. Glorious God, give me Thy grace to turn my back on the things of this world, and to fix my heart solely on Thee. Give me Thy grace to amend my life, so that I can approach death without resentment, knowing that in Thee is the gateway to eternal [life]. Glorious God, take from me all sinful fear, all sinful sorrow and self-pity…. Instead give me [only] such fear, such sorrow, such pity … as may be profitable for my soul. Good Lord, give me this grace … to find strength in [You] … [as you found strength] on the Mount of Olives before Thy … passion. Almighty God, take from me all desire for worldly praise and all emotions of anger and revenge. Give me a humble, lowly, quiet, peaceable, patient, generous, kind, tender and compassionate mind. Grant me, good Lord, a full faith, a firm hope and a fervent love, that I may desire only that which gives Thee pleasure and conforms to Thy will. And above all, look upon me with Thy love….
Just as God looked on both the Repentant Son in the Gospel of St Luke and on Thomas More with His love because they each reached out to serve Him, so He looks on each of us with love when we decide to “rise up and go to Him.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.