Is the church a hospital for sick and broken people – or a country club for people who think they are righteous? If the church is not a safe haven for the shattered, addicted and rejected, then who are we attracting?
In the story of the Prodigal Son, a younger brother is clearly living in egregious sin (Luke 15). He is ultimately welcomed back by his father, while his elder brother, who claims to have done everything his father requires, cannot fathom Dad allowing his kid brother back into the family. The elder brother is even more outraged that the father would throw an extravagant party for his youngest son. The elder brother would not even acknowledge this person as his brother, and instead indignantly asks his father, “But when this son of yours, who has squandered your property on prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!?” In this parable, Jesus is directing His attention to the Pharisees – the religious leaders, moral insiders, politically connected, power hungry, and monetarily dominating people of His day. So, let’s consider who the church is – and is not – called to be.
As Tim Keller says in The Prodigal God, “Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of His day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders [SINNERS] Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches…We tend to draw the conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The [immoral], broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing: If the preaching of our ministers and practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more fullof elder brothers than we’d like to think.”
So, what is the church anyway? Or, better asked, WHO is the church? The church is not a building or an institution; rather, the church is a family of believers who worship Christ as our Lord and Savior. Often the concept of the church as “family” initiates thoughts of pain and despair since many of us have come from broken homes or have been hurt by the church in some way. Who wants to be in this kind of family, RIGHT?!?
Well, fortunately for us, the story is not about us, and we are invited into a new family. After all, we are a new creation (II Corinthians 5:17). The grand story of redemption – the very Word of the Creator God – is a love story about Him and His only begotten Son, who chose to love totally sinful people by taking on flesh and condescending to this world. The story does not culminate in Jesus’ excruciating death nailed to a tree; rather, the pinnacle of God’s story occurs when Jesus defeats death, Satan’s last attack on God’s people. Jesus is raised from the dead and ascends to His throne, from which He now rules Earth as His footstool (Isaiah 66:1, Matthew 5:35, Acts 7:49).
After Jesus takes His seat on the throne in Heaven, the cosmos is never the same. His people are never the same. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God calls us to be different. To act, think, and love – differently! The Church is the very place this difference should be glaringly obvious. Since there is no temptation uncommon to the believer (1 Corinthians 10:13), and we are all totally depraved without Christ, how can we judge one another for our sins and struggles? Our Father, in His great wisdom and counterintuitive narrative, often moves through other broken believers to usher redemption into our lives. Therefore, there is no reason to hide our sin and even less reason to look down on those who are struggling. Rather, Jesus calls us to celebrate when one confesses sin and longs to be restored. Isn’t this the very point of Jesus’ parable?
Consider this: The story of the Prodigal Son, as we have come to know it, was called “the story of two brothers” by Jesus. By telling this parable, Jesus was not only focused on the heartwarming story of the younger brother returning home after bingeing on wild parties and prostitutes. Jesus intently focuses on the loving forgiveness of the father. By doing so, He also sought to rebuke the religious elite of His day by comparing them to the elder brother in their judgmental and self-righteous attitudes. The Pharisees, Jesus’ intended audience, were not humbled by this story. Instead, they were thunderstruck and offended – even infuriated. Jesus’ purpose in this parable is two-fold: To warm our hearts to know we are his children, but even more to shatter our perception of who we think He is versus who He reveals Himself to be. Rather than a God who consistently judges us for our failures, our Father poured out His wrath on His Son so He could restore and redeem us. As those bearing the name of Christ, we are called to transparency, repentance, forgiveness and encouragement. If we have truly experienced the love and grace of our Father, how can we – the Church – be anything less?