God’s prodigal love

About a dozen church members met in the basement room of friends of ours to watch the movie The Passion of Christ. It is a two-hour long movie produced by Mel Gibson, which deals with the last few days of Jesus’ life, especially with his death on the cross. It was not easy to watch this movie. The impact of the slow process of being tortured, of having to carry a heavy cross while being whipped, and the actual being nailed to the cross and hanging there for a long time seemed unbelievably oppressive. The movie ended with the death of Jesus.

Afterwards, the group of friends just sat there for maybe 10 minutes before the silence was broken. And that silence was appropriate and reverent. Eventually we drifted into reliving some of our experiences while watching the movie. We realized that our observance of Good Friday had up to this time been generally too lighthearted. We know that the death of Jesus on the cross was for him the ultimate experience of suffering, but to what extent do we allow ourselves to empathize with Christ as he experienced the punishment for our sins?

The next day was Sunday, two weeks before Easter. Our young pastor was going to preach on “Prodigally.” (Trust him to use an adverb to keep us guessing.) But before he got started, he stretched out his arm and pointed to three men sitting at the front in their wheelchairs. One of these men was constantly making an unwelcome noise that could clearly be heard throughout the church hall. As our pastor pointed to where the noise came from, he announced with a strong voice, “That is the voice of Jesus.” Then he picked up his Bible and read the passage he would preach on.

The heading over the passage says that part of the chapter is about the prodigal son. We tend to ignore the fact that “prodigal” means “recklessly extravagant” rather than “recklessly wasteful.” But according to our pastor, the passage is especially about the Father’s prodigal love, which was almost wastefully poured out over both sons.

One thing I know happened to the congregation after our pastor’s pre-sermon announcement; they accepted the constant interruptions from the one man in the front with a lot of grace. Personally I know that the uninterrupted string of groaning that lasted for the rest of the service and that might have annoyed me and others under normal circumstances lost their sting. The sermon came through with uninterrupted grace and power. Several of us remarked afterwards that the pastor’s sermon had reflected unusual enthusiasm and insight. And we parishioners . . . we had benefitted from the annoyance that had been translated into acceptance.

Divine interruption
I found it surprising that what happened Saturday evening as we had exposed ourselves to an unvarnished and stark experience of the crucifixion drama prepared us well for Sunday morning’s picture of God’s prodigal love for a fallen creation. In both cases we were corrected in our response to what we experienced. In fact, we had been taught to diminish the importance of our own efforts to make sense of unconditional suffering as well as unconditional love. Good Friday and Easter both paint the colours of a divine interruption into our feeble attempts to help solve the problems created by sin. And all we had to do was override the tendency in our hearts to want to solve at least partly the struggles that continue to plague us as we seek to free ourselves from suffering and death. Christ took care of the suffering and the dying as he opened the way for us to live triumphantly out of the resurrection. We don’t need to linger in whatever our flaws and sins heap on us. We are free to immerse ourselves in the joy of salvation, even when a broken young man makes disturbing noises right up to the last Amen!

  • Bert Witvoet is a former educator and editor of various magazines, including the Christian Courier, who lives with his wife, Alice, in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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