There are few words in our language as warm and cuddly as Dogma. Doesn’t that word just feel like a linguistic hug? On the contrary, most of us recoil when we hear it. Our defenses go up. Instead of a hug it sounds like someone is trying to put us in a linguistic strait jacket. But the original meaning of dogma was “that which seems good.”
Of course, the word dogma takes on different meanings in different contexts. In the Church in means “a religious truth established by Divine Revelation and defined by the Church.” In other words, a “definitive teaching” or a core belief that defines who we are. The Episcopal Church has just two dogmas. You may not know them as dogma per se, but they will not surprise you.
One is the Trinity; Father Son and Holy Spirit. The other is the dual nature of Christ as fully human and fully divine, and that is a helpful reference as we approach today’s readings. That dogma was formally articulated by the Church in 451AD at the council of Chalcedon, over 400 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry and Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.
This isn’t some philosophical point cooked up to win a debate. It is a clarification of the witness of the Apostles themselves. When we pray “One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” in the Nicene Creed we are affirming our acceptance of the Apostles’ witness to Jesus around which the Church formed.
The Apostles witnessed this reconciliation of heaven and earth in the person of Jesus, his human and divine natures, as distinct yet seamlessly true in his person. They had to reconcile their experience of Jesus as fully human, who walked and talked with them, ate, got tired and slept, with the fully divine Jesus they encountered after his Resurrection and that they witnessed at his Ascension. They had to reconcile the fact of Jesus with everything they knew about God.
Paul knew about the humanity of Jesus and he was confronted with his divinity on the Road to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him. That encounter forced him to rethink everything he knew about God from his extensive training in the Hebrew scriptures and his experience in prayer and worship as a devout Jew. He finds this reconciliation of Heaven and Earth in Jesus to be the very heart of the Gospel, the Good News of what God is doing in the world and in each individual. Jesus is working this ministry of reconciliation in and through each of us.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the third of four parables Jesus uses to answer the Pharisees and Scribes who object to him eating with sinners. The first two parables are the lost coin and lost sheep, each of which illustrates how God pursues the lost. The Prodigal Son illustrates God’s patience in waiting for people like you and me to make the turn toward him and the joy that brings to God and to all of heaven.
We should see our own sin and repentance in this way. This ministry of reconciliation of Heaven and Earth that we see in the person of Jesus and active in the entirety of creation is also intensely personal. Just as the Kingdom of God has begun but is not yet complete in the world, so it is with us as individuals.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? Who is willing to yield fundamental control of every aspect of one’s very life to a God we cannot see, a Son proclaimed by witnesses 2,000 years ago and a Holy Spirit whose activity is at once apparent yet discerned through faith?
We see glimpses of the Kingdom and we see constant reminders of the “not yet.” We witness failure after failure in all our structures – business, government, families, the church and in ourselves. Yet something draws us to desire good, to pursue it at every level and to its perfect end.
Jesus said, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” This shapes how we should understand and view our repentance. There is a general turn toward Christ, and then there are the working out of the changes he elicits as he perfects us over time.
If you want to change the world, change your community, change your workplace, change your family – start with you. Attend to the line between good and evil in your own heart. Pick one thing you think God would like to change about you and think about how it might change. Prayer, yes. Habits and activities, yes. What you read. What you watch on TV or where you go online. Pick one, just one, and commit yourself to prayer, study and discipline on it. Ask for God’s help continuously. Once you’ve mastered that one, move on to the next.
You have no idea the power you have to change the world around you. As you submit to God he will use you to change the environment around you, as yeast changes a batch of dough.
And at every step towards Him, your Father is standing at the top of the road, rejoicing that you are indeed coming home, step by fitful step, knees scraped and bloodied. He’s not concerned with the mud and the stench of the pig sty you’ve been in. He’s concerned that you are coming home – to Him.
We are fully human. He’s calling us to become as Jesus is – fully divine.