To the people of God of the Archdiocese of Brisbane,
For the first time I speak to you as Archbishop, and I do so at Pentecost as we celebrate the birth of the Church when the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, was breathed into a corpse and brought to life the Body of Christ, the Church. The events of Easter, which come to their climax at Pentecost, overturn all human imaginings of God. They show the real God to be far stranger and more wonderful than we had ever thought. So at the end of the fifty days of the Easter festival, I want to speak to you of where the Christian life begins. I want to speak to you of grace.
People at times imagine the Christian life as something like this: there’s a great high mountain, and we are at the foot of the mountain. Enthroned on the summit, shrouded in mists of majesty, there is God; and our task is to get from the foot of the mountain to the summit where, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine” (25:6). We are made for the feast, so we have to get to the summit somehow. So off we go, struggling up the slopes, leaping crevices, falling and rising in an effort that costs us almost everything. But eventually we arrive at the summit, bruised and battered and bloodied and broken. We fall exhausted at the feet of God. He takes one look at us and says, “Not good enough!” And with the flick of a finger, God sends us tumbling back to the foot of the mountain in a cosmic game of “Snakes and Ladders”. There we lie – having to begin all over again to do something we know we can never do. We will never be able to present ourselves to God in a way that makes us acceptable – and we know it.
On this account, the Christian life is a doomed response to a malicious God who asks us to do what we can never do. It’s an exercise in total frustration – trying to make ourselves acceptable, trying to prove ourselves to God, trying to earn the divine love. It’s as if God wants only the good part of us, the part that is nice and presentable. But we know that there are other parts that aren’t nice and presentable. These we have to hide, certainly from other people but most especially from God.
Is that the truth of the Christian life? No. That version of the Christian life, however widespread, is a master-stroke of evil. It’s what the Church has traditionally called heresy, and its chief proponent was a Welsh monk called Pelagius who said that we have to earn our salvation and that we can. Wrong. The fact is that we can’t: that’s the bad news. But the good news is that we don’t have to.
So what is the truth of the Christian life as Easter reveals it? There is a high mountain, God is on the summit preparing the feast, and we do have to get to the top to enjoy the feast for which we were created. But the truth turns things on their head. We don’t have to climb the mountain, because God is the one who comes down to us in Jesus. We’re not the ones bruised and battered and bloodied and broken. God is – as we see whenever look at Jesus on the Cross. He is God coming down to get us, to carry us to the summit where he wants to sit us down at the feast and wait on us.
But the plot thickens. When God comes down to us in Jesus, we prefer to run away – saying as we do, “No thanks, I can do it by myself”. We would rather die in our own way than live in God’s way. We would rather starve at the foot of the mountain than allow God to carry us to the feast on the summit. That’s the underlying attitude that becomes sin in our life. But God is not so easily put off, because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, comes looking for the run-away sheep. When he finds them, he puts them on his shoulders and carries them up the mountain where they can enjoy the restful waters and the fresh green pastures of the feast. And all of this is done out of the free and extravagant love than we call “grace”, which is the very heart of the Christian life.
This Pentecost Sunday we begin what we’re calling the Year of Grace. This will be like a time of retreat for the whole Church in Australia – a time to refocus on what really matters, a time to rediscover the heart of the Christian life. We can’t earn the almost incredible love of God; but we don’t have to. It’s given to the unworthy as a free gift. All they have to do is accept it. But that can be harder than it sounds, given our tendency to insist that we can do it all ourselves.
The parable of the Prodigal Son says it all (Luke 15:11-32). At first glance, the two brothers seem like chalk and cheese. But in fact they are pathetically alike. The younger boy runs off with the money, looking for the freedom which he’s right to seek. But he looks for the right thing in the wrong place, and he ends up in a pig-sty. In looking for freedom where it can’t be found, he ends up a slave. Then he decides to go back to his father, preparing his speech carefully, saying that he’s unworthy to be called “son” and that he should be treated as a “slave” who will now earn his father’s love. He practices his speech all the way home till he’s got it word-perfect. When his father rushes to meet him, the boy begins his prepared speech, but crucially he never finishes it. As soon as he says that he’s no longer worthy to be called son, his father cuts him short and says, “Give him everything that belongs to a son, however badly he’s behaved”. The father says effectively, “Stop! You don’t have to earn my love. You are son because you are son because you are son. You simply have to accept my love and live accordingly”.
The older son has always been the good boy. Coming in from work in the field, he hears the sound of the feast. When told that his brother has come back, he’s angry. So the father comes out a second time to one of his sons. The older boy says that he’s slaved all these years, that he’s really earned his father’s love. And now this happens! The fatted calf is killed for the unworthy son, not for the worthy son. This is where the two boys are pathetically alike. They are both locked in the pig-sty of “worthiness”, trying to prove that they are worthy of their father’s love. Both have to leave the pig-sty behind and enter a whole new world of grace – the unconditional love given freely to those who are not worthy and never can be.
The test for the younger son will be whether he abuses the new freedom given him to do the same all over again: has there been any real change of heart or will he simply look for his next opportunity? The test for the older son will be whether he comes into the party: will he stay outside locked in a world of resentment or come to the feast? We don’t know how the story ends for either of them. But their story is yours and mine; and we have to finish it in our own way. The Year of Grace is a time for a change of heart, a time to leave behind the pig-sty of “worthiness” and to come to the feast as daughters and sons of the Father. It’s a time to start afresh from Christ.
To help us do that, many things are planned in the Archdiocese, and I urge you to enter joyfully and generously into all that is planned. We need to become a more missionary Church, and the energy for that can come only from a deeper encounter with Jesus crucified and risen, whose face we will contemplate anew through the Year of Grace. This is no time to circle the wagons in some supposedly self-protective manoeuvre or to indulge in a kind of pastoral planning that is really palliative care. No: this is a time to roll the wagons out into new territory in ways we’ve never done before. That will take imagination, courage and, above all, faith. It will mean letting go of old baggage as we set out, like Abraham, on a new journey. That’s what the Year of Grace is all about.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane
May 27, 2012