After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1.9.
Many years ago now I was privileged to hear Ken Blue from San Diego, California, give a series of talks on the parable of the Prodigal Son at Northern Light – a Christian Summer Camp in the north of England. After the last of the sessions I was chatting to him and I rather hesitantly raised a question that had been niggling away at the back of my mind all through the week. “Ken,” I said, “one thing puzzles me. The story of the prodigal son is all about lost sons and daughters returning from the far country to the Father; but we know that, in reality, we – the lost – don’t just ‘come to our senses’ and make our own way back. We are found and taken back to the Father by Jesus. But the parable doesn’t reflect that. I mean – where is Jesus in the parable?” “Oh,” said Ken, “That’s easy. Jesus IS the prodigal son, of course.” And then he walked away … and left me to spend the rest of my life figuring out the implications of what he had just said.
My thoughts to date are these. When Jesus left heaven and became incarnate in human form in the village of Bethlehem around 2,000 years ago, he himself was entering “the far country” where all God’s lost sons and daughters had forever beeen “wasting their substance” and putting themselves “in want”. In the story, the prodigal “joined himself to a citizen of that country” but Jesus came to “join himself” to all the prodigals. He got into the pigsty with them and became one with them. He became not only the “friend of sinners” (Luke 7.34) but also became (in some mystical way) the sinners themselves – even though he himself was without sin. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5.21). All humanity had been “in Adam” but now Jesus so identified with the human race that all humanity became potentially “in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15.22). And after thirty or so years, he made the journey home to the waiting Father and became “the Way” for everyone else (John 14.6). He was the Prodigal in whom, ever afterwards, all other prodigals were, and still are, able to make the journey.
Though C S Lewis never connected Jesus with the Prodigal Son in this way, he did call Jesus “the Perfect Penitent” and his explanation of what he meant was this. Repentance is a word that simply describes “going back to the Father.” However, “going back to the Father” involves surrender, submission and a death of the self that we were/are quite incapable of achieving unless God himself helps us to do so. But how could God help us? He could help us to love by putting some of his love into us; but he could not help us repent by putting some of his repentance in us because he knew nothing about repentance – he had never had to surrender, submit, suffer and die. Until, of course, Jesus came to earth and did just that. Jesus learned repentance – walked the walk of the prodigal back to the Father – and carried repentance back into the Godhead with him so that he can now put a little bit of his repentance in you and me – enough to get us home to the Father too.
Today is Ascension Day – which is to say that today is the day we remember the home-going of Jesus: his return – as the Perfect Prodigal, the Perfect Penitent – back to the Father. He had “come from God” and now he was “returning to God” (John 13.3). He was becoming “the pioneer (trailblazer) and perfecter of faith” who “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12.2). Why? So that all of us could “follow later” (John 13.36).
“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15.20).
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Jesus after he was taken up and the cloud hid him from the disciples’ sight on the Mount of Olives, forty days after his resurrection, you need look no further than this verse in Luke. This was the meeting that the cloud concealed. The greatest embrace in the history of the cosmos. The kiss that has put a smile back on the face of the universe. For from that moment on the stream of prodigals going home to the Father has been unstoppable – and all of us have been welcomed, embraced, kissed, clothed in the best robe and made to sit at the Father’s right hand “in Christ”; that same Christ who, 2,000 or so years ago, made the journey before us on the first Ascension Day.
Thanks be to God!