Once there was a father who had two sons. The first-born son was dutiful, took the burden of responsibility that he felt upon his shoulders most seriously. As is so often the way with eldest children, he was not much given to celebrating life, and, truth-be-told, struggled with those who did. Working alongside him, his father would from time to time speak words of affirmation; but they felt more like a wound, because he could never live up to his own expectations. At the end of the day, his father would encourage him in to the circle sat around the fire, telling stories in the darkness; but he preferred his own company, or told himself as much.
The younger son was wild and free. From childhood, he had filled the estate with laughter and the slap of running feet. Both sons, in different ways, felt constrained by the boundary wall that marked their home – and they were meant to. Home is where we start out from, and return to; it is not the wideness of the world. But while the older brother conformed himself to that constraint, the younger son kicked against the walls until they broke and he burst free. Out, out he went, having secured his share of their father’s fortune, seed-money to seek a fortune of his own. He travelled to a far country, where he fell in with a crowd of other run-aways, and there he squandered his father’s wealth with revellers and gamblers, with prostitutes and conspirators. What his older brother would say, if he could see him now! And what would knowing do to his dear father?
The money – as I’m sure you can imagine – soon ran out, as money has a want to do; and with it, most of his new-found friends ran out on him too, except those so lost they had nowhere else to run. And then, of course, he took an inevitable beating, from those who prey over the weak, who refused to believe that there was nothing else to take from him, if he was who he claimed to be.
Then he set out for home. There was quite literally nowhere else to go. The journey took him forty days. Along the way, he had several adventures. He met several old friends who no longer even recognised him, at least not a first. With each encounter, each revelation, he came to himself – not the young man who had left home, but the man prepared to come home, his true self exposed.
At last, he arrived – his father running beyond the boundary to meet him. His brother, on the other hand, refused to recognise him at all. He could not, for he had never really recognised his own surroundings – his father, his home, his own self.
Why did the father embrace his lost son, I ask? Because he loved him, you reply. Yes, he did; but that is not the reason: after all, he loved his elder son just as much. No, the father embraced his younger son because he himself had gone on a similar journey long before. He had descended from heaven onto Mount Sinai, to befriend a broken rabble of outcasts; had descended even further, to tabernacle in their rebellious midst; and had then ascended Mount Zion, from where he established a wounded-but-healed people to bless all the surrounding wounded peoples from one horizon to the other, to the ends of the earth. The way home is down, down, up. Earth, hell, heaven.
The ascension is Jesus’ homecoming. It marks the end of a first journey, which takes us away from home in order to return home recognising home for the first time. Seeing home as we were never able to see it before. Those who have never left home can never see home in this way. And it is the beginning of a second journey – still unfolding – which sees Jesus widen the family to include all of humanity.
This is a journey we are called to walk too, as we follow after Jesus, as he does what the Father has done. We are called to return home; having first travelled far from home. That is why Adam and Eve always had to leave the Garden (and they had to be tricked into it, because few of us want to leave the security and comfort and provision of home – though in this we see another deep truth: that God transforms what was done with evil intent for good, includes the fall from grace in the triumph of grace). That is why scientists tell us that all matter is expanding outwards from a moment, to which all matter will eventually contract back: for all things come from God and will return to God.
I experienced something of this Eastertide, when we went up to Scotland to see my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, nephew and niece, and my brother. I left Scotland twenty-four years ago, and have never missed it. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but that is not quite the same thing. This visit, it felt like coming home. Not that I want, or need, to move to live in Scotland – I know that we are called to England – but that I had come home. That I am free to leave again, because it will always be there, in a way I had never known it before. A twenty-four year journey.
Our home is in God. This is where we start out from, and where we return to. Ascension-tide – from now until Pentecost – is a gift, an annual opportunity, to practice coming home. To learn how to return home, together. A time to tell stories of home, to awaken dreams, to stir up hope. A time to stumble towards love, and a time to be transformed more fully into our true selves as we live in the tension between Jesus’ departing and his return.