Furthermore, we should note that, against the grain of some post-Augustinian liturgies, the church is not instructed by its Lord to approach its Father with “Sorry” as its first word. Even the Prodigal Son began his speech with “Father.” There is, to be sure, an appropriate place for penitence, both for communities and individuals. But the normal Christian approach to the Creator God is the unfettered and delighted “Father.” There is a time for penitence, but its location within the Lord’s Prayer suggests that it should not take pride of place in regular liturgical worship.
‘Ah, but’, someone will say, ‘that sounds very arrogant. It sounds cocksure, almost triumphalist.’ Well, there is a note of triumph there, and if you try to take that away you will pull the heart of the gospel out with it. But actually it is the least arrogant, least cocksure thing of all. When St Aidan gave a beggar the horse the king had given him, was the beggar arrogant to ride off on it? Was he not simply celebrating the astonishing generosity of the saint? When the prodigal son put the ring on his finger and the shoes on his feet, was he being arrogant when he allowed his father’s lavish generosity to take its course? Would it not have been far more arrogant, far more clinging to one’s own inverted dignity as a ‘very humble’ penitent, to insist that he should be allowed to wear sackcloth and ashes for a week or two until he’d had time to adjust to the father’s house? No: the complaint about the prodigal’s arrogance, I fear, comes not from the father, but from  the older brother. We should beware lest that syndrome destroy our delight in the gospel of the free grace of God. We mustn’t let the upside-down arrogance of those who are too proud to receive free grace prevent us from hearing and receiving the best news in the world.
I think there are at least two things going on there. From one point of view, of course, there is always the tension between the very earliest members of a movement, and then the really bright guy who comes in a bit later and threatens to take it over. There’s a sense of, who do you think you are, we were here first, and what’s more you were a rat. You may be a converted rat, but we’re still not totally happy with you. That’s a very natural human reaction, but I think, in addition to that, there’s the sense that Paul has this astonishing mind. I mean, he is one of the great minds of the Western world. I cut my teeth on Plato and Aristotle—and Paul ranks with people of that caliber. And to be honest, Peter and James and John and the boys—you know, they’re good guys, but they’re not in the same league. Whoever wrote the fourth gospel, if that was John the apostle, then he certainly is in the same league, though with a very different style. But I suspect in most cases that Paul was just intellectually head and shoulders above them. Now—sorry, I said there were two things. That’s two, now here’s a third. Paul, with this very sharp, quick mind grasped from very, very early on that though Christianity is and remains ineradicably Jewish, it is for all people equally. Paul had grasped that and was implementing it at a time when many of them were still so aware of the pressure on Jews to conform to paganism, etc., that any going away from the food laws, circumcision, the Sabbath, was just rank disloyalty. How could you possibly do that? Paul had the intellectual and moral courage to say, you know, this is what the crucifixion of Jesus means, so we’ve got to get on and do it. And they hadn’t thought their way round that circle at that point. And so he’s out ahead of them saying, “Come on chaps, it’s all right,” and they’re saying, “No, but this is disloyalty, our Jewish friends and neighbors will be very cross with us if we do that.” And in a sense, they were right; but in a more important sense he was right.