A. Intro to Passiontide
We call the final two weeks of Lent “Passiontide.” We focus on the Passion or suffering of Jesus. We veil the statues and pictures in the church. As Jesus hid himself from his adversaries in the gospel, so the image of the life-giving crucifix is hidden from us until Good Friday. The holiness of the saints, which results from the Passion, is, likewise, taken from view. We do not say Gloria Patri after the Psalms and canticles during Passiontide. This makes our meditation on the Passion more austere and solemn.
The gospel tells us who Jesus is: “Before Abraham was, I am.” The epistle tells us what he came to do: “By his own blood he entered in once into the Holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” Together, they express the essence of Passiontide. It is an encounter with Jesus the Son of God that reveals our sins and leads us to repentance, forgiveness and new life through the cross.
B. The tension between grace and authority
The lesson highlights the tension between the attraction we feel to God’s grace and the contrary reticence and fear we feel about the authority of Jesus as God. We are drawn to the promise of mercy and forgiveness. But we are made uneasy by the truth that confession is required. “I am” is not a consumer choice.
Martin Thornton describes this as the tension between succor and demand. Succor: “Come to me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you” (Mt. 11:28). Demand: “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:33).
People avoid the demand by attacking the identity of Jesus. Some try to prove that Jesus isn’t who the Bible says he is. The twentieth century saw “the search for the historical Jesus,” who always turned out not to be the biblical one. Some people try to explain that Jesus didn’t really say or mean all the difficult things recorded in the Bible. It is revealing that people always try to explain away the challenging statements of Jesus. No one ever doubts that Jesus said all the things that make us feel good.
Some people object, “How can Jesus be Lord when there is so much suffering in the world?” This is overplayed. After all, the Bible portrays God’s people as a suffering community, gives us Job and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, among other things, and comes to fruition with the Passion of God’s Son. The doctrine of the Fall of Man remains the most plausible explanation of human suffering, and the cross remains the most plausible answer.
C. The reasons people deny Jesus is God
We attack the claim that “before Abraham was, I am” because it threatens our autonomy. If he is truly the Son of God, then we must do what he says to do. It is easier to deny his identity and authority than it is to repent. Most of our intellectual doubts are moral doubts in disguise. We are comfortable with our unfaithful patterns of living and we don’t want to change. So, we offer intellectual objections to avoid the challenge presented by the authority of the Son of God.
A promiscuous culture is threatened by Jesus’ call to sexual purity. It is easier to claim that Jesus is just one great religious voice among many than it is to repent and glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). A wealthy culture is threatened by the claim that Jesus is owner of everything. It is easier to complain about suffering and injustice in the world that it is to repent of our service to mammon and make sure what we do and make glorifies God and is good, and then give to help those in need.
D. The authentic struggle of the life of faith
If we are honest we will admit that we are in the process of becoming obedient to Son of God and his commandments. We have made progress is some areas and are not quite there yet in others. This is the reason we practice spiritual disciplines and observe Lent. We are growing into the people God made us to be in baptism. We “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” when that process will be completed.
However, if we are honest, we will admit that the issue is our weakness and not any ambiguity about who Jesus is and what he requires of us. It is honest when we confess our struggles and pray for God’s grace to help us change and grow. However, it is quite another thing when we try to justify our disobedience by claiming there is some lack of clarity about who Jesus is or what he wants us to do.
E. A good confession
We will only desire God will when we believe it is best for us. We are, generally, most discontented in the very areas of life where have we resisted God’s will the most. We know by experience that our own way isn’t working, but we are determined to stay our course of rebellion nonetheless. God lets us have what we want until we are ready to let him change us.
The central issue is trust. Do we really trust Jesus? Do we really believe that God is good and that what he commands us to do is for our good? Disobedience is distrust. Distrust takes us back to the old conversation in the garden with the serpent (Gen. 3). Did God really say not to do that? He only keeps that from you because he doesn’t want you to have some good thing. It was and is a lie. We will remain captive to our disordered patterns of behavior, and to our fallen state of guilt, shame, fear, and hiding from God, as long we continue to believe it.
We complete our Lenten disciplines by making a good confession. A good confession acknowledges the areas of life where we do not yet say with full conviction, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” In Lent, we ask Jesus to reveal to us what is really going on in our hearts and listen for the answer. In Passiontide, we turn what we have heard into a narrative of confession. The point of confession is not the confession per se. The point is that honesty about ourselves combined with a renewed trust in Jesus opens the door for us to experience the power of his resurrection in new ways.
The good news is that the whole purpose of the authority and sacrifice of Jesus is to lead us through the cross to Easter. As the epistle says, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your consciences from dead works to serve the living God?”
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2018
The Epistle, Galatians 4:21-31 – The Gospel, St. John 6:1-14
The Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. A sacramental perspective on life
A sacrament, by definition, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (BCP 292). This definition is rooted in the principle that the things we see point us to things we can’t see. The creation is a sign that points us to the creator. Jesus, the Son of God, is the sign that reveals the invisible Father. The bread and wine are signs that reveal Jesus.
The church is sacramental. The Bible calls us “the Body of Christ”—the same language that is used of the Sacrament. Each Christian is a sign of the presence of Jesus in the world. Jesus’ standard of judgment will be, “Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). This means that our interactions with each other always have a deeper meaning and larger implications.
Fallen humanity is not able to see the sacramental meaning of life. Fallen humanity sees the creation as just a physical reality, and life in this mortal body in this world as the ultimate thing. This is what the Bible calls living according to the “flesh.”
II. The Gospel and the signs
In today’s gospel, a large crowd was following Jesus. St. John tells us that the people were attracted by “the signs that he performed on those who were diseased.” The word “sign” reflects the sacramental character of the miracles of Jesus. When Jesus turned water into wine, healed the sick, and created bread, these actions pointed to the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, “by whom all things were made.”
In John 6 after the feeding miracle, St. John tells us that the crowd did not understand the signs. They followed Jesus because they saw him as a source of free food and health care. They wanted to make him their ruler so that he would free them from the afflictions of life. They lacked sacramental vision—the ability to see what the signs pointed to.
After the event of today’s gospel, Jesus tried to escape from the crowd. When the people finally caught up with him, Jesus picked a fight with them. He said, “You seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you (6:27).
Jesus contrasted the food he would give with manna God gave to Israel in the Old Testament. “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that a man may eat thereof and not die” (John 6:48-50). God gave the people of Israel miraculous food in the wilderness. But they all died anyway. Jesus will give himself as a kind of food that imparts and sustains eternal life, life that will never die. This is the meaning of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood hath eternal life and I will raise him up at the Last Day” (John 6:54).
III. The union of flesh and spirit
Sacramental food is not merely “spiritual” as opposed to physical food. We were created as a union of matter and spirit. God gave man sacramental food in the beginning, the fruit of the Tree of Life. This food was intended to sustain humans in their union with God. Through sin, the first humans partook of the creation without regard to God’s will, with ingratitude for the life God had given. Their union with God was severed. The result was a loss of sacramental vision. Humanity came to live on a merely physical level. We began to pursue the physical creation as an end in and of itself. We began to pursue the food that perishes. We became idolaters.
By his life and death, Jesus restored us to the union with God that we lost through sin. We no longer live merely “in the flesh.” We live in bodies, but we also live in the Spirit in union with God. Our lives are now sustained by the Bread of Life. The Bread of Life is the same food as the fruit of the Tree of Life. After the first sin, man was forbidden to eat this food (Genesis 3:24). Now, in Christ, this food is accessible to us. We may eat and live.
The feeding of the multitudes reveals the pattern of life for God’s New Creation. Jesus took the loaves and offered them back to God in Thanksgiving. God multiplied the loaves so that they were sufficient to meet the need. This was man’s original priestly vocation; to take the creation that God had given and offer it back to God in thanksgiving. All that man offers to God in thanksgiving is given back to man to use with God’s blessing.
Sin is ingratitude. When we sin we say to God, “I will do as I please with the gifts you have given me.” When we sin we partake of the creation without regard to God’s will, without regard to the deeper meaning of created things and without giving thanks. Our non-Eucharistic partaking lacks the blessing and presence of God. We use the creation wrongly because we are blind to the sacramental meaning of created things. Our lives become disordered and discontented because we live only in the flesh. We are cut off from eternal life. This is the pattern of life from which Christ has saved us.
IV. The Eucharist as the restoration of our priestly vocation
We exercise the priestly vocation to which we have been restored in Christ when we gather around the altar. We offer bread and wine to God. Like the loaves in the feeding, the bread and the wine represent the creation and our participation in it. We offer the creation back to God in thanksgiving. We offer ourselves, our souls, and bodies to God in Christ and through Christ. The miracle of consecration is two-fold; ordinary food that perishes becomes the bread from heaven; and ordinary mortal people become the body of Christ.
The pattern of the Eucharist is the pattern for life. We are called, as St. Paul says, to give thanks in everything (Ephesians 5:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:18). We give thanks for the eternal life that God has given us by obeying the commandments; by honoring the image of Christ in other people; by using our gifts in service to the kingdom. As all of life is offered to God in this manner, Christ becomes present in all things to sustain us, to bring the order and beauty of his New Creation out of our chaos of our sin.
V. Implication of this perspective for life
This perspective changes the way we look at life. We can never focus merely on the visible events and results. Instead sacramental vision leads us to focus on what God is accomplishing in and through visible things. Thus, while the world focuses on how much money a person or a company makes, a sacramental perspective focuses on whether what the person or company does is good. Is the work itself worthy? Does it provide something that is good for people?
The world focuses on how much we accumulate for ourselves. A sacramental perspective focuses on what we are giving to others; for “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Timothy 6:7). And, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
The world tries to avoid the pain of life. A sacramental perspective focuses on what God accomplishes in us through the pain. The world tried to avoid death at all costs. A sacramental perspective is always preparing for a good death, always preparing for life in the coming kingdom of God… “For or our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Thus, as Jesus said, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you.” And, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
Our journey in Lent thus far has been about war with the devil. Lent begins with Christ’s victory in His own temptation in the wilderness, and the power of this victory pours out in the second week’s lesson with the healing of the Canaanite woman’s child and the exorcising of the demon afflicting her. This morning, the Gospel lesson begins with Jesus casting out a mute demon and the crowd’s response to this exorcism.
We have to start out by remembering that not all demons are silent when they come face to face with Jesus. At the Synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus drives out a spirit who immediately asks for mercy and immediately calls Him the “Holy One of God.” In facing Legion, the demon afflicting a man near the cliffs of Gadara, the demons submit and ask to be sent out into a local herd of swine, whom they drive over a cliff to drown in the sea. In the seven or so exorcisms that are specifically mentioned in the Gospels, and the many others that are referenced more generally, we get the overall sense that the demons recognize who Jesus is, and while they are reluctant they are always obedient to His word of command.
This brings us to St. Luke’s Gospel this morning. Having exorcised the demon, and finding it to be silent, the crowd fills the silence, and immediately starts to speak, to mutter, to murmur. But this crowd made up of the religious experts of the day and Jesus’ own people all arrive instantly at the completely wrong conclusion, claiming that He was casting out demons through a black magic driven by demonic power. They immediately start in with demands that Jesus prove He is doing good and not evil. They want proof His power is from heaven. We miss it if we don’t look closely here but St. Luke uses the word “seeking” in a sense that these people will always be searching for a proof but never find it–they are unpersuadable. St. Luke doesn’t miss the irony of the situation. Where earlier in the Gospel the demonic enemies of Christ were direct and immediate in identifying Him as the Holy One of God and asking of mercy, this group of Christ’s own people call Him evil and oppose Him. This situates them in a particular place. The very thing they accuse Jesus of being is the thing the demons don’t dare to do. Their scrutiny and endless seeking of a further sign position them in the exact same place where earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel another stood, testing Jesus and asking for signs of His power and origins: of course this was the Devil.
Jesus responds to this scandal by peeling back the veil of the world to show what is really happening there, and also what has always been the case. Heaven and hell are at war. The continuous exorcisms that characterize Jesus’ ministry are a declaration that Satan is losing his grip over the world he has held in reinforced and savagely defended occupation since the Fall. The strongman has met One stronger than him and is about to lose everything. Out of the shattered stronghold of the devil flee away the demons seeking for shelter against the overwhelming onslaught of heaven, finding their only brief refuge in willing human souls. Now, even that small rest is being stripped away through Christ’s unrelenting campaign of exorcism. There is a warning here. No demon can resist being driven out by Christ, but a soul that has been delivered can still be reoccupied unless it is filled with something to replace it. It is not enough to have an absence of evil, but it must be filled with goodness, with the Spirit of God that St. Paul says confirms us as the children of God and fills us with the light of God. This cosmic vision comes to an incisive conclusion as Christ infers that while the unnamed person who had been delivered has been healed, the onlooking crowd has revealed itself to be fitting home for a fleeing devil who gathers others and then returns.
The Gospel then lets us sit for an uncomfortable moment with a burning question in our minds: “how are we to avoid being vulnerable to the repeated intrusions of a restless and brutal fleeing army of devils?” There’s a silence, but then someone else speaks: an unnamed woman in the crowd does just the thing; she prays “Blessed is your mother.” It’s the exactly right thing. For her in the idiom of the day this would have meant something like ‘Your mom must be really proud of you!’ Jesus takes it and immediately brings it forward, extends the sentiment: Yes! “And blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” He sees to the heart of what is in that prayer. St. Luke sees the beauty here because he was so attentive to Mary’s story earlier in the Gospel. The word of the Lord came to Mary and she kept it, and she is blessed for it. Elizabeth hails Mary as the mother of her Lord. Mary, filled with the Spirit, responds by declaring prophetically that all generations will call her blessed, and we see that already proven true in today’s lesson. She who heard the word of God in the Anunciation, who bore the word of God in the Incarnation, who heard and kept the words of Word her Son as she followed Him to His Passion. “Behold,” is ever Mary’s prayer, “the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.”
We need this at this center of the Lenten pilgrimage because it’s not enough to be emptied of sin. We must become like Mary in hearing and accepting and keeping the word. This means we are faced with a decision. Have we experienced some deliverance in our lives? Have we seen Christ work in others? Are we perhaps still holding something back because we do not think we have seen enough to be convinced? Have we remained lukewarm in our loyalties, delivered but not yet decided?
We have to remember what we have received by the Word of the Lord. We have received the new life and cleansing and exorcism of Baptism, we have received the mind of God and strength in the Spirit through Confirmation, we have received the Body and Blood of Christ in Eucharist, we have received the profundity and wisdom of Scripture delivered to us, we have received the great cloud of testimony from saints whose queen is Mary the mother of God, exalted in the humility that will save us today if we will follow after her as she follows after Christ.
We are the children of God the Father in Christ the Son our brother, the home of the Holy Spirit. We lack nothing. We have received all things. The road to the Cross and the glory of Resurrection is before us.
“Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”
A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018
The Epistle, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 15:21-28
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. The Woman of Canaan
Jesus concluded his encounter with the Woman of Canaan in today’s gospel by saying, “Woman, great is thy faith.” She can teach us some things about faith.
The tradition is that St. Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish audience. He presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. When he calls this woman, a “Woman of Canaan” it is likely that he means to connect her with the Old Testament Canaanites, the people Israel conquered when they entered the Promised Land. This person of great faith is at least symbolically connected to people who worshiped idols and opposed God. The point is that Jesus is changing the requirements for being accepted by God. Background and ethnicity are now irrelevant. God accepts us when we put our faith in Jesus.
In his epistles, St. Paul develops the idea of “justification by faith.” As a well-known passage from Romans says:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the Law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through the faith of Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:21-24).
Language from today’s gospel is used in our “Prayer of Humble Access,” which we pray before communion. However, we see this woman’s humility and raise it a notch. She said the dogs ate the crumbs; we claim to be unworthy even of these! Of course, the point is not merely to sound humble. The liturgy is teaching us how to approach God if we want to be accepted like the Woman of Canaan. As we come to the altar, have we chosen a nice outfit to wear? Have we been faithful to the church for decades? Do we come from a good family? Have we avoided the major sins? None of these things matter. Nothing we are, nothing we inherited, nothing we have done, and nothing we have given entitles us to anything from God. We can receive God’s grace only through faith in Jesus Christ.
III. Faith as trust and dependence rather that belief in doctrine
The Woman of Canaan exposes a common error about faith; namely, that faith is rooted in the mind or intellect. When some people talk about justification by faith, they imply that we are justified by a right understanding of how we are saved. Thus, some people object to an early age for Confirmation and Communion because “they are not yet old enough to understand.” But we could turn that question around and get closer to heart of faith. We could say, “You are old enough to understand, but do you still have childlike faith?” For Jesus said, “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
The Woman of Canaan illustrates that to have faith means to trust God and depend upon him. This trust includes the belief that God can do what we pray for. God is Almighty, and Jesus is Lord. Because she trusted Jesus, because she came to him with humility, believing that Jesus could do what she asked, Jesus heard her prayer and answered it.
Faith as trust is illustrated by a story that I think was told by Billy Graham (may he rest in peace and rise in glory). A man was attempting to push a wheelbarrow across a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers. A spectator was asked, “Do you believe he can do it?” He answered, “Yes, I believe he can” Then the spectator was asked, “Will you ride in the wheelbarrow?”
For many people, faith is merely an intellectual conviction about God. They say “amen” to the creeds, or they memorize doctrine about how a person is saved; but they won’t trust Jesus by doing what he says to do—by obeying his commandments. They won’t get into the wheelbarrow; consequently, they do not experience God’s presence and power in their lives. As Matthew 13:38 says of Jesus ministry in Nazareth, “He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.”
The faith of the Woman of Canaan did include some doctrine about Jesus. She called Jesus the “Son of David.” She believed Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. However, her prayer was heard because she trusted him—not just because she knew who he was. When we recite the Nicene Creed, we give our assent to the doctrine that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of God. However, this assent does not save us. We are saved by trusting him. It is possible to know who Jesus is and not trust him. As St. James writes, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (Jas. 2:19).
III. Faith as honesty and vulnerability
There is another, notable point about the faith of the Woman of Canaan that we usually miss. She created a scene. She screamed about her demonized daughter and her need for help right in front of the nice rabbi and his pious followers. The pious followers told her to be quiet and begged their leader to get rid of the nuisance. Do we ever do that to people who come to Jesus for help? — “Go away, we’ve got a nice religious thing going on here.”
There were, no doubt, other people in the crowd who had pressing needs but were too ashamed to make them known. They did not trust Jesus enough to be open and honest with him, they were too ashamed to say anything, and their prayers were not answered. Often our prayers are not answered because we are not honest with God and others about what we are really struggling with. We are too ashamed and afraid to be known (See Genesis 3:9-10). Consequently, we walk along with crowd that is following Jesus, but we do not experience his power because our faith is not touching the real stuff of our lives
One reason people are drawn to recovery groups is that they tolerate and encourage honesty. You can stand up and say, I’m Joe and I am addicted to drink or drugs or sex.” There is freedom to say that because you are in a group with others who are also being honest. The church should be a community in which the members of the Body of Christ are honest and open with each other. This doesn’t mean we tell everybody our deep secrets the first time we talk. Trust takes time to develop. It means that we work over time at cultivating authentically intimate relationships, in which we are known to others and others feel safe being known to us. Genuine communion with God and others is the source of all healing and is the answer to our deepest prayers.
This is our central challenge in mission. The trappings of religion don’t matter to people anymore—and that is a good thing. But people are still alienated from God and from authentically intimate relationships with others. God wants his church to be a place reconciliation; a place where people can make good and honest confessions about the real stuff of their lives; a place where people can experience grace and healing over time as they grow in communion with Christ and with the members of his body.
This begins with each of us. We cannot bear witness to the healing power of Christ for the sins and afflictions of the world unless we have experienced it in our own sins and afflictions. So, let us learn a Lenten lesson about faith from an unacceptable and unclean pagan with a demonized daughter. Let us come to Jesus without any sense of entitlement. Let us trust Jesus and obey him and continue in our prayer until he answers us. And let us move past our shame and fear and practice being honest with God and with each other. If we follow the Woman of Canaan in this way, two things will happen. The trusted people we are honest with will not be shocked at our real stuff, because it will look a lot like their real stuff. They will say to us, “Welcome to the club.” And Jesus will say to us, “Great is your faith, let is be to you as you desire.”
A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018
The Epistle, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 4:1-11
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
Lent is the central chapter in the story of the Christian year. Easter lies out in the horizon as the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams—the fullness of life in the body in God’s New Creation. Lent teaches us that we can only get to Easter through the cross. This is why Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. To save the world he must say not to it and its promises; he must die to it and for it. This is where the gospel confronts our world. Most people want Easter; most people want to be set free from the effects of sin and the reality of death. Most people want to live in a world full of health and peace. That is why our world is full of activism and agitation. Everyone has a plan for how to fix what is wrong in the world. But these plans try to get to Easter without the cross.
Jesus did not join any of the movements of his day; movements that planned to save the world by politics, revolt, or religion. He did not side with the Sadducees, who wanted to maintain their power, rooted in the control of the temple, by maintaining rapprochement with the Roman authorities. He did not become a zealot, advocating armed rebellion. He did not become a Pharisee, who believed that if Israel would only obey the Torah and the tradition, God would save the nation. Jesus saved the world by dying to it and for it.
II. Dying with Christ.
Jesus invites us to participate in his work of salvation by dying with him. This is the meaning of our baptism. As Romans says:
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).
The Christian life is a continual growth into our baptismal identity; a continual dying to the world and for the world. Baptism confronts us with the unavoidable truth that we cannot rise to newness of life unless we die first. Lent is a season of growth in to our baptismal identity. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24).
Death sounds pessimistic because it emphasizes only part of the truth. What Lent really teaches us is that when we unite our sufferings and our death with cross, they will result in resurrection. This is good news. For we will suffer and die anyway; apart from Christ that pain will be fruitless. But everything we offer to God through the cross will rise with Christ on Easter. Thus, as 1 Corinthians says,
We do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
III. What is means to try to reach Easter without the cross
What does it mean to try to reach Easter by skipping the cross? To skip the cross means to try to solve the problems of the world while avoiding the reality of sin that is in all human hearts. The temptation of the world and its activism is to locate the problem “out there” somewhere. If we can fix the external problem in the system, or get our people in charge of the government, or cure all disease, then we can build paradise—or the Tower of Babel.
When Jesus calls us to follow him, he calls us to die to the world and for the world with him. This means we must face a hard truth. The problem is not out there somewhere; the problem is in each of our hearts. If I want to change the world, I must begin by changing me. Or, more accurately, I must begin by becoming what Christ has made me to be through baptism and faith.
The only hope for this world is Christ, who saved the world through the cross. There is nothing in this world that can be saved except through its participation in the cross; nothing gets to the Easter except by way of Good Friday. Thus, the only thing I can offer to the world is my participation in the cross; my dying to the world and for the world with Christ. We are witness for Christ and for the life he has given us. When the world sees us, does it see Christ in us?
IV. Lent is an interior pilgrimage.
Lent forces us to look within ourselves. The cross does not allow us to blame people and circumstances out there. The cross is a mirror into our own hearts. When we look at Jesus on the cross, dying for us and for the sins of everyone, everywhere, and always, we see our own selfishness. We see our own pride, anger, greed, covetousness, gluttony, lust, and sloth. The cross moves us to humility and confession. We experience grace, the forgiveness of our sins and the power to live in a new way. In this grace of forgiveness, we find the power to forgive others. This means the power to stop blaming them for everything that is wrong with our lives and the world. Grace sets us free from captivity to sins—both our own and the sins of others.
It is only as we grow into Christ through the cross that we have anything to offer to the world. Christ is the savior of the world, and it is only as witnesses to his life, his grace, and his power to conquer sin that we can lead people into Easter, into God’s New Creation. Thus, the focus of Lent must be our own hearts.
Lent is not merely about giving things up. Lent is about entering more fully into our union with the cross so that that we may enter more fully into the power of Jesus’ resurrection. As St. Paul says, “Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10).
So, let us fast and pray, but let us also ask the larger questions. Are you taking responsibility for your role in the disorder of your life and the world? Are you ready to make a good confession? As Jesus said to the man by the pool of Bethesda, do you want to get well? Whom do you need to forgive? Against whom do you hold a deep grudge? Are you ready to let go of your right of retribution and your need for anything to be different than it is so that you may enter into Easter through the cross? Or do you want to continue to fight your old, losing battle? What deep pain in your past do you need to face and grieve through? Is Christ the foundation for your life—the thing around which your life is ordered? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind? Until you do you, until you begin to open your heart to God, you will never love your neighbor as yourself. With whom do you need to reconcile? Blessed are the peacemakers. These are questions that require a season. Lent is a season of opportunity to ask them and answer them in new ways. As St. Paul said in our epistle:
We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, And in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.