A. Lent and Love
1. Quinquagesima provides an epistle about love and gospel prophecy about the cross. These two lessons are aptly paired to prepare us for Lent. When Jesus said, “Behold we go up to Jerusalem and all things that are written in the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished,” he was prophesying the ultimate act of love. Our Lenten vocation centers on these two themes. We are called to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus by adopting various spiritual disciplines; the goal is to grow in our ability to love.
2. The purpose of fasting is to remove obstacles to love. We don’t love God and neighbor as we ought because we are too attached to things and to our own self-centered desires. Things become idols that we worship instead of God. We fast, we practice going without things, in order to detach ourselves from them and open our hearts to God in new ways.
B. Charity and other kinds of love
1. Our collect and epistle talk about the theological virtue of charity, which modern Bibles translate as love. The Greek word being translated in 1 Corinthians 13 is “agape.” When the early church translated the Greek into Latin, agape became “caritas.” When the Latin was first translated into English, caritas became “charity.” The word charity was used instead of love (even though the English translators were working from the Greek) because it had developed a formal meaning as one of the three “Theological Virtues” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13 (Faith, Hope and Charity).
2. While the world charity sounds archaic, there is a strong case to be made for maintaining its use—or perhaps for just calling charity by its original Greek, “agape.” There are other kinds of love that all people may experience on some level (see The Four Loves, by C. S. Lewis for a fuller description of these). When people talk about love today, they are often thinking of mere sentimentality. Agape-caritas-charity is distinct from the ordinary human experience of love. Consequently, there is reason to give this kind of love a particular name.
C. Charity vs. mere love
1. The unique meaning of agape/charity becomes clear as we read 1 Corinthians 13. It tells us that agape/charity is all sorts of things that we do not naturally do or possess. It is patient, kind and longsuffering; it does not seek its own good and it never fails. Human love, in contrast, is not a disinterested concern for the good of the other, and it fails all the time because all merely human love is infected by the fall. Ordinary human forms of love may be raised to the level of agape when they are motivated by and infused with this theological virtue. But in their natural form they are necessarily different.
2. We are able to love with agape/charity only after we experience this kind of love from God. In relationship with God, we experience love in a way that we cannot experience anywhere else. God first convicts us of our sin to lead us to repentance; then he forgives us and cleanses us; then he gives us strength to live in a new way. Through this experience of agape/charity, we experience God’s new creation. God brings his order and beauty of our chaos, causing all things to work together for good in our lives. This is the essential experience of the life of prayer.
3. No human counselor or agent can love us in this way. No human agent can forgive us—for only Christ has the power to forgive. No human agent can cleanse us—for only the Spirit can wash away sins. No human agent can give us the strength to overcome our sins—for only God’s grace can enable us to rise above our natural weakness. And no human agent can exercise a sovereign and benevolent control over our lives. Agape/charity is known only as a gift from God.
D. Spiritual gifts
1. When I say that no human agent can do these things, I mean no human agent acting apart from God’s grace. However, the members of Christ’s body, whom Christ has gifted to be agents of his grace, can love as Christ loves using the particular gifts Christ has given us. As Romans says, “The love (agape) of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).
2. Our right use of our spiritual gifts is dependent upon our own ongoing experience of Trinitarian love. We can only give to others what we know and experience. This is the main point of the epistle, which says,
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profits me nothing (1Coritnians 13:1-3).
3. The epistle is really a warning. It tells us that it is possible to exercise our spiritual gifts, perform extreme acts of charity and even die as a martyr in ways that mean nothing to God. Agape or charity is the thing that distinguishes genuine good works from mere religious or self-serving activity. Thus, the central question is not, what are you doing? The central question is, why are you doing it? Are we really motivated by the love that comes from God? Or is our behavior infected by other motives?
E. Lent and charity
1. Honest self-assessment will reveal the presence of mixed motives in all of us. We do not love fully yet. We are learning how to love. Lent is a season of opportunity to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus with the goal of growing in the love that comes from God.
2. Our experience of love begins with our prayer—for we cannot love with the love that comes from God unless our behavior is the fruit of our prayer. Lent calls us to reverse the pattern of our lives. Our natural tendency is to rush into work and business, and then come to God to clean up the mess after we are done. To act with agape/charity requires that we come to God first to receive grace from him through the sacrament and through daily and constant prayer. Only when our behavior is the fruit of our prayer can we begin to love with the love that comes from God. As Jesus said, “He who abides in me and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). As we pray in today collect,
O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.”
1. Septuagesima Sunday marks a change in season and focus. From Advent through the last Sunday after Epiphany, we focus on the Incarnation and the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. Today we begin to look forward to the Cross and Resurrection. Septuagesima means “seventieth day;” it begins our countdown to Easter. Today is actually the sixty-fourth day before Easter, It is likely that the observance of the seventieth day before Easter was moved to the following Sunday at some point in time.
2. Septuagesima is one of three pre-Lenten Sundays. Next week is Sexagesima, which meaning “sixtieth day”—even even though it is actually the fifty seventh day before Easter; the following Sunday is Quinquagesima, which is means “fiftieth day” and is, finally, accurate. This two and a half week season is a time to get ready for Lent. It is time to start thinking about and planning for one’s participation in the Lenten fast. But it is also the time for the last celebration—Carnival, Mardi Gras and so forth. We enjoy the good things God has given even as we make plans to give them up in preparation for Easter.
B. The Lessons for Septuagesima: the paradox of grace and labor
1. The gospel for Septuagesima highlights the grace of God. The workers work different hours but they all get paid the same amount of money. The point is that salvation is a gift. It is not quantifiable. No matter how long you labor in God’s vineyard you will receive the gift of salvation. Someone who comes to faith at the 11th hour of their life or at the last hour of time will receive the gift of salvation. The point is precisely that salvation is not a wage—it is not something we earn. The dynamics of salvation don’t fit into a story about work.
2. The epistle makes a seemingly contrasting point. We must strive hard and practice discipline—a buffeting of the body—in order to win the crown of eternal life. St. Paul suggests that it is possible to run in such a way that we might not obtain the prize; it is possible to fall short of the goal through a lack of discipline.
3. These are not contradictory points. Rather, they form a sort of paradox. Salvation is free, but it requires us to work hard. Salvation is a gift, but we must practice discipline to hold on to and grow in this gift. The world and the life of faith are full of paradox because reality is paradoxical. Often, things that seem to be in conflict are really complementary parts of a unified whole. The true or catholic faith of the church is rich and full. It takes eyes of faith to see and perceive that fullness.
4. Error and heresy result when we try to resolve the tension of a paradox too far in one direction. With regard to our lessons, one error is to think that since salvation is a gift all I have to do is exercise faith at some moment in time and my salvation will be guaranteed no matter what I subsequently believe or do. The other error is to think I am working my way into heaven by my discipline and good works so that I come to feel that I do, in fact, deserve a higher wage that the person who did not work as hard.
C. The resolution of the paradox.
1. We can understand the paradox by recognizing the limitations of our analogies. There is a sense in which salvation is like the common coin paid to all laborers. The coin highlights one aspect of the truth about salvation. But there are a thousand ways that salvation is utterly unlike a coin. Salvation comes to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The living, growing, transforming force that is the Holy Spirit is clearly not at all like a denarius.
2. This life is a gift that can only be received by faith, yet this gift will challenge us and change us; it will make demands upon us and require of us further acts of surrender. This life may begin with a simple act of general repentance, but it will require of us a thousand subsequent acts of specific repentance. It will plant within us the potential for eternal glory, but then it will begin to purify us so that what is potential becomes what is real.
3. Thus, salvation is a free gift, but it requires of us much discipline and labor in the Spirit. We must cooperate with the Spirit by practicing fasting and self-control so that our fallen nature will be brought under the control of the Spirit. We must feed this gift of life with the Sacrament and the daily bread of prayer in the Spirit. We must learn to love in the Spirit by responding to the image of God in other people. Salvation is received by faith, but the faith that saves us is a present tense verb. That is, we must continue to believe and trust so that what is planted in us through faith may continue to grow and reach full maturity.
4. We might be tempted to accuse God of a sort of bait and switch tactic. We thought we were signing up for this free gift of salvation that would take away our guilt and make us feel better. It turns out we were signing up for a complete and total conquest. We were allowing ourselves to be possessed by a conquering Spirit that will not be content until it possesses every fiber of our being. But God was not dishonest with us. Rather he was gracious to us. We are not as good as we thought we were, but God is willing to take us as we are and work in us by grace to make us what we are meant to be. As we grow in the Spirit we discover just how much we resist the love of God—just how much we are stuck in sin and enslaved to our idols. This is hard not because God likes to make things difficult. This is hard because sin and evil and real enemies that must be conquered by real grace and acts of the will.
D. The task of pre-Lent and Lent.
1. The good news of grace is that God is content with a gradual process. He does not require that we become completely holy in a day. Rather he requires that we respond to his word and Spirit at each season of time. Our concern is not how God will finish his work in us; our concern is how we will be faithful to what God is calling us to do today. Each small act of faith and surrender takes us to a new place where new acts of obedience are possible. We can’t skip any steps. We can’t go from directly from beginning math to calculus.
2. As we enter pre-Lent and begin to look toward the Lenten preparation for Easter, the questions for each of us to ask are simple. What is God saying to each of us right now? What sins to we need to confess? What new disciplines do we need to establish in order to make progress against temptation? What virtues do we need to practice and cultivate by grace?
3. Above all, do you know that your sins are forgiven? Do you know that salvation is, in fact, a gift and that there is nothing you can do to earn it? If we are to profit from our spiritual disciplines, they must be rooted in God’s grace—in the knowledge that God loves us and accepts us we are in Christ.
4. Lent is temptation for human nature. Human nature wants to earn what it cannot earn. Therefore, it is always tempted to turn religion into merit producing performance. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more than he already does. Whatever you might do in the Spirit is merely a way to say yes to God, to respond to his love in some new way. Spiritual disciplines get ourselves out of the way so that we might grow in the free gift of salvation that God continually gives to those who believe in Jesus.