Second Sunday After Easter – Sermon
It is at least a bit curious that the body of the Risen Christ retains the scars from the nails wounds in his hands and the spear that pierced his side (the gospel John 20:19f.). We might expect the resurrection to clear up all cosmetic blemishes. We might hope that our own resurrection bodies will be free from our current scars. But there is a particular point to the wounds that Jesus shows to the Apostles. They reveal him to be the eternal sacrifice, the “lamb as though it had been slain” of Revelation 5:6, who takes away the sins of the world.
The resurrection gives the wounds new meaning. On Good Friday, the wounds were signs of defeat, bearing witness to the power Rome had to subdue any who threatened her dominion. They were signs of agony, protracted pain and humiliation. Yet, on Easter Day these same wounds have become trophies of victory. Jesus shows them as if to say, “I have taken the world’s best shot, and I have conquered the world.”
Rome controlled people through the fear of death. By rising from the dead and conquering death, Jesus rendered that threat futile and powerless. When Rome tried to crush the early church by killing the followers of Jesus, the strategy failed. The martyrs faced death bravely and willingly, trusting in the promise of Jesus that “he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). One church father observed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
We who have been baptized into Christ can also face death bravely. We do not need to be afraid of death. In fact, we are not supposed to fear death the way the world fears death. Jesus didn’t promise that we wouldn’t grow old and die. He didn’t promise that none of us would die young or out of season–He died young and out of season. Jesus promised that “though [we] were dead, yet shall [we] live. He promised to “raise [us] up at the last day” (John 5:40). If we believe him, we will not be afraid of death.
In Christ, we also conquer the circumstances of life that once defeated us. We call Jesus the “saving victim” (Hymn 209). Jesus was, in modern psychological jargon, “victimized.” Betrayed by a friend; conspired against by the leaders of the nation he came to save; subjected to a travesty of justice and brutally beaten and killed. Poor, pitiful Jesus. Yet, the Risen Christ is not pitiful as enters the upper room on Easter night, through closed doors, and shows the disciples his trophies of victory. He is majestic and triumphant. The victim has become a conqueror.
We also have wounds. We also have been victims. People have done stuff to us. Circumstances have conspired against us. Some have won the lottery of misfortune more than their share of times. There are different ways to respond to the inequities of life. We can become perpetual victims, poor and pitiful, letting people walk all over us because someone else once did. We can become stoic, keeping a stiff upper lip. We can become angry, allowing the wounds to boil over into rage. We can become Christian Scientists or positive thinkers, putting on rose colored glasses and pretending that it really didn’t happen. In presented his wounds as trophies, Jesus gives us the Christian answer. We can conquer through the power of forgiveness and the power of faith.
We conquer sin by being forgiven. Our lenten confessions resulted in the renewed experience of forgiveness in Easter. Sin that is forgiven no longer holds us captive. Easter replaces oppressive guilt with God’s peace and new freedom in God’s service.
We also conquer by forgiving others the sins they have committed against us. Sometimes this is hard because the wound is deep. However, just as Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” we also can let go of our personal demand for retribution. We also can commit the task of judgment to God and trust him to take care of it. To forgive other people is to refuse to be captive to the pain and anger that is produced by the sins they have committed against us.
To forgive we must have faith in God’s sovereignty. We must believe that God is able to create his good out of our suffering in the very same way he created Easter out of Good Friday. We must accept the new life God wants to bring out of our pain and let go of the life we wish we had.
Consider the example of Joseph. His brothers cruelly sold him as a slave to foreigners. He spent twenty plus years in exile from his family, was wrongly accused of crime and languished for years in a foreign prison–all because of the malicious envy of his brothers. But Joseph did not remain a victim. He came to recognize the good that God intended to bring out of his suffering. Instead of harboring a smoldering bitterness, he was able to forgive. As he said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Many people live with regret, always wishing they could have the life that was taken from them. They are wounded, angry and in search of vindication. Regret and anger cause people to the miss the life of grace and peace that God offers now. All regret is fantasy. It is a wish that things could be as they can’t be. And it is prideful. To regret, to hold on to my pain and anger, is to insist that I have the life I wanted rather than to accept the life that God has given me.
Redemption is reality. It is the good that God gives us in our real lives right now. When we forgive and are forgiven, when we put our faith in the power of God to make all things new, people and circumstances no longer have power over us. “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). Faith enables us to trust that God will judge rightly in his good time, and faith gives us the freedom to live a new life in Christ. As Romans says, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Romans 8:31-37).
Most people would call Easter a miracle. Jesus, who died and was buried on Friday, rose from the dead on Sunday morning. To rise from the dead is to live again in the body. This is why the empty tomb is significant. It is not just that the spirit of Jesus lives beyond the grave. It is that the spirit of Jesus was reunited with his body and his body came back to life.
The modern objection to Easter is that this is not in accordance with what we regularly observe. We put dead bodies in the grave all the time, but they never come back to life three days later. The natural process of decay results in death and, crazy advertizing claims notwithstanding, there is no known way to reverse or undo this process.
However, Easter does not contradict what we observe in the natural world. Rather, Easter is possible because what we observe in the natural world is not all there is to see. Resurrection is not merely a natural occurrence. Resurrection is a supernatural occurrence.
The are realities that we cannot see. The Creed says that God is the “Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” The invisible is what we call the “supernatural.” It is not contrary to the natural world, but the supernatural transcends the natural and is not limited by it.
When the supernatural enters into the natural world, things can happen that are not ordinarily possible for mere nature. God became man in Christ. In the Incarnation, a supernatural being, God, who cannot die, took on human form in a body that died. And death was conquered. This cannot be explained in terms of the merely natural. But is can be explained in terms of the supernatural–and it makes perfect sense. Christmas makes Easter both possible and inevitable.
We know the natural world by observation. We know the supernatural world by revelation, which is received through faith. Because the resurrection is a supernatural event, it cannot be understood by natural sight. This is one point on which every gospel resurrection story agrees. People see the evidence or even look at the Risen Christ, but they do not understand what has happened until something provokes or provides the faith that is necessary to see.
St. John saw the empty tomb and did not understand what had happened. John understood and believed only after he saw the linen clothes and remembered the prophesy of Jesus that he must rise from the dead. Mary looked right at Jesus, but did not recognize him until the Good Shepherd called his sheep by name and she recognized his voice (John 10:3-4).
The faith that is able to see the Risen Christ is not gullibility, wishful thinking or hallucination. Faith is the ability to comprehend supernatural realities that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Supernatural truth is understood by faith in the same way that natural truth is understood by physical examination. This faith is a gift, and it is given to all to whom the Risen Christ reveals himself.
The absence of faith is the primary consequence of sin. Man created in the image of God was able to see God. Disobedience led to spiritual blindness, which is eyesight bounded by the physical world. This leads to idolatry, which is the worship of creation as an end in and of itself. Or, in the industrial age, it leads to the manipulation of the creation for purely visible and physical ends.
This is why we experience Easter as a restoration of sight. The Risen Christ restores to his people the ability to comprehend the supernatural, to see what cannot be seen with unredeemed eyes. The two men on the road to Emmaus walked with the Risen Christ for several miles without recognizing him–until he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them; then, “Their eyes were opened and they knew him” (Luke 24:31). The Risen Christ appeared to the Apostles. They did not recognize him–until he “Opened their minds that they might understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).
Some say they would believe in the resurrection if they could see it with their own eyes. The Bible tells us that those who were there to see it did not believe it–until some special revelation enabled them to see. No one sees the resurrection by natural sight or physical proof. We “see” the Risen Christ by revelation, which is received through faith.
The Risen Christ is revealed to us in the same way he was revealed to the eyewitnesses. He is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. Our eyes are opened and we know him. We come to see him when he calls us to faith by name and we recognize his voice. He is revealed to us when he opens our minds to understand the Scriptures. This is not just reading the texts that say, “He is Risen.” This understanding is the ability to see how the whole biblical story of creation, fall and redemption is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. The Risen Christ is revealed to us when the Holy Spirit enables us to see beyond the merely natural to the supernatural.
The faith that sees the resurrection does not believe everything anyone says about the supernatural world. The faith that enables us to understand the truth about God also enables us to recognize the lies that are contrary to that revealed truth. Errors about the physical world can harm us. Errors about the spiritual world are doubly dangerous. Many who claim to see the supernatural are deceived.
We test what we see in the physical world by the laws of science. We test our spiritual experiences by the revelation the whole church has received. For we see the same Risen Lord that Mary and the Apostles saw. We have all received the one baptism for the remission of sins. We all experience the same peace of God that passes understanding. We are all waiting for Christ to come and restore us to eternal life in the body.
This is the promise of Easter. “Christ is risen from the dead and become the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Christmas makes Easter inevitable. Our baptism and faith in Jesus make our own resurrections inevitable. We are all going to die. But Christ lives in us and we live in him. Thus, we, also, will be raised to new life in new bodies. The trumpet will sound and “the dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thess 4:16). “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” (1 Co 15:53). This hope is no less certain because it cannot be seen with ordinary sight. In the full light of the new creation, when nature itself becomes supernatural, we will discover that faith provides us with a more accurate and complete vision. Easter is an invitation to open our eyes and see. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:27).
When I was a child in growing up in a Jewish home, Passover was my favorite holiday. Most religious holy days were celebrated corporately by our community at the local synagogue. But, Passover was different. In those days, Passover was celebrated at home with all of one’s extended family. Often, it was the only time you might see a distant relative for years at a time. It was a multi-generational gathering of family with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the like all gathered together around one table.
Much of the world envisions Passover as looking somewhat like Leonardo Da Vinci’s mural of the Last Supper. While this is certainly great art, it is a poor exegetical representation of the Passover feast celebrated by Jesus that we are recalling this evening. Unlike the artistic masterpiece, the traditional and Gospel setting for Passover was evening rather than daytime. The table would have featured roasted paschal lamb and flat unleavened bread rather than fish and risen loaves. All in attendance were required to be reclining rather than sitting upright on benches. Missing also are the extended families of Jesus and his disciples, including women and children, whose attendance was mandatory for the feast.
Passover is one of the most continuously celebrated feasts in history. Its celebration was described in detail to Moses and Aaron in the 12th chapter of Exodus. By the time of Jesus, the Children of Israel had celebrated the feast for over 1,200 years with little change. St. John tells us in his Gospel narrative that in the course of his ministry, Jesus had gone to Jerusalem three times to celebrate the Passover. But this last time was to be different – very different.
In St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says (Lk 22:15-16) “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” This is considered a very unusual sentence structure in the Greek language and indicates that “the knowledge of the intensity of the suffering does not cancel the intensity of the desire” and that the desire itself will be ultimately fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
In the Gospels, we are accustomed to the numerous instances of people desiring Jesus. The blind, the deaf, and the lepers came desiring healing. Friends and family would bring those who were crippled or demon possessed, desiring healing for their loved ones. The centurion desired Jesus to heal his servant from afar. Mourners desired Jesus to resuscitate their dead. There are many instances of desire in the Gospels, but nowhere else in the Scriptures does Jesus express such an intense personal desire – and it is to be at Passover with his disciples.
The Passover is comprised of a special meal called the Seder, or Order. It also follows a liturgical guide for the evening, called the Hagaddah, or the telling, which is an extended teaching by the leader, interwoven with partaking of ceremonial foods throughout the evening meal.
The youngest child in attendance was required to ask four questions that would provide the context for explaining the Passover feast so that all in attendance would be able to understand. Both the questions and responses were well rehearsed. The first and best known question of the evening is “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Central to the familiar responses of Passover was the Hebrew concept of “Zikkaron” which is a reactualization of the event – not just a remembrance. It is to be “made present” at the event, a sacred “you are there” moment in time. Those who attend a Passover thus become actual participants in the events commemorated in the Book of Exodus. In celebrating Passover, Scripture instructs (Ex 13:8) the father’s to teach their children, “This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt.” It was I who was a slave under Pharaohs’ cruel taskmasters in Egypt. It was I who witnessed the plagues God visited upon Egypt. It was the blood of the Passover lamb applied to the doorposts and lintels of my home that kept me alive when the angel of death passed through Egypt killing all their firstborn. It was my feet that walked on dry ground through the parted waters of the Red Sea. I witnessed the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen as the waters returned to their normal flow. Those who failed to observe the feast were to be excommunicated from the nation (Nu 9:13).
It is with this same understanding of becoming actual participants in the Passover, that St. Paul writes in this evening’s Epistle (1 Co 11:23-26), “That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do ing remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Why is this Maundy Thursday night different from all other nights?
Because it is the night we remember that it is we who are in attendance and present with the disciples at the Last Supper we remember tonight. Each time we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrament, we are grateful recipients of the intense desire and promise of Jesus to those whom he will lovingly redeem through his Passion at the conclusion of this long day – For (Jn 6:54) “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Plummer, A. (1896). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke (494). London: T&T; Clark International.
g in…: or, for a remembrance
The Holy Bible : King James Version. 1995 (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.) (1 Co 11:23-26). Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
The Holy Bible : King James Version. 1995 (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.) (Jn 6:54). Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
Looking back on our Lenten journey, it seems appropriate to ask a few questions. For if the goal of all of our fasts and disciplines is to be conformed into the image of Christ, how are we doing? Have our minds been renewed to the mind of Christ? Have we made the Messiah into something that we want and expect, or have we taken up our Cross and followed him?
Today, Palm Sunday inaugurates Holy Week – the final week of the life of Jesus before he goes to the Cross. It is a week of expectation. It is a week of sadness, and yet, a week of joy. This triumph that we experience today as we commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, will turn into deceit, fear, confusion, and crushed expectations.
Almost 40 days ago at the beginning of Lent, we set ourselves on course with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem as he was preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God. Today, we have reached that Holy City of Jerusalem, and we know what awaits our Savior. You would think we would be mourning, and yet, there is joy, there is celebration. There is a terribly good future that we know must come to pass. And so, we have joined the crowd and shouted, “Blessed is he that Cometh in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the Highest.”
We confidently shout with joy because we know what Sunday will bring, but why did the disciples and the crowds shout with joy as well?
Jesus was not only traveling with his immediate disciples and friends, but with many other Jews who were making the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover – a feast that Celebrated what God had done for the Jewish people in the Exodus out of Egypt, out of bondage and slavery. Multitudes came from all over the region, and the city was bustling with people. Wherever there are crowds of people, there are also merchants, swindlers, consumers, entertainers are soldiers. Jerusalem was alive; it was the perfect place for a parade, or a riot.
The Jewish people had been waiting for the promised Messiah – for the Christ, who would save them from their Oppressors, give them back their land, and set them free. Jesus was coming to set them free; to lead them out of Bondage, to begin the course on a New Exodus, but it was not what they were expecting.
Luke tells us that before Jesus entered the city, he asked the disciples to go and get a colt that nobody had ridden before, and bring it to him. This may sound odd to us, but the disciples instantly picked up on what Jesus was doing, so they immediately got put some royal garments on the young colt. Their expectations were lifted, for their King had come. For the words of Zechariah the prophet speak of this moment: “Behold, your king is coming to you, righteous and humble, mounted on a colt.” The disciples wanted to make sure that their King had the Royal garments, and a Royal welcome as he entered their Holy City.
What hit me afresh as I re-read the Gospels during Lent is that the Disciples were most excited about Jesus being their King on their terms and that we do the exact same thing. We love leaders who are what we expect, who dress like we want them to and believe in what we believe. Looking back on the life of Jesus in the gospels, it is clear that He couldn’t stop talking about the Kingdom of God and how it worked – that the last are first, and the first are last – and that those who are poor, are actually rich. Those who have power must be the servants of all, and that following Jesus means denying your own will and submitting to God’s will. But the Disciples had a preconceived idea of what the Kingdom of God was, and they placed Jesus into that context. When Peter Confessed Jesus as the Christ – the one they had been waiting for, Jesus told Peter that the Christ must die, and Peter got angry. He was furious. This changed all of Peter’s plans. For Peter, the Messiah was going to conquer Israel’s enemies, not be conquered by them. His expectations were shattered.
As we prepare to ascend the altar of God and to meet Christ in his offering of Himself, how do we conform ourselves to him, and to what he wants us to be? The answer is found in our Epistle this morning where St Paul tells us what the mind of Christ looks like. He tells us that Christ made himself of no reputation, but took the form of a servant, and humbled himself to the point of death. The journey of Christ likeness begins by taking up our Cross daily, and dying to our own wills and expectations, and submitting ourselves to His will. This journey is the new Exodus, where Jesus takes us out of the bondage of sin, deception and guilt, and frees us to live life abundantly in The Kingdom of God. This is why we celebrate; this is why there is Joy. Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem marked a victory for the Kingdom of God, that would extend beyond Israel into the hearts and minds of people everywhere. For Christ conquered Sin & Death on the Cross, and he is our King. With this journey to the Cross ahead of us we can look to Jesus and say with boldness, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The feeding of the 5000 (John 6:1f.) is the gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent because it presents the pattern for Lent. Jesus leads us to a place where we do not have enough of what we want in order to reveal himself to us. The hunger created by the fast provides the opportunity for Jesus to feed us with true food. Lacking bread, we discover the bread of life.
We are afraid to fast. We depend upon our favorite things to comfort us. We are afraid of what will happen if we do not have them. The actual practice of fasting teaches us that we do not have to have them. We discover new freedom. St. Paul expresses the lesson of fasting in Philippians:
“I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content…I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (4:11-13)
Lent is not about our heroic, or less than heroic, attempts at self-denial. Lent is about finding Christ in the desert places. If we are always busy and frantic; if our lives are always filled with noise; if we are captive to every appetite; if we are never alone and quiet, it is harder to experience the presence of Christ. Jesus said, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him” (Revelation 3:20). Christ is always knocking but we are usually too distracted to hear. Lent provides the emptiness and solitude that are needed for the feeding miracle to take place.
When Jesus comes to us, we experience love. We experience a sense of spiritual health, wholeness and peace that no created thing can give us. This experience sets us free. Finding fulfillment in Christ, we learn that we do not have to depend upon any created thing. We can return to things as gifts and not as idols. This is the difference between the addiction of the world and the celebration of the church. The world indulges in order fill the emptiness, dull the pain and drown the sorrows. The church give thanks for the good that God has given and joyfully partakes of the same.
When we need things from the world and other people, our behavior is dictated by our neediness. We need to fill our appetites so we act selfishly. We are hurt and need others to acknowledge and soothe our pain. Our pain leads to anger, which causes us to harm others. We cannot love and be virtuous when, at the very center of our being, there is a hunger that is not filled, guilt that is not forgiven or a wound that is not healed. The experience of love in Christ enables us to love. When Christ forgives us and heals us and fills our emptiness with himself, our behavior changes. We no longer need to take because we are empty. We can give because we are full.
There is a communal aspect to being filled, forgiven and healed. We experience Christ’s love for us, in spite of ours sins, through the members of his body who know us as we really are and continue to love us and serve us as Christ loves us and serves us. Our theology requires us to understand this. If the church is the body of Christ; if it is his hands, legs, feet and arms (cf. 1 Corinthians 12), it follows that our experience of Christ’s presence will be mediated, in large measure, by other Christians.
A few Christians throughout history have been called to be hermits. For the rest, the reluctance or refusal to serve and be served, to know and be known, to forgive and be forgiven in the church is a warning sign. Jesus fed a community that was gathered together, not five thousand isolated and alienated individuals. It is not necessary that every member of the body know everything about us. But we should have honest and open conversations and relationships with at least some other Christians that mirror our conversation and relationship with God. The members of Christ’s body are sacramental signs of Christ’s presence.
We shy away from being known by others for the same reason we shy away from fasting and solitude. We are afraid of what will happen if others really know us, just as we are afraid of what will happen if the noise stops and we alone with God. So we keep a safe distance from the body of Christ, and we keep busy so as to avoid solitude and the presence of God. We are like Adam and Eve hiding from God in the bushes–as if God didn’t already know us and see us as we are. And, honestly, as if others didn’t already know us and see us as we are as well!
This highlights the fact that, while the experience of Christ’s presence is real and life changing, it is not easy. It is easier to stick with our comfortable but unfaithful habits of behavior. It is easier to feel sorry for ourselves. It is easier to hold on to our anger and maintain our grievances. It is easier to run from the problem to the pain killer. It is harder to fast and pray. It is harder to be still and wait for God. It is harder to make a good confession. It is harder to be honest with others, to forgive and be forgiven. The truth will set us free, but we must face the painful truths before we are set free.
This is why the experience of union with God in Christ, and the health and wholeness that result from it, take time to cultivate. To be sure, we are forgiven for all our sins right now through faith. But disordered patterns of behavior and thought, feelings of guilt and unworthiness and emotions of anger and bitterness take time to conquer. It takes all of Lent to make a good confession. Progress is best measured year to year, from Lent to Lent. A recognizable virtue may be formed in us only after several years of spiritual battle. It takes time because real growth, like the growth of a child or a tree, takes time.
It takes time, but the result is certain if we will persevere in faith and do not give up. Lent will lead to Easter. Life “in Christ,” with all of its spiritual battles, will lead to resurrection and life in the world to come. The feeding miracle of the Eucharist fills us with this hope. We come as sinners; guilty, needy and wounded. We take the creation, the bread and the wine, which represent us–all that we are and all that we need–and offer it to God in thanksgiving. And God consecrates it, transforms it and multiplies it so that it becomes sufficient to feed us all. The “bread of life” satisfies our hunger. The “medicine of immortality” heals our wounds. We are filled with Christ and the promise of Easter. As Jesus said, “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:54).
When I first started observing the Lenten fast and teaching others to do the same, I encountered anobjection. People would say, “I think it is more important to do something positive than it is to fast.” Bodily negation was eschewed in favor of doing good. This objection is a sort of half truth. It is, in fact, quitenecessary to disturb our comfortable patterns of behavior by self-denial in order to make room for positivechange. Nonetheless, it is half true. We must, indeed, aim at positive change. If we want to put to deathwrongly ordered desire by fasting and confession, we must consider what will take root in its place–lestsin confessed be replaced by more sin. For nature abhors a vacuum.
This is the essential point being made by the gospel (Luke 11:14-28). The witnesses to the exorcismfocused on the departure of the evil spirit. Jesus pointed out that the departed spirit leaves a void that maywell be filled by a greater evil–unless it is filled by good. The essential transaction of the Christian life is thatwe remove the evil by self-denial and confession and fill the resulting empty space with Christ in the formof what we call the virtues. Thus, 2 Peter exhorts us to be diligent to,
Add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-controlperseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindnesslove. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in theknowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even toblindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. (2 Peter 1:5-9 NKJ).
When we pray that the Lenten fast will be fruitful, we mean, precisely, that various virtues, Christ-likequality and “fruits of the Spirit” will be produced in us. We uproot weeds and break up the soil throughfasting in order to make room for the growth of the good plant.
Sin is a failure to love. We confess that we have failed to love so that we might learn to love more. Let’sconsider an example. This week’s epistle mentions fornication again. Our culture typically thinks of sex interms of personal pleasure. Thus, people think that to possess the virtue of chastity means to deny oneselfpleasure, with no particularly positive thing to be gained for it. But fornication is wrong because it is a failureto love. It is to use another for one’s own ends, without regard for what is good for the other. To be chasteis to love. It is to respect the image of God in another and control one’s desires so as to love and seek thegood of the other person.
Our culture tends to see the moral teachings of the Bible as rules designed to thwart human fulfillmentbecause the devil has done a good job of indoctrinating our culture. The truth is that virtue and obedienceare the pathway to a more fulfilling life. The law of God is meant to order our lives in the same way that theword of God orders the universe. Psalm 19 says,
The law of the LORD is an undefiled law, converting the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, andgiveth wisdom unto the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, and rejoice the heart; thecommandment of the LORD is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, and endureth for ever; the judgments of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to bedesired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and the honeycomb.Moreover, by them is thy servant taught; and in keeping of them there is great reward. (Psalm19:7-11 BCP 363).
As we cultivate virtues that lead us to habitually obey God’s law–principally, the law of love–the result isan increased sense of order, beauty and peace. Conversely, when our lives are governed by our fallennature, the result is disorder, turmoil, ugliness, sadness and hatred. Consider again this issue of sexualmorality. What if, for the last sixty years, everyone in our culture had followed God’s law calling forabstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness within it? Think of the social ills, cultural chaos and personalpain that would have been eliminated simply by doing what God says to do. There would be no epidemicof fatherlessness and no “welfare state.” There would be a lot less heartache, pain and misery.
Think of your own life for a minute. Would you be better off right now if you had always obeyed God’slaw and done God’s will? Is it not true that our own current discontent results from our lack of faith, hopeand love, or our lack of self-control, patience, kindness, fortitude or some other virtue? This is why, as weconsider how to make a good confession during Lent, we must also consider what the positive change wedesire looks like. We must name our sin, but we must also name the desired virtue. We must confess andremove the evil, but we must also begin to plant and practice the good.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Sin not replaced with holiness will be replaced with another, more insidious sin.This is one reason religious people can become self-righteous. Certain obvious sins of the flesh can beremoved so that we look outwardly good. However, in their place, more serious and subtle spiritual sinscan take root, such as pride, envy, covetousness, anger.
Once we name the virtue that stands opposite of our sin, we must ask God to give it to us. We cannotbecome virtuous by our own efforts any more than we can earn forgiveness by our works. But we canpray, “Lord, increase in me the virtues of faith, hope and love” (cf. Collect for Trinity 14, BCP 209). We can ask God to give us humility, generosity, contentment, self-control and patience.” Then we can beginto practice these things. We can look for opportunities to give where we have been selfish, to be patientwhere we have been impatient, to be humble where our actions and attitudes have been infected by pride,to be self-controlled where we have allowed ourselves to be controlled by our desires.
We experience the power of prayer in the pursuit of holiness. St. John writes, “This is the confidence thatwe have toward [God] that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that hehears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:15).Sometimes we do not know if what we pray for is God’s will. However, we know for sure that it is God’swill that we grow in faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13) and in perseverance, kindness, faithfulness,self-control and peace (Galatians 5:22). Thus, as we learn during Lent to make a good confession of sin,let us also learn to pray for the virtues that we will begin to practice instead. As Jesus said, “Ask and yeshall receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).
The lessons for the Second Sunday in Lent focus both on the faith through which we come to Jesus and the holiness required of those who come to Jesus in faith.
In the first century, Jewish people who were religious didn’t like Gentiles. The Gentiles were not a part of God’s people. They were seen as the enemy because the Gentile Romans were a barrier to Jewish independence and Gentile idolatry was an offense to God. Thus, it is remarkable that Jesus, after a brief encounter in the gospel (Matthew 15:21f) not only accepted the Woman of Canaan, but also identified her as a woman of “mega-faith.” To be sure, Jesus had already accepted and praised the pious Gentile centurion (Matthew 8:5f.). But the woman of Canaan was not pious.
The woman’s daughter was demon possessed, or at least demon harassed. We are not told how she fell into this state, but those who end up demonized have been in places they should not be doing things they should not do. This woman’s daughter opened her life in some sort of “faith” to the forces that bound her. Now, the woman turned in faith to Israel’s Messiah.
The disciples didn’t hate this woman. They merely saw her as having no value–“send her away for she crieth after us.” She was, in their minds, already destined, by race, affliction and gender to fall on the wrong side of the great judgment. Three strikes and your out!
Because of her unacceptable condition, this woman is one of the clearest examples of justification by faith in the New Testament. She had no family background, religious works or attractive appearance by which she might attempt to curry favor with the Lord. She only had faith–great faith–and that was enough.
This is the overarching point of the liturgy. We approach God as those who have “sinned in thought, word and deed,” “not trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercy,” not worthy even“to gather up the crumbs rom under thy table.” It is possible for the beauty and poetry of the prayer book to betray us here just a bit. For it may be hard to fully embrace our unworthiness when we sound so good confessing it!
Nonetheless, the liturgy teaches us that our family pedigree, our fine reputation, our success in the world, our money and our good looks do not matter to God. The things the world says we must have or pursue do not advance us one step towards the kingdom. In fact, they may keep us from the kingdom, for they may become idols that take the place of God.
That is why we are most likely to hear the good news when our lives are shaken in some way. When our child is ill or we find ourselves in some sort of need; when a tsunami destroys a city or a nuclear plant begins to melt down; or during the second week of Lent when the fast, quite far from building spiritual strength, has begun to reveal to us just how weak we really are. Then we begin to realize, as the collect says, “that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” Then, like the Woman of Canaan, we begin to pray from the heart, “O Lord, thou son of David, have mercy on me!”
If you have every prayed to God in a state of affliction with any persistence, you understand the truth revealed in the gospel. God hears the prayers that spring from humble faith. “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17). But then what? The epistle (1 Thessalonians 4:1f.) says, “God has not called us unto uncleanness but unto holiness.” Like the Woman of Canaan, we come to Christ in an unclean state. However, God then calls us to be clean.
The central issue in the epistle is sex: “That ye should abstain from fornication.” Nothing has changed in two thousand years. The early church called people away from pagan promiscuity into a life of holiness. The modern church, when it speaks with the Holy Spirit, calls people away from the sexual license of our culture into a life of abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness within it. This teaching wasn’t any more popular then than it is now.
It isn’t popular, but it is essential because the call to holiness is part and parcel of our healing and deliverance. It would have been strange for the Woman of Canaan to ask for exorcism and then bring her daughter back to the very same place where the demon first entered. It is strange for us to ask for forgiveness for things that we plan to keep on doing.
The real problem is human weakness. “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” We get stuck in patterns of behavior that don’t fulfill us, but we can’t quite break free from them. We want to be forgiven because at some level we know they are wrong, but we aren’t strong enough to actually change. We have had sexual “freedom” in our culture now for over fifty years, and people are less fulfilled and contented sexually than ever before. Yet, sex is still presented as though it is the ultimate answer to the longings of the human heart. People want more, but settle for less because it is easier to give in to human nature that to fight for something higher and better.
It might help us if we understood that holiness is synonymous with freedom. To be holy is to be set apart from the world. Thus, it is also to be free from captivity to the world and its false promises. We are not really free if all we have is some sort of judicial pardon from the punishment for sin, but are still stuck doing all the things for which we asked God’s mercy in the first place.
In Lent, we seek not only to be forgiven for our sins by faith, we also seek to be freed from captivity to sinful patterns of behavior. This takes effort. The purpose of fasting is to challenge our desires so as to bring them under the control of the Holy Spirit. If you find yourself struggling with the fast, that is a good thing. It means you are fighting a real battle. You are denying yourself, claiming new freedom, and the world, the flesh and the devil don’t like it and are fighting back. They don’t want to lose their hold on you.
The point in fasting and prayer where we feel weak is the very point where Christ is able to fill the emptiness with himself. This is why we must persevere in the struggle for the forty days of Lent. We will stumble and fall from time to time, but if we are to make progress we must continue to get up and resume the battle. Some of our besetting sins are only overcome by a commitment to prayer and fasting over time (cf, Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29 KJV). Today’s gospel teaches us that if we persevere God will answer our prayer. He will give us both forgiveness and freedom.
The devil or Satan is mentioned several times in Bible, but he only talks to people twice. He spoke to Eve, with Adam watching and listening (Genesis 3) and he spoke to Jesus in today’s gospel (Matthew 4:1f.). Satan is present at other times, but he is not visible to human beings. Part of the purpose of today’s gospel is to reveal the devil as the unseen enemy of God’s people.
The Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is meant to be read in the light of Israel’s forty year experience of testing (Deuteronomy 8:2). The temptations all match up. The “stone into bread” test relates to Israel’s dissatisfaction with the manna (Numbers 11:6, Deuteronomy 8:3). The temptation to worship the devil in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world relates to Israel’s idolatry with the golden calves (Exodus 32:8). The temptation to jump off the temple relates to the time when God brought water out of the rock, where it is said that Israel “put God to the test” (Exodus 17:7).
The three scripture verses Jesus quotes are the verses of the Old Testament where God rebuked Israel for her disobedience in these three specific episodes (Deuteronomy 6:13, 6:18 & 8:3). The point is that Jesus fulfills the vocation of Israel, succeeding in the very tests that Israel failed. The implication is that the devil was present in the Old Testament as the ultimate source of Israel’s temptations. This reveals that the true enemy of God’s people is the evil one. This is the enemy Jesus defeated.
One of the chief errors of God’s people is to misidentify the enemy. First century Israel thought her enemy was Rome. The Messiah was expected to come and defeat the Romans. This is why no one understood when Jesus chose the cross instead of the sword. The path of “obedience unto death” (Philippians 2:8) was a type of warfare aimed at destroying the kingdom of the evil one, but it had no immediate or obvious impact on the affliction of God people.
Jesus was aiming at a cosmic and eternal victory, not a temporal victory. To win that war he had to be faithful to God through a genuine human life. He had to endure opposition and injustice. He had to offer the sacrifice that would atone for sin and free us from captivity to the evil one (Hebrews 2:14-15). He had to lose the visible battle in order to win the spiritual war. Thus, at the very moment of apparent defeat, he uttered the words of ultimate triumph, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Ephesians says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world” (6:12). This is a reflection on the gospel. The visible battles we face in the world are part of a larger war. Our ultimate victory will be determined, not by whether we achieve fame, success or fulfilment of our desires. Our ultimate victory will be determined by whether or not we remain faithful through the ever-present temptations and tests.
Every challenge in life has two dimensions. There is the visible dimension of eating, drinking, working and playing, and there is the spiritual dimension of how these activities impact our faith and faithfulness. There are visible enemies–people and circumstances. And there is the invisible enemy, who uses the visible things to discourage and anger us; to make us covetous and envious. The challenge is to fight the right battle, to discern the presence of the unseen enemy and act faithfully so as to conquer him.
The tests are made more challenging in our time because of the cultural implication that faith should be an aid to success. There is a sense among many that if I believe in Jesus and do all the right things, life should go well. Thus, for many, a setback or misfortune becomes an unbearable test of faith: “Why is God doing this to me?” Many conclude that since God did not lead them to victory in the visible battle, they will no longer believe in him. This triumph of doubt over faith is precisely the victory the devil is looking for. He is pleased when we win the visible battle at the cost of our faith. He is even more pleased when we win neither the visible battle nor pass the test of faith.
Jesus did all the right things, had perfect faith and got killed for it. We must reconcile ourselves to the truth that the call to be faithful will sometimes cost us things we want. There is a name for visible things that are more important to us than God. They are called idols–and we must continually renounce them. We must be ready always to give up any thing that leads us away from faith and obedience. “Whoever does not forsake all the he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
But there is also a paradox. The things we forsake, the things we offer in sacrifice to God, eventually come back to us in resurrected form. “Every one who has forsaken houses, or brothers or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matthew 19:29).
Jesus renounced the world, the flesh and the devil and surrendered his very life in obedience. However, he was raised from the dead and given a new, immortal body. God did rescue him and raise him. He was given all the kingdoms of the world (Revelation 11:15). He himself became the bread of life. Jesus said no to the demonic temptations because they were all lies. They promised a kind of fulfillment that they would not have delivered. The bread would have solved the problem of hunger only for a moment. The devil would not have given all of the kingdoms. There would have been fine print in the contract. The cheap trick would only have produced faith in cheap tricks.
The demonic voice offers us something that is desirable right now, but will not satisfy us in the long run. For this short term fix, the devil requires unfaithfulness or disobedience. Christ offers us resurrection, eternal life and the fulfillment, eventually, of every genuine human desire. He requires of us faith and obedience, which include a willingness to suffer some lack of fulfilment in the present moment. The devil is always in a hurry because he knows that his time is short (Revelation 12:12). Thus, the demonic voice tells us that we must have what we want now. God has, literally, an eternity to fulfill his promises to us. Thus, he is always telling us to be patient and faithful and wait for him.
The Lenten fast is a time to make sure we are seeing the real enemy and fighting the right battle. The disciplines aid us. Through prayer, we gain the wisdom and vision we need to perceive the devil’s schemes. We are given the grace we need to embrace our share of the cross. Through fasting, we learn to subdue the flesh. We learn not to live by bread alone. Through almsgiving, we renounce our idols so that out treasure and our hearts may be fully invested in the coming kingdom. Easter and resurrection will make it all worthwhile. As St. Paul wrote, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; (2 Corinthians 4:17).
As we prepare for Lent and its intensified practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we would be remiss if we did not address the historical tension between the practice of spiritual disciplines and the truth that salvation is a gift that does not depend upon what we do.
This tension has surfaced in two periods of history. First, the New Testament doctrine of justification by faith was worked out by St. Paul in opposition to the Judaism of the Pharisees, which taught that justification was accomplished by one’s zeal for the Torah and by practicing what St. Paul referred to as the “works of the law” (Galatians 2:16).
The tension surfaced again in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Here the doctrine of justification by faith was re-emphasized in reaction against certain practices of the mediaeval church, which implied that salvation was accomplished, or at least greatly augmented, by religious acts, indulgences, the accumulated merits of the saints and other things that might be labeled “works.” The seminal person was Martin Luther, who found peace with God by reading Romans and applying St. Paul’s arguments to the religious practices his day.
Every Christian needs to be able to hear, again and again, the good news that we are saved because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. He has fulfilled the law for us. When we put our faith in him, we become part of God’s people and our sins are forgiven. We receive the gift of the Spirit and become children of God and heirs of the kingdom. We cry out “Abba, Father.” All of this is a gift that cannot be earned or merited by any amount of prayer, almsgiving or fasting.
However, the notion that our status with God depends upon our works is not the only historical error of God’s people. At the end of the Old Testament, Israel ran into the opposite error. The people believed that because they were God’s chosen people and God lived among them in the temple, they were safe from their enemies and God’s judgment–even though they were not faithful to the Torah. Their presumption and faithlessness led to the destruction of the temple and the exile into Babylon.
If we believe that the experience of coming to faith in Jesus at a past moment is time is enough to guarantee our place in the kingdom, come what may, we are misinformed. We would do well to read again the letters the Risen Christ dictated to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3, the statements by Jesus that the road to life is narrow (Matthew 7:14) and that many are called, but few chosen (Matthew 22:14) and the various other New Testament warnings against unfaithfulness.
The characteristic error of our time is much closer to the presumption of Old Testament Israel than the legalism of the Pharisees or the mediaeval church. I have heard people warn against “salvation by works,” but I don’t know any people whose tortured consciences compel them to make long pilgrimages, wear hair shirts or purchase indulgences in order to insure their salvation. However, I do know people who think they will be saved because they have some kind of faith and trust that God will love, accept and forgive them no matter what they do. The characteristic error of our age is the denial of sin, guilt, judgment and the need to be saved at all.
The prophetic message for our time is to remind people that faith is a present tense verb that implies faithfulness. God has given us the gift of salvation, but he has also called to be a holy nation, a people set apart from the world. A faith that does not produce good works; a faith that does not cause us to behave in a new way; a faith that does not bear fruit is, by the clear teaching of the New Testament, a faith that is not pleasing to God.
The tension between the gift of salvation and the practice of spiritual disciplines is another biblical paradox. Salvation is a “free gift” but it ends up costing everything we have.” There is nothing we can do to be saved, but faith requires a lot of hard work. All who travail and are heavy laden can come to Jesus because his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). Yet, those who come discover that “he who does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
As we enter Lent and take up the Lenten fast, we must always keep these truths in their proper order. We begin by receiving the gift of salvation. Then, and only then, we work to cultivate the gift so that it grows in us and bears fruit. The whole apparatus of the Lenten fast crumbles if it is not built upon the foundation of faith. Lenten disciplines do not earn God’s favor. Lenten disciples help to get the world, the flesh and the devil out of the way so that we can more fully experience the gift of union with God in Christ.
The motive for all spiritual disciplines is love. Without the motive of love for God, all spiritual disciplines are worthless. This is what St. Paul says in the epistle (1 Corinthians 13). If I give all my goods away to the poor and am willing to die as a martyr for the faith, yet lack the gift of charity, agape or love, I gain nothing at all from my actions.
Love comes to us from God. St. John says, “It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). St. Paul says, “God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (5:5). Lent is built upon this foundation. Lent is our response of love to God’s love–and nothing else.
Thus, we must consider not only, What am I doing for Lent? We must also consider, Why am I doing it? Human nature will settle for an external sense of righteousness that lacks the virtue of charity, or warm sentiments without action. Genuine discipleship leads us to do God’s will from the motive of genuine love.
“Behold we go up to Jerusalem.” Easter awaits us on the other side of the cross. Easter will come as a gift and grace no matter what we do in Lent. Our highest and best Lenten efforts will not earn us the resurrection. But that is not why we make the effort in Lent. Lent is about opening our lives to a greater experience of God’s grace. Lent is opportunity to respond to God’s love with love; to draw closer in some way, to remove some distraction, to purify our motives, to die a little more so that we might live and love more fully. “Behold we go up to Jerusalem.”