O Lord, who for our sakes didst fast forty days and forty nights,
Give us Grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit,
We may ever obey thy Godly Motions in Righteousness and True Holiness
To thy Honor and Glory, Who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost,
One God, world without end. Amen.
One of the questions, which I hope we shall answer by the end of our forty days of Lent, is this: Who is Jesus Christ? The question is of utmost importance to our respective destinies. That the question has not been asked much in recent years is a sign that begs the question even more. Who is Jesus Christ? This is the question we shall ask throughout Lent. This is the Season in which, I pray, we shall find the answer. Lent reveals Who Jesus is by way of His having been tempted to be Who He is not. He was tempted not to be the Son of God as man. This means that He was tempted not to undertake the painful and necessary road to Gethsemane, Gabbatha, and Golgotha. Put more simply, He was tempted to redeem us by not suffering anything at all for our redemption and salvation.
Now, remember, today’s Gospel temptation narrative follows on the heels of John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus when Jesus emerged from the river Jordan and
the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon Him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (St. Matthew iii. 16, 17)
Who is Jesus? This answer pleases our senses. The Father has anointed Jesus His Son and the Descent of the Dove confirms our expectations. Mystified mortals are mesmerized by the Divine Immanence. Messiah has come to save us all and will defeat the enemies of our Heavenly Father. So, we think. Thus, we hope. But what we read next confounds our expectations.
THEN was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an-hungered. when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an-hungered. (Ibid, 1,2)
Who is Jesus? We begin to find the answer to our question by being led up of the Spirit with Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted of the Devil. (St. Matthew iv. 1) The Dove who has descended from Heaven with the Father’s blessing leads Jesus not into Jerusalem for a triumphal coronation but into the desert for struggle, trial, and temptation by Satan. The Son of God begins the mission of our redemption with suffering! For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews iv. 15) Following the Baptism of John, who preached repentance, Jesus’ first order of business is to undergo the temptations that we all endure. Jesus was anointed to suffer as we suffer and to be tempted as we are tempted. Baptism is followed by the manifold assaults of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. We all know and have experienced it and Jesus blesses our suffering by enduring it Himself!
We read on. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (Ibid, 3) The Son of God has been dignified and honored by the Father. The Spirit leads Jesus into that desert place where He has fasted from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Son of God made man is not only famished but alone. Satan tempts us hardest when we are hungry and in isolation. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God who is with us after the fast, when we are alone and most sorely tempted by earthly things, like hunger and thirst, lust and gluttony.
Satan begins If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (Idem) The Son of God, God’s Word, who brought waters out of the stoney rock (Ps. lxxviii. 16) to nourish the ancient Hebrews in the wilderness can surely use His Divine Power to satisfy His earthly hunger by turning the flat rocks in the wilderness into bread. Satan tempts Jesus to prove that He is the Son of God by putting His own earthly needs before His Divine Commission. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the one who will redeem us by hungering and thirsting for [God’s] righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) The Son of God was made man so that man might become a son of God once again. Jesus will insist Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, that….all [other]….things may be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33)
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the one who knows that we all are tempted to put earthly hunger and thirst, our bodies’ needs and urges before God. We all have been consumed with food, drink, sex, and riches. But Jesus has meat to eat that Satan does not know of. His meat is to do the will of Him that sent…. Him. (St. John iv. 32,34) Jesus knows that Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew iv. 4) St. Paul, in today’s Epistle, reminds us that only with patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, and in fastings (2 Cor. vi. 4) -in the flesh, do we discover Satan’s assault. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God with us in our first temptation when the world is barren and determined to assault and persecute us, and when we are tempted to put our bodies and the flesh before our souls and the spirit. Jesus is the Son of God who proclaims I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. (St. John vi. 35)
Who is Jesus? Jesus is determined to become the bread of God’s will. Satan will not be deterred. He will tempt Jesus a second time with pride, envy, and wrath. Fasting in the body often brings anger in the soul and then envy of God’s pure and simple blessedness. Then comes the pride that tempts us to abandon and even harm the body altogether. He has denied the good of the body, Satan thinks, so let Jesus dispense with his body entirely, cleaving as he does to this ‘Word’ of God. He trusts in God, then let Him deliver Him now, if he will have Him: for he said, I am the Son of God. (St. Matthew xxvii. 43)
Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto Him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew iv. 5,6)
Satan tempts Jesus to prove that He is the Son of God by hurling Himself from on high onto the pavement of the temple with pilgrims gathered to witness the event. Cast yourself down; surely God will not let one perish who places the good of his soul above that of his body. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God made flesh, with a soul in a body. Grace never destroys but perfects human nature. The Son of God will not command faith from miracles as Satan commanded bread from stones. We are tempted to avoid and flee suffering and sacrifice. Jesus shows us that we must not. Jesus will suffer and sacrifice His life for us all. He will not hurl Himself down but allow Himself to be lifted high on the Cross. Through suffering and sacrifice, Christ conquers all. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God made flesh whose humility and meekness will defeat sin, death, and Satan from the Cross of His love. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. (St. Matthew iv. 7)
Who is Jesus? Satan thinks that only one temptation remains. Surely if Jesus is the Son of God as flesh, He can still be tempted by greed and sloth. Jesus has come to save all men, but He wonders if Jesus is enslaved to God’s will. Jesus’ last temptation, brought on by exhaustion and sloth, is to covet with greed His Father’s power and to steal it for His own selfish glory. Like us, Jesus is tempted to become His own god, becoming the master of His own destiny and the definer of right and wrong.
Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew iv. 8,9)
Satan tempts Jesus to despair of His Father’s Kingdom and to rule over His own. The last temptation is the worst since it lures us into the world of becoming our own gods, calling good evil and evil good. Jesus has Himself wholly to His Father’s kingdom. Finally, He is tempted to give it all up –to do evil that good may come of it. (Idem, Knox, p. 65) Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew iv. 10) The Son of God has come to reveal the Father’s wisdom and judgment. The Son of God will freely offer Himself as God’s own pure Lamb, to make atonement for our sins and invite us into salvation. Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him. (St. Matthew iv. 11)
Who is Jesus? The Son of God who became the Son of Man. The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (St. Matthew xx. 28) At the end of our Gospel lesson we read that Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Luther tells us that the angels came down from Heaven to feed Him. Now Jesus’ earthly hunger can be satisfied. The Son of God has come to set first things first. The Son of God will go on to win our salvation on the Cross of Calvary. He is the Broken Body and Poured out Blood. He is our Broken Bread and Poured out Wine. Food for Men Wayfaring.
Today we begin the great season of Lent. Our liturgical season goes back to the earliest days of the Christian Church when the faithful were called into memory the journey up to Jerusalem and the great events of the Passion which came to pass in the life of Jesus Christ. Lent is a journey. Lent is a time of journeying in memory with Christ, so that we may embrace more profoundly the Word of God Ηimself in our souls. Journeying with Christ means being with Him and accepting his offer of friendship in love.
“With its duration of 40 days, Lent acquires an undoubted evocative force. It tries to recall some of the events that marked the life and history of ancient Israel, also presenting to us again its paradigmatic value. Let us think, for example, of the 40 days of the universal flood, which ended with the covenant established by God with Noah and thus with humanity, and of the 40 days of Moses' stay on Mount Sinai, which were followed by the gift of the tablets of the Law.” (Benedict XVI, Ash Wednesday, 2006)
Our First Sunday in Lent begins with the Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. But we shall also remember that He was led by the Spirit into this encounter. The Holy Spirit will take us with Jesus into a place where we have no food, no water, and no shelter. There we shall be asked to face both God our Heavenly Father and Satan’s opposition to His Son and Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. There we must face our temptations and ask Jesus to help us to conquer them. It will help if we keep a journal or notes. We must honestly face our temptations when they arise, jot them down, describe the feelings associated with them, search out their origins, and give them over in our spiritual poverty to the Lord for destruction. This exercise will open us to the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which alone can conquer our sins. Lent should be a time of quiet stillness in the desert. We should know that Jesus is with us and wants to help us to resist temptation and cleave to His powerful goodness.
In Lent we spend time in the wilderness with Jesus and we also prepare to go up to Jerusalem with Him. We pray to go up to the Jerusalem of Jesus’ Cross. In Lent, we shall follow Jesus up to the great city of the Jewish Kings to accompany Jesus into His unearned, unmerited, and wholly undeserved rejection, torture, suffering and death. We shall follow Jesus up to that experience that we, as fallen, sinful creatures have caused. Jesus is the Holy Child of God. Jesus is the Son of God made man. As man, He goes up to Jerusalem to do a work for us what we could never sustain. He will take on sin, death, and Satan. He will be tempted again to reject God the Father, to choose the evil over the good, and to abandon His mission and calling to win our salvation. He will be tempted at the point of extreme remove from God to say no to God and yes to Himself. On the Cross, as in the wilderness, Jesus will be with God and Satan alone. He will be attacked by all demons that threaten His relationship to God the Father. He will be tortured and crucified by all of us who, if we are honest with ourselves, want Him dead because that is what sin does. Sin kills the Word of God in the flesh of Jesus and in the flesh of all men. Jesus’ Crucifixion sums up and lifts up the reality of what man’s sin tries to do with God’s Word made flesh.
Today we rehearse the age-old custom of The Imposition of Ashes. Ashes will be imposed on our foreheads, and we shall hear the words, Remember O Man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis iii:19). The words, taken from the First Book of Moses Genesis, remind us that our bodies were molded and fashioned from the dust of the earth. These words humble us. They remind us that we are corruptible, that we all shall die, return to the earth, and decompose into what is next to nothing. But in God’s presence, we are reminded that we need another kind of death, a spiritual death, the kind of death that we must die with Jesus on His Cross of Calvary. We shall be reminded that we must die to the world, the flesh, and the devil, in and through Jesus Christ. We must go to Calvary to see the vision of a new death that becomes the seedbed of our new life because Christ loves us more than our sin and Christ forgives us our nailing Him to the Cross.
Lent doesn’t end in death. Lent is all about a death that will lead us into new and Resurrected Life. We repent to believe. We believe to follow. We follow to die and then to rise into new life. Lent is part and parcel of our return to God through Jesus Christ’s Cross and beyond. Lent is about becoming partakers of His all-sufficient sacrifice on Calvary’s Cross so that we might ingest and imbibe the food and drink of His Sacred Love, His Body and Blood, that give us the strength to die to sin and come alive to righteousness.
Today we pray that we shall begin our journey with Christ to His Cross and beyond. We look forward to Lent as a time of fasting and abstinence. We look forward to Lent as a time of pilgrimage with Jesus to His Cross. We look forward to Lent as a time of journeying into our death to sin and our coming alive to righteousness. We long for the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, to dwell in our hearts so that with His Wisdom, Power, and Love we might die to sin and come alive to righteousness. The old gods and our old sinful ways must be left behind. We must face our temptations. We must confront the stubborn and hard rocks of our old sinful selves. In the stillness, we must ask Jesus to assist us in our spiritual warfare. We must ask Jesus to enable us to sit still even in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation so that, with Him, we may embrace the power and submit to the Wisdom of our Heavenly Father.
Remember the words of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday.”
“Because I do not hope to turn again…” This is how it begins. He hopes not to turn back and into a world of sin, illusions, lies, and false gods.
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
He then turns to Mother Church and commits his soul to her rule and governance as he begins his Lenten pilgrimage.
Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
Behold, we go up to Jerusalem
(Matthew 20. 18)
The Gesima season ends with an invitation to take up another beginning. Behold we go up. (Matt. 20. 18) We are invited onto yet another road, a spiritual road that leads to our death and new life with God. The road which we will tread is not an easy one. As we have said, it will require humility, temperance, courage, and concentration. Our self-discipline must be used in the service of a more difficult task. We must learn how to hand over our sin to the Lord for death. It will demand a death to all else but the love of God in Jesus Christ. Progressively our journey will be an invitation onto the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I am the way, the truth, and the life, (John 14. 6) Follow me, Jesus says, for behold we go up to Jerusalem. In other words, behold we must go up if we would follow Jesus to His Kingdom.
Our journey will teach us many things about ourselves and about God’s Love. First, of course, we shall learn what happens when sinful man cannot endure the love of God in the heart of Jesus. Every one of us is fallen away from the love of God and the love of neighbor. Fallen man rejects God’s Love. God’s Love never ceases to be itself and this means that it insists upon conditions that most men cannot endure. Love is made flesh for us in the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is that perfect Love that never ceases to offer itself to all people in all ages. But fallen man rejects this persistent, insistent, and determined Love of God in Christ. God’s Love ceaselessly reveals the truth in Jesus Christ. That Love is consistent God’s expectations of us all.
Long before the coming of Christ, the prophets foretold of how God’s Love would be received in the heart of sinful man. They foretold of how fallen man would not be able to endure the persistent presence of God’s Love in the world. Fallen man resents it when God’s Love threatens to challenge and disrupt the universe of material and earthly comfort. The prophets knew that most men would be hard pressed to abandon the false gods of this world for the sake of God’s Love.
Even the Apostles themselves bear witness to how difficult it will be to embrace the love of God in Jesus Christ. They believe that Jesus is the Love of God the Father made flesh. But they cannot see that He must be delivered unto the Gentiles. (Luke 18. 31) Nor can they allow themselves to imagine that He shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on. (Luke 18. 32) That Jesus will be demoralized, derided, and despoiled is beyond what they think is right or appropriate for God’s Son. The problem is that their idea of Love knows no struggle, difficulty, or sacrifice. What they see of Love involves neither suffering nor self-denial. The Apostles desire to go up with Jesus to Jerusalem and yet they have no conception of how God’s Love in the heart of Jesus must suffer at the hands of sinful man in order to save them all. Jesus prophesies that they shall scourge Him and put Him to death. (Ibid, 33) But the Apostles understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.(Ibid, 34) Calvin says that they had formed the expectation for joyful and prosperous advancement and therefore had reckoned it to be in the highest degree absurd that Christ should be ignominiously crucified. (J. Calvin: Harmony of the Gospels, xvii) Their hearts and souls want only to be lifted up and to feel good. They cannot see. They are blind to what true love means and does.
And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the wayside begging: And hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant. And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.(Luke 18. 35-37)
The Apostles cannot see or understand what Jesus has said to them. And what do they find? A man who is literally blind in another way stumbles onto their path. They are spiritually blind, but he is physically blind. But this physically blind man sees what the Apostles do not see. And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.(Luke 18.38) What he could not see with his eyes, he saw and knew with the eyes of his heart and soul. So, he cries out for God’s love in the heart of Jesus for mercy. In some deep way, he knows that the Jesus who is going up to Jerusalem will come down to minister to him. The Apostles are blind and thus cannot see the point. And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace. (Luke 18. 39) The Apostles are confused and irritated enough. Why should they allow some pathetic blind man to interrupt a journey already suffused in confusion? Yet, the blind man sees. He sees that he must reach out to God’s Love made flesh. He sees that he cannot let Love made flesh pass him by. With the eyes of faith and the determination of hope, he sees God’s Love and the Power in Jesus, and so he cried so much the more, Thou son of David, have mercy on me. (Luke 18. 39) Let the Apostles luxuriously wallow in philosophical confusion. This man sees plainly and will have some of that Love that condescends to men of low estate! Love is near. The blind man is determined to have it!
Behold we go up to Jerusalem. And as we go up, we find one who was blind and truly sees, who has only heard of this Jesus and yet sees and understands! Love is going up to Jerusalem, and He will take with him those who see His love and desire more of His mercy. The relationship is established. Will we go up to Jerusalem? Will we follow Love, cry out to Love, implore Love’s mercy as we travel into the depth of its meaning and purpose?
And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him: and when he was come near, he asked him, Saying, What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee? And he said, Lord, that I may receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee. (Luke 18. 40-42.)
Yes, behold we go up to Jerusalem, and as we go up, the Love that will be mocked, spitefully entreated, spitted upon, still loves. Love reaches out to all. Here to a new friend who knew more than Jesus’ disciples because he truly saw who Jesus was and understood the power of His Love. The blind man reveals a faith that sees the Love that heals. This is the Love that is going up to His death. Thus, Jesus finds one who can assist Him in beginning the process. This Love cannot help but love. This Love cannot help but die to Himself as He comes alive to God in the life of His brother. Jesus sees faith and hope and responds with God’s Love. His says Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee. (Luke 18. 42) Love says to the blind man, because you see me inwardly and spiritually, you shall see me now outwardly and materially. And, blessed are they who have not seen, and yet believe. (John 20. 29) Behold, we go up to Jerusalem. (Idem)
On the journey up to Jerusalem, Love in the flesh is always Himself. It will never cease to be the Love received from the Father and passed on to all –friend and foe alike. Here a new friend asks for its power and receives it. The new friend has the eyes of faith with which to see. Will we desire this Love with the faith and hope of the blind man? We have been blind, but Love desires for us to see. As St. Paul reminds us this morning, Love or Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth. Love or Charity is always Himself. Love made flesh is always Himself. Jesus is Love or Charity made flesh. He suffers all resistance to God’s Love. His Love never ceases to be kind, benevolent, humble, and meek. He is never puffed up or proud, never seeks his own advantage and worldly comfort. In fact, Love always reaches down to lift others up. It stoops down to lift the blind man into the light of day. It will reach down from the Cross to see and know that those who are killing Him on Good Friday might have a change of heart on Holy Saturday to embrace Him wholeheartedly on Easter Sunday.
Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (Idem) Will we begin to imagine that Love in the flesh must suffer innocently to reveal God’s persistent desire for all men’s salvation? Will we begin to imagine that Love in the flesh must become sin who knew no sin to vanquish sin and death? Will we participate in this death to sin, death, and Satan that we might begin to find new life in Him? Will we embrace the love that forgives the worst of sinners and their sin? Will we cherish the love that calls forth more generosity at the cost of loss to ourselves and sacrifice? Will we treasure that love that must suffer real mental and even physical anguish and loss in order to be made one with the suffering Christ? Will we see, with the blind man, that unless we believe and hope in the invisible work of God’s love in the heart of Jesus, we cannot be saved?
Today, let us forsake all, follow Jesus, and glorify God. (Ibid, 43) With Calvin, those who are healed of their blindness show a grateful mind in presenting themselves to others as mirrors of the Grace of Christ. (Idem) With the blind man, we might even gratefully anticipate the Resurrection that stands behind the Cross.
Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,
Did at midnight speak with the Sun!
(Henry Vaughn: The Night)
In the midnight of darkness, behold we see! Behold, we go up to Jerusalem. (Idem)
And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
Have you ever wondered why Jesus speaks in Parables? The New Testament is full of examples of parables; there are actually thirty in total. We encountered one of them last week, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable is an illustration or story of something that is meant to lead our minds into a deeper truth. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always involves the spiritual realm as it relates to the natural order. It never violates the natural order and natural law but unlike a fable it transcends it but penetrates it with spiritual truth. The fable never moves above the earthly realm and earthly truth. Fables teach human truth through talking trees and animals. Also, the Parable is different from a myth since myth confuses fantasy with reality. A parable, then, involves men and some aspect of their natures that needs correction or reformation. It considers the human condition with earnest seriousness, and sets out to correct what it finds to be wrong from the spiritual perspective. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, he never uses illustrations that contradict the created order but offers examples drawn from it that can compare to the human soul. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The Parables of the New Testament are always about the choices that man makes in this life, and how those choices affect his ultimate destiny. Jesus uses parables not only because he wants men to know and understand but also because He wants men to find the source and origin of their choices and decisions. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God, to others -to all sorts of people. But to those who will follow Him and become His disciples, He speaks in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, their conversion of the heart…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). So parables are used by Jesus in order to convince and convert men’s hearts that they might discover the truth and embrace the spiritual transformation that He longs for them to embrace. Of course, Jesus always respects man’s freedom, and that freedom is all about the ability to learn and understand, and then to choose and decide. In the Parables, each of us is given opportunity to follow Jesus to his Kingdom.
But think about how so very hard this is –I mean to make a decision to follow Jesus, to persevere and to persist in our spiritual journey. Last week we prayed for concentration, courage, and temperance. And this week we are reminded that such an effort is no easy business. St. Paul this morning takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians who are being swayed and moved by false prophets and philosophers. No sooner had he established a new church at Corinth, than supposed wise men and teachers had seduced them with ideas and teachings that contradicted his own. They were basically telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing up the process of conversion all of out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of spirituality that promises a painless and happy existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching, but should be easier, softer, gentler, and without any kind of suffering at all. To which St. Paul responds with his characteristic zeal and passion, flavored with what some scholars have interpreted as self-justifying arrogance.
But St. Paul intends no such thing. Far from wishing to justify himself, he desires only to use his life as a kind of parable of what happens to honest men in real life who make a conscious decision to follow Christ. Remember that a parable presents a real story drawn from earthly reality to carry the listener to a spiritual understanding. So Paul uses his own experience as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true conversion and discipleship make a mockery of the false teachers who are seducing his flock. He says, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) He tells them, in other words, that conversion and discipleship involve much suffering, both physical and mental or bodily and spiritual. He tells them that he suffers not only because the world rejects him and his teaching but because inwardly and spiritually he endures spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within his soul. Who is weak, and I am not weak (Cor. xi. 29), he asks? This business of becoming a Christian and staying the course are as real as the parable that his own life reveals. In other words, it hurts. Paul claims and confesses his weakness, his vulnerability, and his exposure to the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And yet he offers up his suffering as a way and means for Christ to work His redemption into his soul more deeply and lastingly. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) For it is precisely in his weakness and suffering, in that real struggle to open his soul to God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, that his life is a Parable for the virtue of humility.
So Paul’s life is a Parable for us all. But what had happened to his Corinthian converts so that they were so easily swayed by their new teachers and gurus? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable. Jesus tells the parable of the sower [who] went out to sow his seed….He tells us that some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (St. Luke viii. 5-7) Some of St. Paul’s flock heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was trodden down and hardened by the traffic and business of this world, and so they never really heard the Word. They became habituated to this hardness because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement, till they have laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Some of Paul’s Corinthian sheep became easy prey to the Devil and his friends since they lived in a world full of so many words, that they could not distinguish God’s Word from all others. Others in Paul’s flock at first heard the Word of God with excitement and joy but trusted in the promises’ fulfilment prematurely without counting the cost of its growth in the soul. They fell away because they were not prepared to work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discovered, seemed too much like real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no deepness of earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26) Finally there were those in Paul’s church who heard God’s Word but were choked and killed by thorns which sprung up with it. (St. Luke viii. 7) In these believers, the heard-Word was growing, but only alongside inner anxiety, fear, worry, and looming despair over mammon and earthly riches. They were crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) As Archbishop Trench remarks, the old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars always take the form of something enjoyed when possessed but accompanied by fear because they can be lost. One or all of these kinds of hearing God’s Word might explain what happened to St. Paul’s new flock at Corinth and what can happen to us if we are not wise and vigilent.
But today’s Parable does conclude with the seed of God’s Word sown in a good heart, like the heart of St. Paul. Remember that Parables are always about real life. In real life seed can grow up effectually only in deep, dark soil that has been weeded and fertilized. So in real life the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must resign ourselves to persecution and suffering for it at the hands of the world’s unbelief and the attacks which we endure inwardly and spiritually. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations and sin that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable.
Thus, for all the more reason we must identify with St. Paul who, again, says, if I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) For it is precisely in the admission that we are weak, vulnerable, and exposed to Satan’s assaults that God responds to us. God has made the soul; God speaks his Word into it in order to save us. But when we confess our weakness and infirmity, we acknowledge with the Collect that we put not our trust in anything that we do and that power of God’s Grace alone can protect us from any adversity that might uproot us from journeying to Christ’s Kingdom. We claim, too, that we must prepare the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance to clear the ground so that God’s grace might enable us to bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a Parable or illustration that reveals not only the truth of God’s Word, but its secure place in the soil our souls, fertilized by our infirmities.
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
St. Matthew xx. 16
The Church in her ancient wisdom is nothing if she is not keenly aware of the dangers that man as a fallen creature poses for the process of redemption and salvation. If she were not aware of human nature’s tendency to fall away from the vigilance that is required for embracing and perfecting these gifts, she would not constantly and habitually provide seasonal themes in her lectionary that remind him of the dangers that accompany his spiritual journey. We have just emerged from the season of light -that of Epiphany, in which were called to be illuminated and enlightened by the brilliance and beauty of God’s love and good will in the life of Jesus Christ. Were not the Church not conscious of man’s tendency to treat it more like a deer in headlights than a vision of the glory to come, she would approach the period between Epiphany and Lent innocuously and tenderly. But thank God that the Church in her prudence has established the season before Lent with more caution and concern for our souls. The Church knows that Epiphany Tide spoils us with God’s power and glory in Jesus’ manifestations of His Divinity. She knows that we are easily enamored of the Divine Goodness and might not grasp where Christ leads us. Thus, she gives us the Gesima Sundays, between the season of Epiphany-vision and that of Lenten penance.
The Gesima Season is comprised of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays, named from the Latin words meaning seventy, sixty and fifty days prior to Easter. In this season, the Church reminds us that the Divine Glory of Epiphany calls us forward onto a journey, a spiritual pilgrimage which follows Christ up to His Cross and beyond. Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) In Lent, the Christian is called to see and experience the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in a life-changing way. But first Mother Church calls us to cultivate and nurture those habits of mind and acts of will that ensure that we are sufficiently prepared to encounter our Saviour’s Passion for us.
The Gesima Seasons enjoins our consciences to begin a journey and to make due preparation for the coming Lent. Our lections for this Season will help us to prepare our bodies, souls, and spirits for a closer walk with [Christ] up to His Cross. Today we focus on our bodies and our relation to other men. Our work must begin in the external and visible world before we move to the inward and spiritual. We might find this odd, but we shouldn’t. Adam chose to make a false god out of the creation. What ended up moving and defining him was time, space, and the things in it. This created world became more important to him than God. Adam was first tempted through his senses. This is where that our Gesima-work begins.
St. Paul tells us that our work will be like running a race. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he compares us to athletes or runners who are in training and will compete to win the prize. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. (I Cor. ix. 24) St. Paul appeals to the physical and bodily nature of athletics to rouse our souls to spiritual exercise. If we are faithful to our calling, we should be striving to win a prize, the way runners do. For our mind’s eye to be focused on the spiritual journey that lies ahead with Jesus, we must temper and moderate our bodies’ physical passions. Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. (I Cor. ix. 25) We must remind ourselves that because we seek the spiritual and eternal prize of eternal salvation, our physical natures- appetites, feelings, emotions, wants and needs, and desires and passions must be tamed and subordinated into the service of the soul’s good. What and how much we eat and drink should only be what is absolutely necessary for running the race that is set before us. Thus, the virtue of temperance will be needed for our spiritual race. St. Ambrose says that what we observe and seek most in temperance is tranquility of soul. (De Offic. i. 42) If our passions and appetites are moderated and subdued, our souls will not heavy laden and submerged in sloth. Our souls will be focused on the labor of running the race. St. Paul says that people whose loyalties are divided and who worship other gods do it to obtain a corruptible crown (I Cor. ix. 25) –they seek earthly rewards of impermanent meaning. But we Christians run to obtain an incorruptible crown –a gift and prize of eternal worth and enduring merit. Thus, we are called not to run blindly, erratically, pointlessly, and capriciously. Since we know our end, we should moderate and temper our physical desires and passions in such a way that best enables us to reach our spiritual end.
St. Paul is running to obtain the incorruptible crown. The man who has tempered his appetites and is moderate in all things longs for the free gift of God’s Grace to change his life and move others to share in the same. The effort is directed at all who desire to receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. (1 Peter v. 4)
The crown on glory that fadeth not away is a gift. It cannot be merited or earned by human effort. This is nicely summarized in today’s Gospel Parable. Here Jesus says:
…The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. (St. Matthew xx. 1-7)
Archbishop Trench reminds us that the Parable is a response to the question which St. Peter asks in the preceding chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Peter said, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (St. Matthew xix. 27) Jesus promised the Apostles…twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 28) He said also that others who had forsaken all…would receive an hundred fold…and…everlasting life. (Ibid, 29) He concluded his promises with the words of the Gospel parable. But, many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Ibid, 30) St Paul’s race is the journey of a lifetime. Some, like the Apostles, may start running or working like the laborers in the vineyard because they were called first and promised one penny for their labors. Others would be called later because they had stopped running or had never started. The problem is with sloth and idleness. They are promised whatsoever is right [or just]. (Ibid, 4,7) When the workday was over, the Lord of the vineyard would instruct his steward to pay the laborers. But notice this interesting detail. We read that steward was to pay the laborers beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. (Ibid, 8,9) Jesus tells us that the last are called first.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12)
It appears that the first have a real problem with the last. Imagine St. Paul’s runner thinking he had won the race, only to discover that the laurel wreath or crown was being placed on the heads of the last to make it to the finish line. Like the laborers who came first, he would be moved with rage and horrified at the injustice of it all. The first were promised one penny. But the Lord rebukes them with these words:
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? (Ibid, 13-15)
Father Crouse reminds us, It matters not when they come into the vineyard- at morning, midday or the eleventh hour; the point is that they are called into the labor and that they work for one reward- the one penny that God’s free Grace provides. (Parochial Sermons) Running St. Paul’s race is an ongoing labor that calls us to labor and run well.
Some commentators have said that the reward of one penny is the reward of everlasting salvation. Archbishop Trench thinks this is wrong. If the one penny symbolizes salvation, then the first workers or the men who are full of resentment, bitterness, envy, and a begrudging spirit would be saved, since we read that they received every man a penny. But these vices can never reward a man with Christ’s Kingdom. The one penny symbolizes God’s Grace. How we labor, run, or receive it matters. If it is received humbly and undeservedly, we shall be saved. If it is received cynically and disdainfully, we shall be damned. The last shall be first…. The race that we run is the gift that God gives. He invites us to labor in His vineyard or run in His race. Though we have sinned, He believes still that we can run and work. God’s Grace is given to us first to awaken us to the fact that we are the last and the least always because of our sin. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been running or working. God’s Grace sustains us. Jesus alone gives us the speed, wisdom, and alacrity to finish the labor and cross the finish line. Gesima Tide reveals that we should be justly punished for our sins but will be mercifully delivered and crowned with a laurel that rewards humility. (Fr. Crouse: Logic of Pre-Lent)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: