Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the
bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of Freewoman.
So brethren we are not children of the bond-woman,
but of the free.
(Galatians iv. 31)
The Epistles and Gospels for the Lenten season prepare us to receive the liberating power of Jesus Christ more fully as we approach Holy Week. In this time of the Church’s year, we are invited to follow Jesus more closely in our hearts and minds, as we discover our true desire and love- the desire and love with which God made us to love Him and one another. But we cannot discover our love for God and our neighbors until we first remember God’s love for us, as shown in the life of his Son. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 St. John iv. 10) Or even more poignantly, We love Him, because He first loved us. (1 St. John iv. 19) What we struggle to see, ponder, even question, and perceive then in Lent is the eternal love of God in the heart of Jesus Christ which desires to carry us into death and beyond.
However, when we say into death most men’s minds go to the termination of their earthly physical natures. Their thoughts jump to that end. And, of course, Lent might be about that, but not for now. For now Jesus, the Love of God made flesh, desires to take us into a prior death. And if we do not endure this prior death, well, then at the other death, it will be too late. Why? Because long before our physical frames conk out, our spiritual natures must have died to this world and come alive to God. What we mean by the prior death is a spiritual death; this is a death that we choose and will here and now- a death to sin, death, Satan, or anything separating us from the knowledge and love of God. So Lent is all about spiritual death. At the end of this season we come to the Cross and the death of Jesus Christ. If we have been dying to ourselves as we approach that Hill of Calvary and the Cross of our Saviour, I think that we will discover the nature of his death. And in his death, I believe that we shall appreciate a death like none other ever known to human experience. If we have died to ourselves, we shall be invited into his death. And there, I pray, we shall begin to experience the presence of Divine Love at work reconciling us to God.
But back to our prior death. We are roughly three weeks out from Calavary, and as we journey deeper into our spiritual death, it is always necessary to behold, over and against us, the refreshing new life that will replace it. This is Refreshment Sunday or Laetare Sunday. The Latin comes to us from the ancient introit to the Mass, Laetare Jerusalem, O be joyful, Jerusalem. And St. Paul tells us this morning in his Epistle to the Galatians that Jerusalem which is above is free, and is the mother of us all. (Gal. iv. 26) Thus today is known also as Mothering Sunday. And we wear rose-colored vestments today, because in Medieval Europe the Popes used to send roses to the Monarchs of Europe in mid-Lent as a sign of the joy that Mother Church anticipates. Henry the VIII received three of them in his lifetime. I wonder if he gave them back when he broke with the Papal See! Laetare means rejoice, and on this Sunday we are reminded that we die to ourselves in order that we might rise, lift up our voices, rejoice and praise God as we approach Easter. Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice with joy for her, all ye that mourn for her: That ye may suck and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that ye may milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory. Thus saith the Lord: As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you: and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Isaiah lxvi. 10-13)
So today as we die to ourselves, we begin to open to our Alma Mater, our Nourishing Mother. Jerusalem which is above is free, the mother of us all, and she ministers to us here through Mother Church. Mother Church then cares for us, teaches and admonishes us, feeds us on God’s Word and Sacraments, as she leads us out of our death and into birth. Ye must be born again, said Jesus to Nicodemus. And he did not mean that a man should enter into his mother’s womb and be born again that way. Jesus says that unless a man be born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again. (St. John iii. 5-7) This birth that Jesus Christ brings to us through Mother Church is the new beginning of our lives in the Kingdom of Heaven. This birth is made possible from above, as the free Holy Spirit of God generates new life within the womb of Mother Church, and so in your soul and mine. Beloved, now are we the sons of God. (1 John iii. 2) Jesus says, Behold, I make all things new. (Rev. xxi. 5)
By receiving the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, Mother Church desires to bring us out of death and into birth or new life. But the problem is that we are tempted to remain as children of the bondwoman…born after the flesh…and in bondage. (Gal. iv. 23,25) It seems that we so easily fall back into bondage, under the elements of the world. (Gal. iv. 3) doing service unto them which by nature are no gods (Gal. iv. 8). Think about it. How often have we used our Christian beliefs to justify an obsession with perishable and impermanent treasures and ideas. Supposed Christians pay lip service to the Gospel Truth and yet inwardly and spiritually are more accurately children of the bondwoman…born of the flesh, who persecute those born after the Spirit (Gal. iv. 29). The problem is not with the world but with Christians who are too alive to it, and not dead to themselves and being born again from above.
The world will never know that freedom and love that God offers to us from above, if we who are below, in the Church, are not receiving and revealing it! This problem is not new. St. Paul rebukes the Galatian Church in his own day for the same insouciance and indifference, and he rebukes us today. My little children, I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you…(Gal. iv. 19) cries St. Paul to his flock. My brothers and sisters, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth (1 St. John iii. 18) says St. James.
And so as we die to ourselves we acknowledge and offer up our weaknesses, temptations and the sins that so easily beset us. We admit that we are not where we should be spiritually. We claim and confess that our Christian language is halting, its expression in our lives too often confused and confusing, its place and role uncertain and insecure. We repent of this over and over again as we struggle to die to ourselves and come alive to Jesus Christ. Mother Church nourishes and cares for us in this process of transformation. She gives us faith, God’s unearned gift, from the lips of Jesus Christ, who says, fear not, only believe. (Luke viii. 50) She gives us hope, For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. (2 Cor. iv. 16) She gives us love. For I am persuaded, says St. Paul, that neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor power, nor things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. Viii. 38,39) Mother Church has the Divine Gifts which shall overcome death with new life, sin with righteousness, alienation with reconciliation, bondage with freedom. All of these things she offers to us from the Holy Bridegroom and her spouse- Jesus Christ.
This Sunday- Laetare Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Mothering Sunday, prepares us to receive more of the love that God will show us as we enter Passiontide. Holy Mother Church nourishes and strengthens us as we die to the world, the flesh and the devil, and undergo new birth. Holy Mother Church promises to fill us with the bread of heaven- like the miraculous loaves and fishes in this morning’s Gospel reading, with nothing less than the love of God, in Jesus Christ, who will offer himself completely to us and for us as we ascend to Jerusalem, and the hill of Calvary. For thus saith the Lord; As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you, and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Is. lxvi. 13) Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons