Sermon preached at St Matthew’s Church, Stretton
On Sunday 5 March 2017 / Lent 1 (Purple)
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Introduction: the Trouble with Lent!
I’ll tell you what the problem with Lent is:
It’s not that it’s not biblical. Although there’s nothing in the bible that says that if you give up chocolate for 6 weeks you’ll enjoy your Easter eggs more. And it’s not because people think that Lent comes from Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days… (It was originally to do with being baptised on Easter Day. Those who were to be baptised spent the days and weeks beforehand preparing. And those who had been excommunicated, being penitent, were to be readmitted to church fellowship – they would prepare with self-examination. Over the years, other Christians began to join in, and that’s where Lent comes from. It hasn’t always been 40 days.)
No, the problem with Lent is that it is dangerously close to the heretical cult of self-improvement. To be honest: for many, it’s a spiritual form of new year’s resolution. It’s March now and your new year’s resolutions have been binned, so you take this opportunity to have another crack at it.
As someone has said:
“Fasting without prayer is just a diet.”
Fasting – for health and weight-loss has become fashionable. It seems that abstinence is the new indulgence.
Pope Francis has said, what is the point of giving up something that is of no benefit to someone else? (He says we should give up our indifference to others.)
So, the danger is that our Lenten discipline can be narcissistic: self-interested, self-absorbed, self-obsessed. And that’s pretty much a definition of sin!
I’m not against self-improvement. There are a couple of things about me that could do with some improving…
The problem is the cult of self-improvement. Visit any bookshop: the shelves are full of self-improvement and lifestyle books. Spirituality is seen as a branch of self-improvement, an addition to our lifestyle.
The only British Heresy!
Britain has only produced one world-class, Olympic standard heretic – a few saints, but only one heretic: Pelagius. Pelagius was a British lay theologian who was influential at the end of the C4th and the beginning of the C5th. Pelagianism has come to mean the belief that human beings can earn salvation by their own works. (It’s possible that Pelagius himself didn’t believe or teach that.)
Pelagius is said to have reacted with horror to a prayer of St Augustine:
“Give what you command and command what you will.”
In other words, if you want me to be good, God, you’ll have to do it. I can’t! Pelagius taught that we can all be good, if we choose to be good. Augustine said that even our ability to choose is flawed. We need to be saved by God’s grace. And the church sided with Augustine. Luther rediscovered Augustine and the Church of England followed Luther in its 39 Articles of Religion:
XI. OF THE JUSTIFICATION OF MAN
WE are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
Or, if you like your Book of Common Prayer, the prayer of consecration at Holy Communion says:
ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…
In other words, Jesus has done it all. His death on the cross has dealt with the sins of the world, including mine. What can you add to that by giving up chocolate or alcohol? The bible says that we are saved, not because we are good but because God is good. There is nothing that you can add to what God has done in Christ. The good news is that you don’t need to.
What’s good about Lent? Lent gives us a great opportunity to consider our lives. To be serious about who we are and who we would like to be. Why does Christ die on the Cross on Good Friday? What does it mean that He is raised on Easter Sunday? What does that mean to me?
I hope that you will join us for Compline on Wednesday evenings as part of your Lent discipline. Not because it will help you get into heaven. But if might just help you live your life here on earth in the light of heaven.
A Franciscan Priest, Fr Richard Rohr, asks (in an article entitled, “Lent Is About Transformation“), Have you ever noticed that Jesus doesn’t give motivational speeches? “Try harder. Do better.” What he says is that we need to die and be raised to new life. That’s what our baptism service says.
What we need is not self-improvement by our own effort. What we need is to be transformed by God’s grace, by the example of Jesus and by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
Have a good Lent!