The Sunday called Quinquagesima (sermon)
1 Corinthians 13 Luke 18:31-43
See, we are going up to Jerusalem.
This is the first time as a new congregation that we are entering into the season of Lent together. The earliest call by the Church to a 40 day period of Lent fast in preparation for Easter is in the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 – and much of the Church has observed this ever since.
On Wednesday this week is Ash Wednesday, which is forty days away before Easter. The fast does not including Sundays, because despite the fast, we still celebrate the Resurrection of Christ every Sunday. So the calculation is – 6 weeks x 6 days (36 days) plus the four days from Wednesday to the first Sunday.
It is not something we have to do, it is not something that is commanded in the Bible, but it is something that has been found to be helpful.
Why? The Gospel we read gives us a clue.
It begins with Jesus speaking about going up to Jerusalem for his final days -
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”
This is the third time in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus has told his disciples of his coming Passion and Death. And their response is…
But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
Luke repeats their ignorance of what he was saying three times to make it abundantly clear. This is not the misunderstanding of Jesus telling a parable, like Jean-Luca described last Sunday, where the stories have meanings that must be unlocked. Jesus is not speaking a parable, but a very plain prophesy.
Why is it so hard for them to receive it? For the disciples it was against their expectation… even though Jesus had told them of it at least twice before.
The idea of Jesus passion and death, was so contrary to their ideas of the Messianic fulfillment, that they cannot allow the prophecy to enter into their hearts. They assumed Jesus was bringing about a total restoration now. They conflated his second coming in glory with his first appearance. They knew the promises of Isaiah in the final chapters, but skipped over the suffering servant passages.
For us, we live with the event in the past and so in some ways we benefit from knowing the whole history of how Christianity has spread after the Resurrection of Jesus to being the largest religious movement in the world’s history. And at one level, if someone asked us about the Passion and Death of Jesus and his Resurrection, we could probably rationally, at one level, explain well what has happened and that by His death we are forgiven our sins and by his Resurrection we now live in hope of eternal life. That’s at one level.
But there is another level in which this mystery of the Passion and Death of Christ for most of us does not touch much of our life. If it touched us deeply, if we understood it at a heart level, it would permeate every action we took – we would never sin again.
For some the Passion and death of Jesus will seem to be against our sense of justice…
- when we are persecuted for doing something good, we don’t immediately understand why that would happen, why there is a backlash. The Cross corrects our childish ways of thinking about the nature of the world we live in – there is evil – the kingdom is coming and, as it comes, there is a battle with darkness.
- For some of us, we might wonder about this human sacrifice and why it might be necessary? We will look at this profound mystery on Good Friday.
- For some of us, we might wonder how what happened then could be efficacious for me today?
- For some of us, it might take us a lifetime to allow the depth of God’s mercy to enter more deeply into our souls – yes, that too is forgiven…
And so we have a certain head knowledge of the teaching of the Passion and death of Jesus, but the heart knowledge we desire, the kind of knowledge that affects our every thought and deed is surely not there yet. We would have to confess with Jesus’ disciples that we understand none of these things. This saying, his passion, death and resurrection, is hidden from us, and we do not grasp what was said.
We are like the blind man, not seeing the fulness of what it means that Jesus has gone to the Cross and risen from the dead.
We enter this journey by faith, we go up to Jerusalem together, and it will lead to sight, in-sight, for us all.
The Bible doesn’t call us to enter a Lenten fast, but the Bible makes clear that fasting is a spiritual discipline for Christians. And the Church from ancient times has called its flocks, on this journey to Jerusalem, to enter a time of prayer and fasting to receive the Gospel, the Good news, more deeply into our hearts.
In the sermon on the Mount – Jesus doesn’t say “if you fast” but he says “when you fast” and he explains the right spirit to do it in.
And there is a story later in Matthew’s Gospel about fasting:
The disciples of John [the Baptist] came to Jesus, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. [Mt 9:14-15]
“When the bridegroom is taken away from them” – that refers no doubt to the disciples and their experience after His coming death on the Cross and the shock that the disciples experience because of his absence from them in the aftermath.
In Acts of the Apostles we read:
While [the disciples] were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” [13:2] And later,
And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. [14:23]
Paul refers to himself fasting often in 2 Corinthians [6:5; 11:27].
“When the bridegroom is taken away from them” for us could refer to the times when we experience a lack of a sense of Jesus’ presence with us. I think this can be the experience of many of us, and often, in our journey of faith in Christ. If you are content with your closeness to Jesus Christ now then by no means enter into the fast – but for the rest of us it can be helpful.
It could be related to food, it could also be related to entertainment and the images we flood our mind with, it could related to our use of technology and trying to find a better balance. For each of us, it should be tailored to our circumstances because we live very different lives. [Benedictine spirituality!]
I will speak on Wednesday evening more about the specifics and principles of fasting with regard to food.
But the most important principle about fasting, is the principle spoken of in our Epistle reading today.
Paul speaks of the ways in which the human spirit can show incredible feats of willpower, but that is not what a lenten fast is about – that would only increase our pride…
If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
If our fast is not motivated by love it is worthless.
Paul then goes into this beautiful paragraph on what love is and what it is not.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
If our fast has become about something other than about love or motivated by love, we might notice these behaviours arising – boasting, arrogance, rudeness, irritation, resentment. Kindness and patience and forbearance of one another will be tested… but they are moments for us to recall ourselves to love. [John Climicus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent]
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Paul speaks about our lack of self knowledge, a blindness about ourselves, we see now in a mirror dimly… we know ourselves only in part. The lenten fast will be about coming to know God better but it will also reveal to us much about own souls - we'll learn our need for God's grace.
May this Lent, however we observe it, lead us to greater understanding of God’s love for us shown through the Cross and a deeper understanding of our own souls..
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem.”
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2