Quinquagesima – Love be our aim

See, we are going up to Jerusalem.

Happy Valentines Day!

This morning, by happy coincidence with the Church calendar readings, we have that exalted reading about love in 1 Corinthians 13 – a passage often read at weddings.  I will speak about this a little later, but first let us remember the context today in the Church year.  Wednesday this week is Ash Wednesday and we will enter the season of Lent – it is forty days away from Easter, not including Sundays – 6 weeks x 6 days (36) plus the four days from Wednesday.

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.

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.

The disciples had the words of Jesus in their heads – because it is they that are recalling to Luke what Jesus said.  But to make it abundantly clear to us that they did not understand what it meant, Luke repeats their ignorance three times.  The idea is so contrary to their ideas of the Messianic fulfillment, that they cannot allow the prophecy to enter into their hearts.  The idea is not just hidden to them.  It is such a totally new way of understanding “success”, or “accomplishment”, or “fulfillment”, or love, that neither they nor we can really grasp it. 

If someone was to tell you that all you will accomplish in your life of service to God will end in being mocked and shamed by the society and community you live in – and you will be seen as an utter failure – and can expect to go into obscurity, would you see that as a life well lived?

Is not the position of the Apostles, the position of each of each one of us – when we try to think on what Jesus was doing? 

We live with the event in the past and so in some ways we benefit from knowing the whole history of how the Christian movement 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 us at all or touch much of our life.  If it touched us deeply, that is, to be understood at a heart level, it would permeate every action we took – we would never sin again.

And so we have head knowledge, 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.

How will our head knowledge of the Passion and Death of Jesus and His Resurrection enter into our hearts?

It is for this reason, that the Church has from ancient times called its flocks to enter a time of prayer and fasting to receive the Gospel, the Good news, more deeply into our hearts.

Is their Biblical precident for this idea of fasting as Christians? 

In the sermon on the Mount – Jesus says “when you fast” not “if you fast” and 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 could refer to His coming death on the Cross and the shock that the disciples experience because of his absense from them in the aftermath.  But it also could be referring to ourselves when we experience a lack of a sense of His presence with us.  I think this can be the experience of most of us, for most of 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.  I will speak on Wednesday evening more about the specifics of fasting with regard to food.  It could be related to food, it could 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.

But here are some principles around a fast:

  • Fasting is not meant to be a punishment of ourselves, but rather a way to draw closer to God – fasting is not meant to be a gloomy thing, but desirable to prepare for the Wedding Feast.
  • If you have struggled with eating disorders, it may be best to leave the fasting from food to others – or, not a lessening of the amount of food but giving up some simple pleasure – dessert….
  • If you are already super stressed because of the corona restrictions – don’t stress yourself further, leave the fast this Lent.

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…  Paul says,

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.

Our pilgrimage with Jesus, is our going with him in these next few weeks in our thoughts towards his death on the Cross.  And it should affect us in two ways:

First, it is about understanding of His self offering for us – His great love for us – and an understanding not just with our heads but in our hearts in such a way that we are moved by it – an understanding that deepens our love.

Maybe one thing we could do during Lent, is look at this paragraph about love, and see how it compares with our image of God – do we really believe that God is love – that God is patient and kind towards us, that God does not insist on his own way, that God is not irritated by us, that God bears all things and endures all things for us – even the betrayals, the denials, the mocking and shameful treatment, the flogging and killing?  Paul says this is what love is, and he derives it from his heart knowledge of God.

Second, our pilgrimage with Jesus, is an opportunity to understand with our minds and more deeply with our hearts what is this way of the Cross that Jesus calls us to follow.

Can we be more patient and kind towards others?  insist less on our own way? can we lessen our irritation and resentment of others? can we learn to bears all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things – even the betrayals, the denials, and potentially the mocking and shameful treatment, the flogging and killing?

These are the directions that our Lenten disciplines are to help lead us.  Knowing God’s love for us, realizing His love in us.  It is all about love.

Paul says, 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.

May this Lent, however we observe it, lead us to greater maturity in our faith, and to a greater love, even as God loves us.

Amen +