Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 18 February 2018
Sermon on Self-examination and repentance preached by Fr Julian Browning
Galatians 5.25. Since we live by the Spirit, let the Spirit be our rule of life.
In the 1870s, the Reverend Francis Kilvert wrote in his famous diary about a lesson he’d given in his little village Sunday School. He told the children about the peace of God, and he explained this by taking them through the 23rd Psalm, The Lord is my shepherd. At the end he asked the class: And where is the Good Shepherd leading his sheep? A little boy’s hand shot up. “To the slaughter”, he said.
I tell that story not to illustrate the difficulties of religious instruction, but to fix in our minds, at the beginning of Lent, that question: Where is the Good Shepherd leading his sheep? Jesus is leading us, to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. He is leading us to a new life. The Christian experience is that this holy journey, this holy way, the way of the Cross, is a way of joy. In Lent we are not being led to the slaughter, to the suppression of emotions, our characters cut down to size to fit the ideal of the perfect Christian. If we set out in Lent, under our own steam, to make ourselves better or holier people, I think we are setting ourselves up for failure, however laudable our intentions might be. Lent is not a finishing school. In five weeks we cannot change who we are. Any self-examination, a sort of inventory of what goes on in our heads and in our lives, will reveal all sorts of things which need changing, but which probably need a ten year plan to make any difference to our lives at all.
Self-examination, which the Church encourages us to undertake in Lent, has a forensic ring to it, suggesting an inward-looking process, and the making of lists. Now there might be a time for all that, but I’m not sure it’s a particularly Lenten activity. I prefer the term discernment, the art of spotting the subtleties of good and evil, an art which reveals what is good in our lives, as well as what is questionable. Lent is not a time for self-abasement, ending in resentment that we are not nearly good enough to tread the way of the Cross. It is a time for deep gratitude, that the battle has been won, and that Christ has included us in his journey to eternal life with the Father. The result of any time spent in the discernment of God’s purposes for us is repentance, which isn’t grovelling in shame, but rather just turning our life in a different direction. Turned towards God’s kingdom, we realise that we are not the centre of the universe, a mistake which gloomy self-examination can often reinforce, but we live with God’s life, with Christ as our guide in how that plays out day by day.
So how can it work for you and me this Lent? How can we build a time of modernised self-examination and repentance into our lives? Every Lent preacher will tell you the same. The answer is two words, routine and simplicity. We need to get into training, as St. Paul says, we run to gain the prize. The old word is ascesis, which means training. For those who don’t relate to the gym metaphor, think of a musician or a scholar. If we are going to do anything properly we need discipline. With any discipline there is repetition. You have to love what you are doing, and you actually have to do it. And that goes for Lenten discernment. Self-examination and repentance is an off-putting phrase, I think, but what it really means in practice is finding time to get God back into your life again so that you can decide what to do with your life. The Kingdom is very near, says Jesus. This isn’t difficult for anybody, but it does require a daily discipline of five, ten, or twenty minutes morning and evening spent in God’s presence, because without God’s healing presence, self-examination becomes a list of character faults which we never really sort out. So we let God do the work, we don’t need to analyse ourselves, just a time of contemplation is necessary, which St Thomas Aquinas described as “the simple enjoyment of the truth”. Three words come out of that. Simplicity, enjoyment, truth; I’ll settle for a Lent like that. Self-examination and repentance are about Truth, the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God. We don’t just give something up for Lent. We offer ourselves. This is a serious matter for every Christian, because without some sort of personal devotional practice – and things can be simple but not easy – without some sort of contemplative practice, our church life will become boring or fanatical. In Lent, we are not looking for answers; we are looking for experience, “the simple enjoyment of the truth”. If we see Christianity as just a system of beliefs, concepts, and moral imperatives and we measure ourselves against these, then we are downgrading our religion to just another self-help system. Self-examination and repentance are not self-help; they are the discovery of Christ as our life; “you have come to fullness of life in him”, as Paul writes to the Colossians. Self-examination, discernment, whatever we call it, leads us to self-knowledge, the discovery of who we really are, a new way of seeing ourselves and our Good Shepherd.
So, little flock, where is the Good Shepherd leading his sheep? What is this journey we are on? It is the journey to Easter joy, it is the path to fullness of life. Whatever you choose to do in Lent (and whatever you do must fit you, not someone else) may it keep you healthy for that journey, as it reveals the truth about yourself, nourishing every aspect of your humanity.