Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent – High Mass Sunday 22 March 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
I began my sermon for Lent 1 this year by recollecting that the first Lenten sermon I heard in England had kicked off with the words ‘I hate Lent.’ As I said to you then, one tonic to that sentiment is to remember that this season is a time to pause and re-learn who we are, and who we would better be, because
God loves and remembers you: turn to him again, repent and love; learn to seem the self he made you to be.
So I hope we are all feeling different from the way we felt a month ago. Some of us have been on retreat; some have stayed at home. Some have been in hospital and some have been in rude health. Some have been taking part in Lent courses or taken on extra devotions or other activities; some have given things up and made themselves miserable, some have rejoiced in the springtime of the soul. All of us, I can confidently say, are a month older than we were: some rejoice in that and some hate it!
John Henry Newman said, ‘to grow is to change; to be perfect is to change often.’ My contemporaries at St Stephen’s House used to claim that he was talking about clothes. The serious point he was making was that when Jesus told us to be perfect he intended us to accept the need for change. That is the meaning of repentance, and the purpose of Lent. Another Ash Wednesday sermon I recall, from a hard-working inner-city Passionist Father, suggested very simply and briefly that Lent is about who we want to be, under God, by the time we reach Easter.
Of course there is a real and permanent tension about change in all of Christian history: as in our own personal life, the complex quandary is what may change and what should remain the same. And the goalposts move. We seem, we Anglo-Catholics, to have been in a process of upheaval and instability for most of my adult life. People have felt that in every age, but the response to change will always make the difference between growth and atrophy. Change always occurs. Many of the issues that exercise us are beyond our control. Our own spiritual lives are not.
Jesus reminds us this morning that truly transforming change is necessarily painful. Teaching, as usual, paradoxically, he says that eternal life, life which has the character of God in it, can require a death to bring it about. He sees his own imminent suffering like that and we are invited, this morning, to place that alongside a moment in the Old Testament when a new covenant or binding agreement between God and his people is contemplated –
31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
… this is the covenant
that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,
says the LORD:
I will put my law within them,
and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34
Jesus speaks of his own death as being ‘lifted up’ (Fr Alan reminded us of the Old Testament context for that last week): he is lifted high like a paradoxical, even grotesque, triumphal banner to rally around. So we carry a cross at the head of our processions and use the crucifix as a symbol of the life to which we aspire, a visual paradox recalling Jesus’ teaching, veiled today so that we can see it with fresh eyes on Good Friday.
Beside this is laid the central paradox of our faith, that ‘a grain of wheat must die if it is to bear fruit’. The death of Christ is fruitful in that, making the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah, he breaks down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile – the requirements of the Law and its outcome in excluding outsiders – and produces the harvest of Gentile converts as the kingdom of God is opened to all, a change which seemed catastrophic to many.
The pain of change is at the heart of our faith. We have passed the turning point of our Lenten journey and now begin the home run to the Easter Feast. If we’ve found it hard to get into the swing of the Lenten journey it is not too late: one of the most consistent teachings of Jesus is ‘start again’, for it is never too late with God. Like the loving Father of the Prodigal, God welcomes all our efforts to return to him. If you can focus some effort on self-examination and change between now and Easter to enable you to rejoice the more enthusiastically as we proclaim the Resurrection, then ‘now is the time, now is the acceptable day’. The present moment is always favoured by God and he is always with us in it. God is with us. That is the point of the incarnation; that gives meaning to what happens in Holy Week.
The trouble with change is that we all tend to focus on the death aspect of it, which we can see and feel, and become less hopeful about the new life which demands the exercise of faith.
Change and decay in all around I see –
O thou who changest not, abide with me.
I have sung that, virtually solo, at all too many funerals. But the Christian hope involves welcoming change as new life and growth, exactly as we find implied in the parable of the death of the seed, which Jesus acted out on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter morning. It may be difficult, but we have a guide at the heart of this season:
‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’
Some of us like going away on holiday; some of us like staying at home. Both are good, so long as we know that God is with us in both places, and we are changing at the same rate whichever course we take. We don’t escape ourselves by constantly going away; we don’t arrest change by staying where we are. God is not absent in either circumstance. Learning to rejoice in the presence of God in the present moment is the knack of faith, and one which even the greatest saints take a lifetime fully to understand.
And, because it is now Passiontide, we do that in the consciousness that there will be risk and pain and some death involved, which may impact on our life in unexpected ways and in places that we hold dear. But the new life is always greater than any loss: the Lord says to us, ‘Behold, I make all things new!’