Saturday, February 12, 2022

The Third Sunday before Lent (Septuagesima)

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent.

The Third Sunday before Lent

Reading: Luke 6:17-26

In our Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday before Lent, we read of how Jesus called the first disciples to follow him. Before this, St Luke has described Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing, which is focused on the synagogues of Galilee and Judea. After the calling of the first disciples, St Luke continues to describe the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus, but there is an important shift in emphasis. Before examining this shift, I would like to repeat something I said in the sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent about the way in which St Luke has written his Gospel. I said:

‘When St Luke writes in the Prologue to Theophilus that he is giving Theophilus an ‘orderly account’ (Luke 1:3), St Luke doesn’t mean a chronologically ordered account. His account is orderly, but the order is a theological rather than a chronological one.’

We see this illustrated very clearly in the different stories that St Luke goes on to relate following his account of the calling of the first disciples. The different phrases St Luke uses to introduce each of the stories serve to stress that the stories are not in any particular chronological order, but have been selected for a different purpose. There is an order and logic to the selection, but it is not temporal.

St Luke, then, introduces the Healing of the Man with Leprosy (Luke 5:12-16) with the phrase, ‘Once when he was in one of the cities …’ (Luke 5:12); the Healing of the Man who is Paralyzed (Luke 5:17-26) with the phrase, ‘One day while he was teaching …’ (Luke 5:17); the Call of Levi the Tax-Collector and the Discussion about Fasting (Luke 5:27-39) with the phrase, ‘After this he went out …’ (Luke 5:27).

Following this, in chapter six, St Luke descries two incidents, both of which occur on a sabbath. He again uses similarly vague introductions. The first, which describes what happens when Jesus’ disciples pluck corn to eat on the sabbath (Luke 6:1-5), begins simply, ‘One sabbath …’ (Luke 6:1). The second, which describes the Healing of the Man with the Withered Hand and the reaction to it (Luke 6:6-11), again likewise begins, ‘On another sabbath …’ (Luke 6:6).

What all these different stories have in common, apart from the way they are introduced, is that they also give details of Jesus’ interaction and relationship with the religious people, primarily with the Pharisees. It is this that lies behind St Luke’s selection and ordering of them at this point in the Gospel. St Luke wants to make clear the difference in Jesus’ approach to people to that of the religious teachers. St Luke also wants us to see how the religious people react to Jesus and his ministry.

So, the man who is healed of his leprosy is sent by Jesus to show himself to the priests ‘as a testimony to them’ (Luke 5:14). It is worth noting that this phrase can be translated ‘as a testimony against them’. Most commentators don’t favour this more negative translation, but there is in any case a note of tension in the story. By touching the man with leprosy, Jesus would normally have rendered himself unclean, as it is, rather than Jesus being made unclean by touching the man, it is the man who is unclean because of his illness who is made clean by Jesus’ touch. Jesus tells the man to go to a priest and do what the Law requires. By sending the man to them, the priests are put in a position where they will have to decide what they think about Jesus. Has Jesus cleansed the man or not?

It doesn’t take the Pharisees long to decide what they think of Jesus. When Jesus tells the man who is paralyzed that his sins are forgiven, the Pharisees question Jesus’ authority to forgive sins and see Jesus’ words as blasphemy. Jesus puts them on the spot by asking them which is easier: to say to the man that his sins are forgiven or to heal him. To demonstrate his authority to forgive sins, Jesus heals the man in front of them.

There’s not much the Pharisees can say to that, but when Jesus calls Levi, a tax-collector to follow him, and then attends a banquet at Levi’s house that Levi holds for Jesus, which is attended by Jesus’ disciples and all Levi’s tax-collector friends, the Pharisees have a lot to say. The Pharisees ask why Jesus’ disciples eat with such bad people. Jesus answers this question relatively easily: he has come to call bad people to repent. What can they say to that?

Quite a lot it seems. The Pharisees ask why Jesus’ disciples are eating and drinking in the first place. Why they are not fasting like John the Baptist’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees? Jesus’ answer is quite provocative, he talks of how wedding guests don’t fast while the bridegroom is with them. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the coming Kingdom of God is pictured as a wedding feast and God himself is the bridegroom.

Jesus gives the Pharisees further cause to question him. When Jesus’ disciples pluck corn on the sabbath, an action the Pharisees see as a work, Jesus defends their right to do so because he, as Lord of the sabbath, is in a position to give them the permission they need. But to be Lord of the sabbath would mean to be Lord of the Law itself.

So far, the Pharisees have been questioning Jesus; now Jesus questions them. Jesus enters a synagogue on a sabbath. We are not told where the synagogue is just that there is a man there with a withered hand. The scribes and Pharisees watch Jesus, not because they want to see Jesus heal the man, but so they can accuse him if he does. Jesus asks them whether it is lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath. Jesus then dramatically heals the man in front of them. It is a direct challenge to them; they know it and they are furious. Their mind is now made up about Jesus, and they discuss what they can do about him – and not in a good way (Luke 6:11).

Jesus has claimed to be able to forgive sins, to have come to call sinners to repentance, and to be both the divine bridegroom and the Lord of the sabbath. As Lord of the sabbath, he gets to decide what is or is not lawful on the sabbath. Jesus is not saying that the Law is wrong nor is he encouraging anyone to break it; he is, however, claiming an authority over it. This puts him on an inevitable collision course with the Pharisees who see themselves as the guardians of the Law.

It is worth noting, however, that while St Luke gives us a clear account of where Jesus and the Pharisees differ from each other, St Luke also makes clear that the Pharisees take Jesus seriously. This, in many ways, is the real problem. They can’t just dismiss him. Again, is also worth reminding ourselves that not all the Pharisees, despite their doubts, are hostile to Jesus. They clearly think it is worth engaging in dialogue with him. The Pharisees don’t have a problem with Jesus healing people – why would they? They do, however, have a problem with his attitude to the Law and to those outside it. The sabbath symbolizes the Law as a whole. As far as the Pharisees are concerned, Jesus’ attitude to the sabbath reveals his attitude to the Law in general.

All of which is important as the background to our Gospel reading. When Jesus is discussing the question of fasting with the Pharisees, he tells them a parable about how no-one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and sews it on to an old one (Luke 5:36). Similarly, says Jesus, no-one puts new wine into old wine skins. There is, though, a problem and Jesus points it out:

‘And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.”’ (Luke 5:39)

The Pharisees like the old wine. It’s understandable: their power and position depend to a significant extent on it.

New wine, however, says Jesus, needs new wine skins (Luke 5:38). And, in our Gospel reading, we see Jesus creating the ‘new-wine skins’ for the new wine he has come to give.

This is a highly significant moment in Jesus’ ministry. St Luke highlights it by telling us that Jesus spends all night up a mountain in prayer. Having prayed all night, Jesus then chooses twelve men from his wider group of disciples, whom he then names ‘apostles’. Israel, the people of God, had been founded on the twelve patriarchs. It was to the twelve tribes of Israel who were descended from them that God had given the Law through Moses, also at a mountain. Since then, however, because of their sin and rebellion, God’s people have been scattered, in exile, and oppressed.

Now, here at this mountain, Jesus reconstitutes the people of God by choosing twelve men to be the foundation on which he will build what will become his Church.

Jesus comes down with those he has chosen to a level place, where a great crowd is waiting for him. The crowd is from all over Judea, Jerusalem, and beyond it. The crowd have come to hear Jesus and to be healed from their diseases. Jesus heals them and allows them to hear him, but it is to his disciples that Jesus speaks.

Jesus begins by describing those who are blessed. They are those who are poor, hungry, and weeping now, Jesus says that they shall receive the Kingdom of God, their hunger will be satisfied, and their tears turned to laughter. For those who are rich, full, and laughing, however, there is only the promise of woe to come. There will be no consolation for them they will be hungry and mourn and weep.

This is the introduction to St Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. Both versions are much misunderstood. This is not general ethical teaching for the world, but Jesus’ manifesto for the Kingdom. It is for those who are part of that Kingdom and who have joined it by becoming one of Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus begins by telling his disciples what a good decision they have made. The poor and the hungry who weep are Jesus’ disciples. They are not those in general who are poor, hungry, and weeping, but those who are so because of their commitment to him. The poor are not simply those who don’t have any money, but those who find themselves excluded and despised because of their commitment to Jesus. Paradoxically, the poor in this sense includes those who are otherwise materially well-off, but who lack ‘social capital’. Tax-collectors like Levi, for example.

Jesus pronounces four blessings and four woes. The word blessed is often translated ‘happy’. This is not the happiest of translations. The Greek word St Luke uses conveys more than what is meant by the English word. Although the Greek word doesn’t exclude the idea of happiness, it has much more to do with ‘well-being’. Something that in our own day is much sort after but which remains as elusive as ever. Hence the reason that people are willing to spend huge amounts of money trying to find it and, why, it should be said, there are also those who are making equally large amounts of money by claiming to be able to show people how a state of well-being is to be found.

More often than not, what is sought and offered when people seek well-being is material prosperity, physical satisfaction, happiness, and popularity. In other words, the very things that Jesus says will bring woe to people.

The four blessings and the four woes don’t refer to four different types of people who are blessed and four others who suffer woe, but in each case to one type of person and to what characterizes them. Jesus is describing the person who will be blessed and the person who incur woe.

The word ‘woe’ carries the idea of judgement. St Luke will describe how Jesus in his ministry will pass God’s judgement on those who reject God’s offer of forgiveness and who think they have no need of it; the Pharisees, for example, who are satisfied with themselves and don’t think need any outside help. They are like their ancestors who persecuted the prophets because the prophets told them things they didn’t want to hear.

God’s blessing, however, is for those who know their need and who trust in Jesus, even though it means suffering for him now. This is so important. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples that by becoming his disciple they will become rich, satisfied, and happy, as though Jesus is offering a religious version of what the secular life coaches claim to be able to help people to achieve. The blessings Jesus offers are still yet to come when God’s Kingdom comes. Now, in the present, however, Jesus’ followers are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed precisely because of their trust in Jesus.

Jesus, in our Gospel reading, is making clear in plain language what following him means. This isn’t a charter for social revolution or change. It is not a manifesto for political and social action but a straightforward statement of fact. Jesus is describing what it means to be his disciple. It means being poor, hungry, sorrowful, and ill-treated. This will continue to be the reality for a follower of Jesus until Jesus returns. While they wait, Jesus’ followers can take comfort from the fact that though poor now, God’s Kingdom belongs to them; though hungry now, they can feed on Christ; though sorrowful now, they can experience God’s comfort.

Jesus, by beginning his teaching of his disciples in this way, is setting the scene for the teaching he will go on to give them on how they are to live while they wait for his coming.

I want to think about what Jesus’ teaching has to say to us today using three words: orientation, outlook, and opposition.

1. Orientation

Any introductory course to the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus will talk about their ‘eschatological’ character. The word ‘eschatological’ refers to the ‘last things’. It is a somewhat slippery word. It is, however, used by scholars to describe how, in the Gospels, the Kingdom of God is about the future reign or rule of God being made present in the person and teaching of Jesus. To use a common phrase: the Kingdom is ‘already and not yet’. The Kingdom of God is already being realized, that is, made present, in Jesus and in his teaching, but not yet completely. It has still to have its final consummation in the future.

All this is relatively uncontroversial. It is, however, when it comes to asking what it means in practice that it all gets a lot more difficult. For some, it is the present reality of God’s Kingdom that matters. Some interpret this present reality in purely individual terms and talk of all the blessings that we can now enjoy as believers. Some believe in what is known as a ‘prosperity Gospel’. In this version of the Gospel, believing in Jesus means that even now, because of our faith, we can enjoy riches, material well-being, and happiness.

Others want to take this idea of the Kingdom being realized in the present, but to apply it socially and politically. Our job, as believers, they think, is to work for peace, justice, and equality in society. Going to church can, as a consequence, often be like going to a political meeting. Jesus’ Kingdom, they believe, is to be made present, here and now, by us. We can do it, they argue, because of what Jesus has done, knowing it is what he wants us to do. Preaching the Gospel, on this view, is less about saving sinners and more about announcing the presence of the Kingdom. It is the prosperity Gospel again, only this time for society as a whole rather than individuals on their own.

The problem with this approach, in both its social and individual versions, is that Jesus himself doesn’t seem to have taken it.

Jesus, for example, refuses the Devil’s offer of the power that would have enabled him to establish his Kingdom on earth (Luke 4:5-8), and Jesus specifically tells Pilate that his Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). The normal response to this is the argument that the resurrection has changed all this. We live, we are told, on this side of the resurrection. Good Friday is behind us, and Jesus now reigns in glory. Our task, as his followers, is to make known that his Kingdom has come and to work to make it present.

Ironically, it was precisely this sort of thinking that led the Church in the past to behave in a manner that people who think this way in the present so detest. It was, for example, the idea that God’s Kingdom could be made a political reality on earth that led to the creation of Christendom, to the Church’s support of colonialism, and to all the evils that went with both.

Jesus’ first followers, who believed passionately in his resurrection and ascension, also do not seem to have thought this way. St Paul writes that we will only experience future glory if we suffer with Christ in the present (Romans 8:17). He describes, often in graphic detail, what that means for him personally, and it is not riches, material satisfaction, and happiness. Anything but.

The coming of God’s Kingdom on earth is something Christ’s followers long for, but it is something that only God himself can bring about. We don’t work to make it happen; we pray for it to come. In the meantime, we wait patiently for it.

This means that we are to have a future orientation as believers and as a church, but, more than that, it means we are also to have an ‘other-worldly’ orientation. We look for rewards, not primarily in this life, but in the life to come. This is an idea that is not only alien to the church today, it is one that is hated. It is, however, I would suggest, fundamental to Jesus’ own teaching and to that of the New Testament writers.

We are to live our lives now in the hope of Christ’s future return by orientating them to the world that is above. This is what Jesus means when he tells his disciples to ‘store up treasure in heaven’ (Matthew 6:19-21) and what St Paul means in his letter to the Colossian believers. St Paul writes:

‘So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’ (Colossians 3:1-4)

We need to be far more focused on the heavenly dimension of our life in the present and far less concerned with the earthly. ‘For where your treasure is’, Jesus says, ‘there your heart will be also.’ (Luke 12:34)

The outcome of having such an orientation is that it helps us sort out what really matters in the present. We instinctively assume that it is our life here and now, in this world, that matters; it doesn’t. That’s the whole point of the blessings and the woes that Jesus pronounces. It doesn’t matter if people hate, exclude, revile, and defame us on account of our faith in Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells us, we are to rejoice. Why? Because our reward for suffering for him in this way is great. Where is our reward? Jesus could hardly be clearer. He says, ‘Surely your reward is great in heaven.’

St Peter expresses this orientation on behalf of all the New Testament writers when he writes of how, through the resurrection of Christ, we have a hope and inheritance that is being kept for us in heaven until the last time (1 Peter 1:4-5).

2. Outlook

This doesn’t mean that we reject the creation as bad or unimportant. The creation is good because God made it good. But it is itself in need of redemption. This world in which we live has become corrupt having fallen under the power of sin and the Devil. This means that the values and attitudes of this world are also corrupt, which, in turn, means that any human worldview is also corrupt. Any human worldview will always have the desire for independence from God at its heart, no matter how sincere or how idealistic it may outwardly appear. A follower of Christ cannot, therefore, ever afford wholeheartedly to embrace any human philosophy, political ideology, or system of social thought.

But it also means that no attempt to impose Jesus’ teaching on human society will ever be successful. Only Jesus’ followers can follow Jesus’ teaching and, even then, we only do so imperfectly. Does this mean that we should give up completely making any effort to try to change society for the good? Not necessarily, but it does mean that such efforts cannot be our main focus.

We should, of course, seek to love our neighbour as ourself (Luke 10:27) and to do good to all people (Galatians 6:10). We should seek to restrain evil and to expose it when we can (Ephesians 5:11). But more importantly, we should seek to model the values and attitudes of the Kingdom in our own life and in the life of the community that Christ established, which is his body, the Church.

The Church is meant to show what God’s future Kingdom will be like. People seeing the Church should see a trailer for the coming Kingdom of God. We should provide people with a preview, so that they can judge for themselves whether they want to belong to it or not. We want people in seeing our good works to glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Sadly, however, rather than glorifying our Father in heaven, many will want to do to us what they did to Jesus. They will, as Jesus puts it, hate, exclude, revile, and defame us for that’s what they did both to the prophets who came before Jesus and to his followers who came after him. It’s what they did to him. It’s what they always do. Why don’t we get this? Jesus could not have put it more clearly. Jesus said:

‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.’ (John 15:18-19)

This world can never be righteous because it can never accept the Righteous One. It is pre-programmed to crucify, not only Jesus himself, but anyone representing him. We are, then, to abandon all hope that the world will either like us or think like us. It should not concern us. What should concern us is making sure that we don’t think like it.

Tragically, though, that is exactly how we do think. Having abandoned a heavenly orientation, we have also adopted a secular outlook. Our worldview is oriented to life in this world and in finding happiness here and now rather than being oriented to the world to come and to finding blessedness hereafter. This false orientation has been starkly exposed by the pandemic.

A secular outlook doesn’t dismiss religion altogether. It relativizes it. It sees religion as just one more activity amongst many. It may be a part of life, but it is not life.

So when, for example, it comes to deciding appropriate social restrictions during a pandemic, it seems only reasonable to the secular authorities to close churches alongside other leisure and non-essential venues. I suppose this week we ought, at least to be grateful that, when more closures of venues were ordered, churches were mentioned alongside hair salons. After all, for most people getting a haircut is more important than prayer. Harsh? I notice that when the closure of hair salons and churches was announced, there were immediately queues outside the salons to get a haircut before the closure came into effect. I did not notice any queues outside churches to pray.

I don’t blame secular society for this. Those who belong to it do what is important to them. But I do question the churches’ acquiescence in all this. The churches’ response to the closures is that we want as churches to do our bit in helping to control the virus. Very commendable. But is it not possible for us to do our bit without closing our churches and denying people access to the body and blood of Christ? I merely ask.

In our Gospel reading, we see how Jesus spent the night in prayer before choosing his apostles. Surely, for a follower of Christ, going to church to pray is the biggest bit we could do in the pandemic? Secular society is doing its best to keep restaurants and cafes open. So, I can go to Starbucks for a coffee on Sunday but not to church to pray. That’s because secular society sees this world and material well-being as all-important. It’s a shame that so many in the churches do as well. Jesus said:

‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ (Matthew 10:28)

Jesus said:

‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”’ (Luke 4:4)

This, then, is what I mean by outlook. For the follower of Christ, the last place we should want to see shut down, in a pandemic or any other time, should be the church, and if you don’t get that, then quite frankly, you need to rethink your worldview.

3. Opposition

As I have said, it should not come as any surprise to us that the world is opposed to those who follow Christ. Jesus warned us often enough that that would be the case. Again, in our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us we are blessed when we are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed because of our faith in him. This, of course, is not nice when it happens, and while there have been believers in the past who have sought persecution, most of us don’t want to be hated and nor should we want to be. But when we are, it should not worry us. What should worry us and cause to think is when we seem to be popular with the world around us. ‘Woe to you’, says Jesus in our reading, ‘when all speak well of you.’

We know that Jesus himself was crucified. We know that many of his first followers were killed for their faith in him and that many more were to follow them to their deaths. We know that faith in Christ can lead to all this and more. But instead of being inspired by those who have died for Christ and by their example, we often seem more concerned about our reputation and our desire to be liked.

We understand that it is never going to be possible to get all people everywhere always to speak well of us, so we try instead to persuade all those who matter to be our friends. We choose our alliances. We tell ourselves that these are about seeking to work with those who don’t share our faith to influence the world for good. They truth is that they are often also about our longing for position, power, and popularity in the world.

Jesus challenges us to decide whose side we are on. If we are on his side, it will mean suffering now and glory later. We need to be very clear that the opposition the followers of Christ face is not just about isolated outbursts of persecution. The persecution of those who speak for God has a long history.

Human history is about what God is doing to bring his plan for us and his creation to completion in Christ. From the beginning, this has been resisted by the forces of evil in creation with which we as humans have willingly aligned ourselves.

This idea of history being about what God is doing is itself alien to us. History we like to think is about us and about the choices we freely make as human beings. They may be bad choices at times, but they are always our choices. God’s role in all this is to respect our choices, to be there to help us when we make the wrong ones, and to work with us to make the world a better place.

We are so anxious to assert our freedom that we are unable to see the extent of our imprisonment and how we are controlled by forces beyond our control. For most of our history, we have been slaves to sin and to evil. This does not mean that we have no choice just that those choices are always limited by our sinfulness and are manipulated for evil by the power of evil in our world.

In this struggle between God and evil, there is no neutral ground. The rise and fall of nations, wars and rumours of wars, the election of governments and world leaders, natural disasters, scientific discoveries, technological developments, human ideologies, political movements and philosophies, all these and more besides are caught up in this drama of history, and all have been given a part to play in it. We celebrate our achievements as humans failing to see that everything we touch is tainted with sin and is influenced by evil. We boast of our achievements not knowing our powerlessness. We proclaim our freedom failing to see our enslavement.

It is in this light that we are to see the opposition we face as Christ’s disciples. As the Devil resisted Christ and sought to destroy him, so too he resists us and seeks to destroy us. As St Paul writes:

‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (Ephesians 6:12)

There is much more that could and should be said about this struggle, and I am only too aware that most churchgoers today see this sort of talk as na├»ve and foolish, belonging to earlier primitive and unenlightened times when we knew no better. The Gospels, however, stress that Jesus didn’t just teach and heal, he cast out demons. He confronted evil, which he saw as being very real and personal. He took evil seriously, and so should we.

But not more seriously than we take God.

For in this cosmic battle against the forces of evil, in which we are all involved for good or evil, the decisive battle has been won by Christ on the Cross. The victory is certain, but the war is far from over. Our hope of glory still lies in the future, but we know that as we look forward to the day when our salvation will finally be revealed that in the meantime, as again St Paul writes:

‘… all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28)

Here and now, we are poor and hungry, and we weep as we are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed because of our faith in Christ, but in all our suffering we know, as the Blessed Virgin Mary knew, that our God is the One who exalts the humble and meek and who brings down the mighty from their seats (Luke 1:52). One day, Christ will return, and we too will be exalted, God’s judgement will take place, and God will be all and in all.

Until then, we are to wait patiently, pray earnestly, and work tirelessly, as we take up our cross and follow him who loved us and died for us, and who promises to be with us always to the end of the age.


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