Ash Wednesday 2022
Reading: John 8:1-11
Sometimes what might seem to be an insignificant event at the time can, over time, come to take on great significance. Luther's 95 theses were not all that controversial in themselves, but his issuing of them came to be seen as the event that marked the start of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall is one such event in recent times, marking, as it did, the end of the Soviet Union. Another such symbolic event is one that is also associated with the European Reformation. It is, however, somewhat more bizarre than the event associated with Luther.
In 1519, Huldrych Zwingli (1483-1531) was appointed as the people's priest of the Grossmünster of Zurich. He was by this time sympathetic to the idea of reformation. On the first Sunday of Lent in 1522, 500 years ago, one of Father Zwingli’s parishioners, Christoph Froschauer, invited 12 friends, including Zwingli, to dinner at which he served sausage.
This may seem harmless enough, but it was in deliberate violation of the Church’s prohibition on eating meat during Lent. The Lenten fast was taken very seriously. Apparently, Zwingli didn't eat the meat himself, but nor did he object to the others doing so.
When word got out about the sausages, Froschauer was arrested, and the others denounced until Zwingli defended them in a sermon entitled, ‘Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods’. Zwingli argued that mandatory fasting during Lent or any other time was unbiblical. Whether someone did or did not observe Lent came to be seen as way to separate the Protestant sheep from the Catholic goats.
In our own day, Lent and giving things up for it continues to divide people. Many Protestants still have a patronizing attitude towards those who give things up for Lent. Others go further and see doing so as absolutely unbiblical. For practising Catholics, it is still part of their religious culture, although the practice is not as strictly observed as it once was. Anglicans see it as a matter of personal choice, but then Anglicans see everything as a matter of personal choice!
Most of those watching or listening to this sermon probably wonder what the fuss is all about. However, I know some very sincere believers who still get very worked when they see anyone observing religious customs and rituals, and not just at Lent! At Christ Church, we would probably all agree nowadays that such practices should be allowed. Is there though, I would like to ask, any argument for why they should be encouraged? I think there is!
Critics of religious rites and rituals argue that we should be concerned with the heart and not with the outward appearance as it is expressed in such things, for example, as giving up something for Lent. And this argument is true in what it affirms, but not in what it denies. Jesus certainly did criticize the Pharisees for their liking of outward show and their love of being seen by others, and he warned strongly against being like them. But that doesn't necessarily always mean that anyone giving something up is putting on a show. They may be, but so may be the person who makes a show of not giving something up!
St Paul tells the Roman believers who were also having arguments over what they should or should not eat, albeit for different reasons, that what matters is a person’s motive for eating or not eating. St Paul writes:
‘Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.’ (Romans 14:6)
In other words, both eating and abstaining can at the same time both be acceptable to God.
However, the problem for us today, I would suggest, is not that we want to give things up for religious reasons, but that we never think we should ever have to give anything up. The idea of going without and not having what we want is one that is utterly alien to us. But it was not alien to Jesus, and he said it shouldn’t be to his followers either. Jesus said:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ (Luke 9:23-24)
As Protestants quite rightly point out, when Jesus tells us that we must deny ourselves, he has in mind far more than going without chocolate or some other luxury for a few days. But going without chocolate or something else that a person enjoys can for the person concerned be a way for them to remind themself of the sort of self-denial Jesus is calling us all to all the time.
But there is more. You and I are embodied beings. We don’t just have a spiritual life; we have a physical one as well. Ritual acts and religious customs enable us to express concretely what we feel more abstractly, and, in turn, they can serve to reinforce those feelings spiritually.
Yes, don’t practise your piety before men to be seen by them, but do practise your piety in a way that helps you to be pious. So, by all means, consider giving something up for Lent, it can be a meaningful act of devotion. If, however, you don’t want to give up something during Lent, don’t give it up, unless, of course, it is something you shouldn’t be doing in the first place.
For regardless of our view about giving up things for Lent, there is one thing that our Lord is calling each one of us to give up, and not just for Lent. We learn what that is in our Gospel reading.
Our Gospel reading is the famous account of the ‘Woman caught in Adultery’ (John 8:1-11). This is a much-loved story. Although it is normally to be found at the beginning of chapter 8 of St John’s Gospel, it probably wasn’t in this place in the Gospels originally. Nowadays, it is often printed as a footnote to John chapter 8. What seems to have happened is that this was a story from the ministry of Jesus that circulated separately to the four Gospels. The early Church wanted to preserve it but didn’t know where to put it. John chapter 8 became the most popular place, although some inserted it into St Luke’s Gospel instead.
The scribes and Pharisees have caught a woman in the act of adultery. They bring her to Jesus. The man apparently has been allowed to go free! (Some things, you may think, never change!) The concern of the scribes and Pharisees, however, isn’t with the adultery itself; they want to ‘test’ Jesus in the hope of catching him out.
The Law, they say to Jesus, commanded them to stone such a woman. What does Jesus say? They probably don’t want the woman actually to be stoned. In any case, they know that that the Romans won’t allow them to stone her – not legally at least. What they want is for Jesus to say something that contradicts the Law of Moses or gets him into trouble.
Jesus famously replies:
‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’
At this, they all begin quietly to slip away until only Jesus and the woman are left together. There are several delicious touches to the story, such as the detail of Jesus bending down and writing on the ground. What did he write, I wonder? And then there is the detail of how, when those who have gathered slip away, it begins with the oldest first. No wonder the early Church wanted to preserve this story!
When Jesus and the woman are alone, Jesus asks her:
‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’
‘No one, sir.’
Jesus’ response is very well-known. He says to her:
‘Neither do I condemn you.’
At least, that’s how Jesus’ response is often quoted. Jesus’ full response is:
‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
This is a story of forgiveness. Jesus forgives us our sin, even those sins that people would like to see us stoned for. This is a message of great hope, for, as even the scribes and Pharisees have to admit, none of us is without sin, and justice demands that we are all punished for it. But Jesus doesn’t condemn us, he forgives us. He doesn’t, however, leave it there for us to go on and continue to sin in a never-ending cycle. He tells us to go and sin no more.
This is the ‘giving up’ we are all required to make. It’s not easy, but we are not required to do it on our own. Our Lord, as he gives us the command to give sin up, also gives us the power to do so. That power will come through the death and resurrection of our Lord that we are preparing now in Lent to celebrate later at Easter. St Paul writes to the Church at Rome:
‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ (Romans 6:4)
Giving up sin certainly isn’t just something for us to do in Lent, but Lent is a good time to reflect on sin and its seriousness, and to reflect on our own sin in particular. It is when we realize and admit to our sinfulness that we experience his forgiveness. It is when we participate in his death that we share in his resurrection. And it is through the power of his resurrection that we are able to live the new life of the Spirit.
May God grant us, then, to observe Lent faithfully, so we can, in due time, celebrate Easter joyfully.