This is a version of my homily for Grace Anglican Church on 16 February 2014.
This Sunday is Septuagesima Sunday – the first of three Sundays with funny names. The naming system here is based on the countdown to Easter, actually. When we understand that Lent is a 40-day fast, you back up to the previous Sunday and round up and say it’s 50 days until Easter; then you back up to the Sunday before that and call it sixty days before Easter; and the Sunday before that you get 70 days. And that’s what Septuagesima means – seventy days. Next Sunday is Sexagesima which means 60 days, and next is Quinquigesima which means 50 days. It’s not literally exactly 50, 60, or 70 days, but it’s close enough.
Anyway, the point of this period of time is to remind us that we are switching gears. This feature of the old calendar, which was dropped in 1970, is actually a very reasonable and helpful transitionary time, because the idea is that rather than having Ash Wednesday dropped upon us like an anvil – oh my goodness it’s Lent! – instead we have this period of transition. And it makes the calendar more organic and natural. Because, sure, sometimes in regular life something big happens, and everything changes all at once, but normally things transition, things change more slowly over time, bit by bit. And that’s what this three-week period is all about; it’s the transition from Epiphanytide to Lent.
Besides, this way we get to think about what is approaching. This is the invitation to the pilgrimage which makes up Lent. Liturgically speaking, within the worship service, this happens by purple replacing green vestments. It happens by dropping out “alleluia’s;” it happens by dropping out the Gloria from the beginning of our worship service. And so we’ll be making those changes bit by bit over these three weeks. And, at the same time, the Church invites us to think about Lenten disciplines – to think about what we’re going to do when it begins. And this way we get some warning – we get some time to think about it as it approaches, so we don’t have to go “oh my goodness it’s Ash Wednesday! What do I do?” Lenten disciplines, classically, are fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. We’ll be hearing more about those over these next couple weeks as we prepare for the beginning of Lent.
The Christian Olympics
So, looking at the readings this morning we have a really cool metaphor, a really timely metaphor: St. Paul compares Christian discipline to the Olympics, which is pretty awesome. The Olympics are going on right now in Sochi, and even in the 1st century, Paul was familiar with the Olympics. And he uses the Olympics as a metaphor for the Christian life. Basically what he’s telling us is that we need to be like the Olympic athletes in that we need to be fiercely self-disciplined. All that training, all that preparation we must be doing. And the neat difference between the Olympic athlete and the Christian athlete is that the Olympic athlete receives a perishable reward – that is, a laurel wreath that they would get and put on their head. I’m pretty sure they still do that today. And it’s a great metaphor because, again, leaves whither. They fall apart and fade. And the fame, the glory of being an Olympic winner also fades over time. If you’re into the Olympics you might remember who won your favorite events last time, four years ago; but what about 8 years ago, or 12 years ago? The glory fades. The reward at the end of the Christian life, however, is unfading. We receive crowns that never fade. Our glory is in Christ, and so we can receive this reward of eternal life. And this is, obviously, infinitely better than what the Olympic glory is.
So as we’re looking at this self-discipline, this training that we’re invited to be doing, we get St. Paul’s self example. He says that he disciplines his body. He “pummels” himself. This is not an empty or ritualistic or flimsy approach to spiritual disciplines; this is hard care stuff! Looking at these words in Greek, you can translate this to say he “torments” his body and he “enslaves” it! Some people have looked at this and thought he must have been whipping himself and beating himself… like those medieval stereotypes, as in the movie Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. You know, where those monks are going around chanting and hitting themselves over the head:
It’s hard to take that serious sometimes; but there are people who believe that Paul was that fiercely self-disciplined, to the point of physical abuse. It’s very possible, from the way this verse is worded. But either way the point is that you can’t take training towards the Christian life too seriously.
Why? Well, Paul explains why. He says he might be disqualified. Some people might look at this and think about salvation – “is he saying that if he doesn’t keep up this hard work, he won’t be saved? Or he’ll lose his salvation?” Some people think of it that way, and there might be a reference there to the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. But mainly, when we look at this, he’s talking about his preaching. If he doesn’t practice what he preaches, then his ministry is disqualified.
And all you have to do is look around at the media and recent history very briefly to see just how true that is. How many times have you heard on the news about a pastor who cheated on his wife and now there’s a big hubbub, he’s gotten fired, or the church is defending him and now the church is under fire… the mess that quickly whips up is horrible. Or, closer to home, you think about the scandal among Roman Catholic Priests here in the Boston area over the past couple decades. When you think about the abuse of children and some of the horrible sins that have taken place – it not only ruins the ministry of the guilty person, but it is a huge black spot on the entire church! To the point where when you see a guy in collar like this your first thought might be “child molester” rather than a “holy man of God.” It’s a tragic turn of events in history. That’s a fairly extreme version of what Paul’s talking about here. When people don’t practice what they preach, they ruin their ministry.
However, this does ring true for us on the smaller scale as well. If we are living or talking in ways that aren’t particularly holy around people that we’re trying to be good witnesses to, how are they going to take us seriously when we try to talk about salvation, the Gospel, the righteousness from Christ, the Christian life? They’re going to go “Uh, and you’re different from me, how?” If we don’t practice what we preach, people notice, and that’s a problem. And when you ask a nonchristian today what they think about Christians, one of the more frequent answers that you get is the word “HYPOCRITE.” Why? Because there are so many of us who are hypocrites! We talk one thing; we do another. We preach something, but we practice something else. And that disqualifies our message. It doesn’t render it untrue, but it does take away from our credibility to proclaim it. And so we have this very, very urgent call from St. Paul to pursue a very intense self-disciplined life. We are training to learn how to not sin! And that is hard work!
God’s Grace in our Works
Now at this point you may be beginning to wonder “this is such a work-heavy subject! What’s all this about working and discipline? Whatever happened to grace? Why, why all this focus on what we do? What happened to the power of God? What happened to the Holy Spirit’s role? How does this fit with the heart of the Gospel?” When we’re talking about discipline or self-discipline in the Christian life, or spiritual disciplines, the first thing we need to remember about that word and concept is that it’s the same word and concept as “disciple” and “discipleship.” Jesus called us to be his disciples and to follow him. So self-discipline is part of discipleship. It’s the same idea.
Think of it this way: a new Christian needs a trainer, a mentor, a discipler. Veteran Christians continue training, continue discipling, but they need less supervision. We’re called to this life of discipleship; we’re called to a life of training, to grow and become more like Christ. And when you start off, you need more help externally to get going. And as you gain experience in it, you’re able to train yourself and discipline yourself more, rather than relying on the leadership or the direction of others.
Similar to this is the idea of feeding and growing. Frequently when you ask a Christian who has left church why they left that church, the answer is “I did not feel fed” there. This is an odd thing, and a tragic thing. There are two possibilities that come out of this: 1) the church that they left never helped them to grow, never trained them, never discipled them to a point where they could feed themselves and train themselves and discipline themselves. Or, 2) the other possibility is that they’re just using that as an excuse, and they actually just didn’t like something else about that church which was more superficial. But this idea of being fed by the church, or feeding yourself, is very important: we are not supposed to remain as children! We’re not supposed to be infants – being bottle-fed by Mother Church the spiritual milk of the basic Gospel. We’re called to grow, to mature into the full stature of Christ. We are called not just to be the sickly little lamb being bottle-fed by Mother Church, but to get up and go outside and graze with the rest of the flock! We are the sheep of his hand, the flock of his pasture.
And, then, we can help train other Christians as well. I’ve had this conversation with a couple people here before in the past – about people feeling fed or being fed: there comes a point where you’d expect a mature Christian not to expect to be fed or rely upon being fed by the Church, but rather, to be feeding others and helping others to grow, or to begin on the Christian life.
All this is another metaphor for the call to work, the call to train, the call to be a disciple. Yesterday I heard a great catchphrase: “Take care of business.” Git ‘er done! There’s work to be done; it’s gotta get done. That’s exactly the attitude that Paul is describing with his running the race in the Olympics metaphor. The parable in the Gospel reading this morning also speaks to this. The landowner, representing God, is going through the marketplace constantly hiring people all day long to work in his field. And in the middle of the day, in verse 6, he asks some people “why are you not working?” And they say, “because no one has hired us.” And this is kind of an odd question, because if he is simply looking for people to work in his field, he wouldn’t bother asking that question – he’d simply ask “can I hire you?” But by asking them “why are you not working,” he shows that he cares about them. He’s rebuking them, and saying “you ought to be working! What’s wrong here? Why are you idle?” Idleness is bad for us. We’re called to work; it’s what we’re made for.
And so we go through that parable, and we get all these workers hired, and they all work, and they all get paid at the end of the day. And this is wonderful, because at the end of this parable we get a picture of God’s generosity and mercy. At the end of the parable we get this wonderful moment (and slightly annoying moment) where the landowner pays everyone the same, no matter how early or late they began to work. And those who were working all day complained, “this isn’t fair!” And the landowner responds, “who are you to question my generosity? I want to be generous to the people who started working late, and give them the same as I paid you.” And so the last will be first, and the first last.
This also shows up in the Epistle reading, where St. Paul is talking about the Olympic race. Because in the Olympics, only the winner gets the laurel wreath to wear as a crown. But what he tells about us is that all who run receive a crown. We all receive an imperishable crown of glory, which is incredible! And this is where the Olympics of old and the Olympics today are a little bit different. Today we have the wreath for the winner, but beyond that a Gold Medal and a Silver Medal and a Bronze Medal for 1st place, 2nd place and 3rd. It’s additional recognition beyond first place. But in the ancient world, no such thing! You win, or you lose. It doesn’t matter if you’re 2nd place or 500th place. So when Paul says we’re running as if to win, he means win. First place, because anything else is loss, it’s all or nothing. It makes the Christian reward, the imperishable crown given to all of us who run, that much more wonderful and generous. We realize “wow, we don’t have to win the race!” We do have to run like we’re going to win, but God will have mercy on all who follow him and pursue him in the race. We each receive that crown, we each receive that denarius. There is incredible grace in this work.
The Invitation of Lent
So we’re called to work, we’re called to run this race, and this is a big deal. There are plenty of parables in the Gospels that compare us to workers. And there are plenty of parables that compare evangelism and discipleship to a harvest, where we are laborers in the field joining God in his mission in his world. It’s in this same way that Paul calls us to run, to exercise, participate. We’re in this to win this. We’re in this to work for God. We’re here to achieve what God has called us to do. And so the question that we finally have to face now is how are you working? How are you running? How are you training right now? Or who are you training?
Many of you here are engaged in some excellent ministries, some excellent disciplines; many of you are active in doing various things, caring for people in need, or showing people the love of Christ in seemingly-ordinary ways. This is what vocation is all about. “Vocation” is just Latin for “calling.” Oftentimes we think about our calling in terms of careers, and in many cases that’s true. But our calling, our vocation, can just as easily be a ministry, like being a pastor, or looking after those in need, or being a parent, or anything that we are called to do by God, for his glory, for the purpose of something in line with his will.
We can think about this work of God in the work of his Church in three directions. We can think of it as working upward, towards him. This is what liturgy is, this “work of the people,” working together to glorify God and worship him as we look upwards to God. The work of God in his Church also looks inwards, as we encourage and instruct and exhort and rebuke and correct and build up one another in Christ, as we build God’s Church and deepen the lives of its members. And the work of God in the Church also looks outwards as we minister to the world around us: to those in need, those who need Christ and don’t have him, people who need his help physically and spiritually, people who need to receive the love of God in a way they have not yet known. In each of those directions, there are vocations. How are you working, running, training in any of those right now?
And, as the Church calendar brings this question to us, how can you step up your game during Lent? You know, as Lent is a time for particular focus on Christian spiritual disciplines and recognizing that we are sinful, we have a particular invitation to the traditional spiritual disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.
We’ll continue to explore these as we prepare for the Lenten season, but we can begin to ask these questions now. Do you need to fast, and gain more self-control? Do you need to give alms and “die to self” more – caring for others in need? Or do you need to pray more, or study or read more, to deepen your roots so that you can grow taller towards God? Now, considering these disciplines, these ways of working hard for the cause of Christ as we join in God’s work, upwards, inwards, and outwards,… which of these disciplines is God calling you to pursue in order to know him and serve him better? That is the question. You’ve got two and a half weeks to decide how you will keep a holy Lent this year. May the Spirit of God, who leads us into all truth, guide each of your hearts and minds as you prepare to answer his invitation to work, to run, and to train with him. Amen.