PREPARING FOR LENT
BEHOLD, WE GO UP TO JERUSALEM
Preached on Quinquagesima 2016 at St. Matthew’s Church in Newport Beach, CA
“Behold we go up to Jerusalem and all things that are written in the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again.”
THE BLINDNESS OF THE DISCIPLES & THE GIFT OF UNDERSTANDING
The key verse for understanding the gospel today is St. Luke’s commentary on these words of Jesus. St. Luke tells us, that the disciples “understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.”
What didn’t they understand? They certainly knew what it meant to be beaten and humiliated; what they didn’t know was what this had to do with Jesus the Messiah. The Messiah would defeat Israel’s enemies—the idolatrous Gentiles who were outside of God’s covenant promises, the “goyim.” The Messiah was not going to be defeated by them. The disciples did not understand how the suffering and death of Jesus were essential to his work as Messiah.
This lack of understanding, this blindness, was remedied six chapters later, in Luke 24, after the resurrection. The Risen Christ appeared to the disciples. He “opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.” Then he said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day” (Luke 24:44-46).
“It was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.” Suffering must come before glory; death must come before resurrection. The cross is the way Jesus will defeat the enemy and justify Israel. This is the truth that was first hidden from and later revealed to the disciples.
OUR BLINDNESS AND HOW WE COME TO SEE
We also lack understanding. We believe Jesus is the Messiah. Consequently, we can’t understand why we have to face all the trials and challenges we face in life. Isn’t Jesus just going to conquer our enemies? He certainly isn’t going to let them defeat us, is he? We have this attitude even though the New Testament tells that we must take up our cross and follow him (Matthew 10:38). It is as though we are okay with the cross as an idea in our minds, but we reject the cross when we are called to share in it. Then, “We understand none of these things and this saying is hid from us”!
In order to see what Jesus is doing in the gospel, in our lives and in the world, our eyes have to be opened to see that the cross is the necessary preparation for resurrection and glory. It was necessary for the Christ to suffer, and it is necessary for us to suffer with him.
Our collect and epistle talk about the theological virtue of charity, which modern Bibles translate as love. The Greek word being translated as love in 1 Corinthians 13 is “agape.” When the early church translated the Greek into Latin, agape became “caritas.” When the Latin was first translated into English, caritas became “charity.” The word charity was used instead of love because charity had developed a formal meaning as one of the three “Theological Virtues” mentioned in the epistle—faith, hope and charity.
It is still a useful translation because it distinguishes agape or charity is different from other kinds of love. What we call love is often not agape. Sometimes our love is mere sentimentality—feelings devoid of concrete expression. Sometimes our love is manipulation. We love to get something back. Our natural love does not rise to what St. Paul describes in the epistle:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy…is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
The outstanding characteristic of agape is the willingness to suffer for the sake of the beloved. Agape is expressed through the cross. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). The nature of agape love is precisely what the disciples did not understand at first.
We come to know and understand agape in two ways. First, we receive God’s love when we put our faith and trust in Jesus. Faith or trust is how we receive the baptismal gift of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit can be properly understood as love; as Romans says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (5:5).
The second way we come to know agape is that we share in the sufferings of Christ. Through the gift of the Spirit, we are drawn into a new mode of life. We live “in Christ,” in his kingdom. We participate in his cross as we fight against temptation and strive to remain faithful in times of testing. We participate in the cross as we struggle to obey the commandments, and try to love and serve others for Jesus’ sake. This is our vocation of redemptive suffering. We embrace it because we live in Christ and have within ourselves the very hope and promise of resurrection. We go up to Jerusalem with Jesus because we know that we will also rise from the dead with him.
LENT AND GROWTH IN GRACE
We enter the season of Lent this Wednesday. We are asking, what are we going to do for Lent? It will be best if we reframe this question. “What disciplines will help us enter more fully into the cross of Jesus, and enable us to love God, ourselves, and others with greater honesty and sincerity?
Our collect reminds us that “All our doings without charity are nothing worth.” We must guard against discipline without love. The measure of every discipline is how it helps us to grow in love. For example, fasting is beneficial if it helps us to turn from ourselves towards God; if it helps us to develop self-control so that we are less attached to things and more able to love. But fasting is not beneficial if it is done merely be look holy and pious (cf. Matthew 6:16). But we must also guard against love without tangible expression, for this is mere sentimentality. We must fast and pray and give alms. Jesus expects us to do these things (Matthew 6:1-18). But we must do these things in Christ, in love.
We can offer some guidelines. Practice a form of bodily self-denial for the season that challenges your particular excesses of appetite. Include some form of disconnecting from t.v., and electronics; this is a means of excess for almost everyone. Practice some measure of stillness and silence each day. Add some disciplines of daily prayer. Do something for others in the name of Jesus each day for the season. Work on your relationships. Be with people. Talk with them and listen to them. Confess your sins to others, forgive others and accept forgiveness. During Lent, ask God to reveal to you what you he wants you to see about yourself, and how he wants you to grow. Spend Lent listening for the answer.
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.”