February 14, 2018

On Love and the Cross (Ash Wednesday)

Passage: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51 2, Corinthians 5:20-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Service Type:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

It was an article in Comment magazine by Editor James K.A. Smith that caught my attention. It was titled Finding Forgotten Friends: Apprenticing ourselves to the past. Smith was addressing a challenged we Christians face with regard to the modern attitude to the past. The past is regarded as something regrettable and to be overcome according to the progressive attitude of modernity which has a self-regard for the present as better than anything that went before. We might label this as “presentism” or “chronological snobbery”. Voices from the fifth century to the 1950s are all dismissed as “ancient” and therefore to be discarded.

Needless to say, such sensibilities make it pretty hard to be a Christian since Christian faith entails allegiance to a first-century Mediterranean Jew who rose from the dead. The church is that peculiar people that submits itself to the authority of the ancient tribes of Israel, heeds the words of very un-PC apostles like Peter and Paul, and keeps listening to ancient North African bishops like Augustine.

Perhaps you have found that others can see things in your life that are obvious to them but because we are so close to our own situation we just don’t see it. I think of my wife’s work in interior design where how simply re-arranging furniture makes a world of difference; a re-arranging that a client can’t see because there are wedded to the way things are in their own home. And this can be a parable for us to think about how others from other eras and places can offer a perspective we can’t see because we have embraced the ideology of our era and don’t know it. The mental furniture of our “home” is set and hard to re-arrange.

So when we read Christian articulation of faith from the past it is precisely the distance of ancient friends that can give contemporary Christians a long view to discern what is perennial: the challenges and frustrations that attend our recalcitrant human nature, as well as the forgotten truths that speak to every age. The centuries can work like a sieve to sift out what really matters from the blur of an overwhelming, even blinding present.

I have included reflections from two “forgotten friends” for our Ash Wednesday reflection because their articulation can help us see and perhaps adjust our own. I have chosen them to help us think about the themes of love and the cross in our journey through Lent.

1. As I reread the texts of scripture appointed for reading on Ash Wednesday I note that those who gather for worship for such a service are generally very faithful in their participation in the worship life of the church and sincere about their devotion to Jesus. So when the sincere hear the call to repentance in Joel it seems harsh; perhaps the call to practices of piety in Matthew’s gospel seems to be pounding what is already important to us.

What I want to highlight is the theme of love that runs throughout these texts and is assumed by them. The theme of God’s love. The prophet Joel’s call to wayward Israel to return to the Lord is because God is “abounding in steadfast love,” King David calls on God’s to have mercy according to God’s steadfast love. Both prophet and king know the command of God assumed as the ground for coming to God; the command to “love God with all your heart.” Jesus himself is love come among us who tells us how to walk in company with God in regard to acts of piety. And the Apostle Paul has the love of God in mind when he speaks of the one who became sin for us.

Thomas a Kempis was a German monk who lived in the Netherlands in the late 14th into the 15th Century. His most famous work is The Imitation of Christ, a devotional classic that has been translated into over 50 languages. Some may classify him as a Christian mystic and John Wesley was fond of the devotion of the mystics (while rejecting mysticism as a something that saves us.) As we look at this citation from a Kempis listen for the theme of love.

Differences of opinions and beliefs only too often give rise to quarrels among friends and neighbours, and even between religious and devout people. Old habits are hard to break, and no one is easily weaned from his own opinions; but if you rely on your own reasoning and ability rather than on the virtue of submission to Jesus Christ, you will but seldom and slowly attain wisdom. For God wills that we become perfectly obedient to Himself, and that we transcend mere reason on the wings of a burning love for Him. (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
Trans. Leo Shirley-Price (Penguin, 1952))

In a similar vein Thomas Chalmers, a nineteenth-century Church of Scotland minister, spoke often of “the expulsive power of a new affection.” I appreciate what both a Kempis and Chalmers out their finger on. It is our love for Christ that makes any devotion work. Only a qualitatively new affection could expel the old affections and passions that haunt us and hurt others. Very often we hear Biblical teaching as rules and calls to repentance as call to exercise self-discipline. I am not meaning to say that discipline has no place in following Biblical command; I do want to say that the power for such discipline is love for Christ.

2. The second theme that I invite you to reflect upon is the cross of Christ. The gospel holds before us that it is at the cross where love of God is most characteristically on display. Clearly the Apostle Paul has the cross in mind when he writes in this second Corinthian letter, “For our sake he (Gods) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. It is at the cross where our Lenten journey culminates on Good Friday.

I would like you to hear another forgotten friend who thought long and hard on this subject. Julian of Norwich was an English anchoress (someone who withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead and intensely prayer-oriented life) and an important Christian mystic and theologian. Her Revelations of Divine Love, written around 1395, is the first theological book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. Listen to her focus on the cross.

There were times when I wanted to look away from the cross, but I dared not. For I knew that while I gazed on the cross I was safe and sound, and I was not willingly going to imperil my soul. Apart from the cross there was no assurance against the horror of fiends. Then a friendly suggestion was put into my mind, “Look up to heaven to his Father.” I saw clearly by the faith I had that there was nothing between the cross and heaven to distress me. I had either to look up or to reply. So I made inward answer as firmly as I could, and said, “No. I cannot. You are my heaven.” I said this because I would not look. I would rather endure that suffering until the Day of Judgement than to come to heaven apart from him. I was quite clear that he who held me so closely bound could equally well release me when he pleased. Thus I was taught to choose Jesus for my heaven, whom I never at this time saw apart from his suffering. I wanted no other heaven than Jesus, who will be my joy when I do eventually get there. (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love Trans. Clifton Wolters (Penguin, 1966))

I am stuck as I read this of her unwillingness to turn away from the cross. It calls to mind what the Apostle Paul wrote in his first Corinthian letter: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

My purpose in this sermon was to remind us of these two grand themes that stand in the background of our Christian understanding—the love of God and the cross of Christ. And, of course, these two themes meet in Jesus. It is on the wings of a burning love from him that dares not look away from the cross that ought to guide our journey through Lent.