3rd Sunday of Lent: Grace is enough
Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green
Based on readings: Isaiah 55:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
Do you presume yourself to be worthy of God?
Or do you despair of not being good enough?
While I was training for ministry I spent just over a month in Ethiopia. There was some very pleasant sightseeing; I went up to see the churches at Lalibela which are literally hewn out of the rock and deserve to be named as one of the wonders of the world. I ate the local thick spiced pancakes, drank coffee from its origin, and read Gone with the Wind by candlelight in restaurants at night. But I was also helping the Anglican Bishop with an education course and some translation workshops and drove out with a small team to Gambella on the Sudanese border. After the two-day drive through the majestic Rift Valley we arrived, only to have to lay low in a hotel for a couple of days after a hostile take-over of the Anglican allotment. Here I encountered a new level of church politics, as we learned that the land had been seized by the local church because of tribal interests. It later emerged that at the equivalent of a PCC meeting the question of murdering the overseer of the Anglican development project had been discussed, on the grounds of his (relatively) large income and tribe. It’s a bit like our churchwarden Janice, who suspiciously isn’t here this morning, sneaking out to murder the vicar of St Mary’s because they’ve got that pleasant view overlooking the river. The decision went against this proposal, not on the grounds of Scripture, morality, or anything approaching charity, but simply through fear of an escalating backlash. I’m looking forward to Any Other Business at the PCC meeting on Monday. If you get a phone call from the police later in the week, Janice was particularly noticeable this morning, handing out leaflets, making coffee and playing the organ.
I bring this up because in today’s reading St Paul is tackling the fact that Christians aren’t always perfect. There were in the Corinthian church a number of issues that actually might have made even that PCC in Ethiopia blush: a man sleeping with his step-mother, another with prostitutes, members of the congregation taking each other to court, warring factions, women speaking in church; some truly astonishing behaviour.
So here Paul takes us back to Moses’ Exodus and outlines four ways in which the people received God’s grace: the protection of the cloud and the famous crossing of the Sea, which he describes as being baptised into Moses; and then spiritual food and drink: the Manna, and the water that springs from the rock in the wilderness. There’s a clear parallel with the Christian church in the sacraments of baptism and eucharist. And yet we’re told God was not pleased with most of them, and many were ‘struck down in the wilderness’.
If you like a bit of etymology the word translated here as ‘struck down’ is ‘katestropheesan’ - literally ‘down-turned’, as in over-turned; but the word has a life of its own in our language as ‘catastrophe’. And as you heard the passage, they were all under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized, all ate the spiritual food, and all drank the spiritual drink. All received grace, and yet many were found wanting, many were catastroph-ied.
So against the four experiences of grace, St Paul gives us four temptations that misdirect human will: Idols, immorality, testing God and complaining.
The threat of idols doesn’t really speak to us today. This is a time when all public life, as well as religious groups and the private life of families involved religion. Whether it’s a public holiday, another religion or just going for dinner at a friend’s house, there was probably a religious element. Given that the favourite local god for Corinthians was Aphrodite, goddess of lurve — that’s l-u-r-v-e — this could be a particular problem. I’m sure those dinner parties happen in Putney. My advice is to keep your keys in your pocket.
Which leads us to the second temptation: immorality. Corinth at the time had a culture of sophistication and instant gratification. You might say they were the hipsters of 2000 years ago, but with less good social media. (But you get the impression they would have taken easily to Tinder.)
This is a serious problem for Paul because of temptation three: putting the Lord to the test. Paul is teaching a message of grace and like the Church of England today, he’s encountering large amounts of indifference if not hostility, so he wants to make his message attractive. And the Gospel is — literally — Good news. You have to do nothing. Grace is free. That’s got great marketing value in a decadent culture. But what Paul’s confronting here is the sin of presumption. His church have figured that if they’re already saved they can live how they please, grow beards and wear scarves no matter the weather, as they’re already under God’s protection.
To be fair, the church faces this in every generation. How do you communicate that grace is free but never cheap? That if you haven’t allowed grace to change you, you’re missing something. Effectively, you haven’t been brought up well enough to write a thank-you note.
And of course even for us who come to church, it can so easily become a hobby, a club, something nice for when you’re retired like gardening — or moving to Hove. Paul, who has found his entire life turned upside-down by his encounter with Christ, is not prepared for casual Christians: ‘Seven whole days, not one in seven, I will praise thee — as the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert would later write. When all are baptized, all receive the Eucharist, how do you communicate the life-changing seriousness of the Gospel? You don’t want a church of Oscar Wildes attesting that they intend to die as a Christian, though they could never live as one.
The final temptation is complaining. Something to remind your partner of if they’re giving you a hard time at lunch. But this is the complaining of Israel as they moaned the whole way through Exodus — why have you brought us out here only to be slain by the Egyptians? Why have you brought us in to the desert only to starve to death? It’s the sin of despair. So if the third temptation is ingratitude, this temptation is to give up and believe that grace is not sufficient for you.
In a sense both of these are about what we hope for. Presumption is the self-willed anticipation of what we hope for. Despair is the self-willed anticipation of failure. Both are refusals to let grace be grace; to let God be God; to insist on our control of the future.
We’re not here really talking about our earthly life. Probably most of the Israelites were not terrible people, and could have hoped for better than to be catastrophied. That slightly odd Gospel reading is saying that the poor Jews murdered by Pilate, and the unfortunates the tower collapsed on, were not worse people than anyone else. Bad things happen to everyone. We muddle along in our self-interested, distracted way and try largely to avoid tragedy. But in our faith God is more interested in how able we are to trust him, to let go of the need to control the future — to find more ways of protecting ourselves, or to give in to despair.
The Gospel message here is something more like — do the right thing and put others first. Trust you’re in God’s hands. Find grace where you can, especially in the sacraments, and our spiritual food and drink. That doesn’t mean you’ll make it out alive; no one makes it out alive. But you will be living your best possible life; and whether you live 20 years or 100, in the eyes of God, it’s only a breath: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD’. That’s not an easy thought, but grace is free, never cheap.
So while we’re in this desert of Lent, let’s avoid idols and immorality, with the Putney fast set; but have hope that neither presumes too much, nor despairs in duress — but trusts God even in catastrophe. And whether you survive it or not, know that his grace is sufficient for you. Amen.