The Most Important Lenten Discipline

Donnie McDaniel preached this morning at our Wednesday morning Eucharist service. Here is his sermon! A great reminder this Lent.

Romans 5:6-11  For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person– though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.  11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Art Lent 5 B

In preparation for preaching this morning, I was faced with the task of deciding which of these three passages that I would preach, and any of them would make for a wonderful homily, but as a preacher by trade and calling, I would not be worth my salt if I did not preach from Paul’s letter to the Romans when given the opportunity; thus, that is where we will spend our brief time together this morning. Romans, after all, has played a major role in the theology of Western Christianity, the branch of the faith in which we stand as Anglicans. It was a passage in Romans that led to the conversion of St. Augustine. It was the book of Romans that Martin Luther, the 16th century Reformer, urged all Christians to memorize. In the early 20th century it was Karl Barth’s commentary called Der Romerbrief that exploded on the playground of liberal, Protestant theology, and even today the great minds of the Christian faith continue to mine the depths of St. Paul’s masterpiece, so this morning we will be in good company.

Specifically, this morning we will be spending our time in Romans 5.6-11 where I hope we will pick up the most important Lenten practice—preaching the gospel to ourselves. A few short weeks ago, many of us were here on Ash Wednesday, and we began the great journey of Lent, a six week period of deep introspection where we take a long look at our own sins and what it cost Christ to effect such a great reconciliation between God and humanity. During Lent, many of us have chosen to follow the Great Tradition and restrict our diets. We willingly choose to go without so that we can remember more clearly what Christ has done on our behalf, but even in this season, when we are supposed to be focused on Christ, it is easy for us to look again at our own practices. Knowing the sinful bent of the human heart, the Ash Wednesday liturgy is carefully formed around a gospel text that warns us against engaging in religious practices, such as fasting, that draw attention to ourselves. And one of the best ways we can avoid this tendency is to remind ourselves of what God has done for us, and that is what we will do today as we look at the two sides of the gospel; the present assurance that we have in Christ, and the future hope that we have in him as well. So, let’s take a look at Romans 5.6-11 and see what Paul has for us this morning.

Paul, in verse nine is building upon our justification before God, an idea that he introduces back in verse one of the present chapter. The justification that we have in Christ is the declaration of our right standing with God via our participation in the life and death of Jesus Christ, who completed the work that God had prepared for him from the foundation of world. Now please note the tense that Paul uses to describe this Justification, he says we have been justified. This is something that is already accomplished. I call this the present assurance that we have in Christ. Those who have placed their faith in the finished work of Jesus the Messiah already enjoy the truth that they belong to the family of God, that is the verdict that you and I can expect from God at the final judgment, has been applied to us already. Paul then goes on to tell us that this justification arrived at God’s appointed time; this means that Jesus’ ministry including his death, resurrection, and ascension happened at the just the right moment in time. Despite how Rousseau and the rest of the Enlightenment thinkers would like to tell the story, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus constitute the climax of history. God moved to restore his creation at exactly the right time, and this was done while we were still weak and sinful.

The fact that God justified humanity while we were weak and sinful is beautiful truth. Paul himself says here that, “God proves his love for us that while we were sinners Christ died for us.” What St. Paul is conveying to us is that humanity, individually and corporately, has done nothing to earn this justified status before God. It is entirely a free gift of grace from a loving God who stepped into the theater of history to enact a redemption that provides justification to humanity, but also, as Paul goes on to teach us in Romans 8, provides salvation to all of creation itself. This is the first half of the gospel that we should be preaching to ourselves. We should constantly tell ourselves that while we were weak and sinful, Jesus willingly gave his life that we could have the right standing with God. I know that this explains my situation when God found me. I was 17 years old, and had grown up in private Christian school. I knew all about God, but I did not know God, and there is a real difference. However, God in a display of his love for me saved me from a terrible car accident. He placed me in the life of his son and gave me purpose. I stand justified before the throne of God. I tell myself that story often, and I encourage you to relive your stories as well.

Building upon the present assurance of justification that we currently have before God, Paul goes on teach us about our future hope. Verse 9 says, “Much more surely then, now that we have been justified in his blood, will we be saved from the wrath of God.” St. Paul presents our future hope as an absolute guarantee, because compared to our justification before God, which was accomplished when we were still weak and sinful; our salvation from the coming wrath of God is a small feat on the part of God. Paul is here employing an ancient rabbinic rhetorical device of arguing from the greater to the lesser (a minori ad maius). This explains the way in which Paul describes this future hope in verse ten; God reconciled us to himself in Christ while we were still enemies. He did not wait for us to clean ourselves up and come to him; his action toward us was not predicated upon any acts of penance on our part. Rather, he took the initiative and reconciled us to himself through the death of Jesus. We can know without a doubt that our future destiny and status before God is secure in our participation in the death and life of Jesus Christ.

In fact, Paul goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of our participation in Christ. He uses the same preposition (in) in reference to the death of Jesus and the resurrection life of Christ. We are justified in the present and saved in the future by our mystical union with Christ, often conveyed in Paul by the phrase “in Christ.” Our participation in Christ, if we follow the logic of Paul, extends to the key aspects of Christ’s work. In the very next chapter of Romans Paul gives an exposition that our baptism is one of the points where we participate in the death of Christ on the cross and rise with him on Easter morning. Therefore, when God looks down on his justified and saved saints, he sees none other than his own dearly beloved Son with whom he is well pleased.

Now that we have looked at our present assurance and our future hope, we should be in a position where we can preach this gospel to ourselves through the rest of Lent. As we remember what Christ has done for us, we can also remember that via our belief in his completed work, we participate in the life of Christ. He lives in us and we in him, just like the various Eucharistic prayers in the liturgy remind us each time we gather for worship. It is in this gospel that we will find the power necessary to complete our Lenten vows. We can wash our face in the waters of this gospel and anoint our heads with the oil of this good news. If we tell ourselves daily that we are justified in Christ, and that we will be saved from the wrath of God, no one will ever be aware of our secret fasting as we will be consuming that bread that others cannot understand. This is the message that we need to preach to ourselves, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

As we are preaching this message to our audience of one, our views of Lent can also be transformed. We will no longer be focused on our sacrifices or our acts of penance, as if anything that you or I could do would ever place God in our debt. Rather, we will be reminded that while we were sinners Christ died for us and that this act has reconciled us completely to God in the present and secured our standing before him in the future. As I was thinking about how this gospel could change our perceptions of Lent, I came across these words from the Very Reverend Robert Munday, Dean Emeritus of Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He writes, “We would do well to remember the purposes for which Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness. He had no sins for which he needed to atone. We have no sins for which we are capable of atoning. If we could, what he did for us—what he had to do for us—would not be necessary. So Lent is really much more about what God adds to our lives as we spend intentional, focused time with him than what we give up, because the Gospel is always about what God has done for us, not about what we do for him.”

That last line, the Gospel is always about what God has done for us, not about what we do for him, sums up the discussion very well. If we preach God’s good news to ourselves during the rest of Lent, we may find that our lives are transformed. This proclamation to the self may just be the jumpstart that each of us needs to start engaging our neighbors and our co-workers with the message of God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ. We may find ourselves all the more capable of inviting that friend that we know is lost to church for Easter services, we will have to wait and see what God does as we preach to ourselves the rest of Lent, but we can rest assured that his word will not return to him void.

 

 

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Filed under Discipleship, Evangelism, Lent, Preaching, The Holy Spirit

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