A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne at St Paul’s Cathedral on the First Sunday of Lent 2023
At the beginning of Lent, the church’s season of renewal and growth, stands the reminder that we humans are mortal, and sinful. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we offer the opportunity to be signed on the forehead with a cross—in ash. The symbolism of this ‘ashing’ has its roots in the solemn act repentance of the Jewish people: putting on sackcloth, simple, unadorned garments, and ashes on the head, as signs of returning to God, of conforming to God’s will. ‘Remember, o mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’, the priest says as he ashes each worshipper. ‘Turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ’.
During the six weeks of Lent, our Sunday readings explore the journey of turning away from sin and being faithful to Christ. We are going to hear from Scripture what it means to be far removed from God through human sinfulness and are encouraged to think about what it takes to know and do God’s will. For much of Lent we will be hearing from our patron, St Paul, through the first chapters of his epistle to the Romans. For Paul sin is not a light matter: he takes sin very seriously indeed. In the New Testament, the Greek word for ‘sin’, harmatia, is mentioned 173 times. Of those 64 times by Paul. If Paul is the New Testament author who is most concerned with sin, then his Letter to the Romans is the epistle that most considers what sin is and means: of the 64 instances that Paul writes about sin, sin is mentioned 48 times in Romans.
Sin, for Paul, is not simply wrongdoing, or the daily struggle to live a values-based life. Sin for Paul is a deep-rooted principle of evil, and wilfulness: is the power that does harm to humanity and the root of all its conflicts. Sin is always present in human community, Paul knows: even—especially, he would say—when we wish for good, evil is readily at hand.
If Paul is the New Testament author most concerned with sin, he is also the writer most concerned with the way in which we can rid ourselves of its destructive effects. The epistle to the Romans is Paul’s first and longest letter. It is, in fact, the first Christian text to be written following the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul is writing to the Jewish-Christian community in Rome to encourage them to forgo their differences and quarrels, which for him are signs of sinfulness. Instead, he tells them to recognise the unity they can enjoy by knowing Jesus Christ; and to discover for themselves the harmony and mutual love that are the fruits of Christ’s forgiveness. Sin has an effect on the way we think, Paul tells them. It has an effect on the way we eat and drink, and it has an effect on the way we die, he reminds them. Forgiveness and grace, on the other hand, is what enables us to live together as the people God loves, and is the basis for our confidence that Christ has overcome death.
Today’s readings tell us the story of how sin came into the world, and how it affects everyone. They take us to the very beginning of the story of God and his people, and the first acts of human disobedience that opened the way for sin and evil to enter our world. They tell us that evil has become our basic problem, and ultimately the cause of our death. They show us how sin seeks to tempt us with things we long for—food and comfort, reliance and security, power and influence—and how sin may use good things—including God’s word—to tempt us. At the same time, they assure us that, although sin is a universal problem, redemption—the forgiveness of sin—is available to all people and that God judges and punishes sin itself by overcoming it through Jesus Christ.
Our first reading, from the book Genesis, takes us to the abundant and peaceful garden of creation. God made it, and knew it to be very good. He placed humankind in the garden to tend and protect it, and permitted humans to name and therefore have influence over all creatures. He placed all things necessary for a rich life in the garden, walked the garden himself and lived closely among his people. God knew his creation personally, and loved it, and sought for it to flourish. God also placed the key to knowledge at the heart of the garden: the knowledge to see the world as God sees it—frail and complex, full of choices, requiring a nuanced course of constant decisions to navigate life. Humankind, our reading tells us, desired and acquired this knowledge. That which appeared to them as a delicious delight, revealed itself to be a deadly duty.
Where previously people had lived in harmony because they knew only harmony, now they knew both good and evil. The two humans instantly knew their vulnerability, our reading tells us—knew that they were figuratively and genuinely naked before God, and rushed to cover up their nakedness, in the hope that God would not notice their choice. The writer of Genesis speaks of the act that has become known as the ‘fall from grace’ in allegorical language. The garden might have seemed harmonious, and very good, but cunning and deception was already present in this idealised community. The persuasive serpent represents the double-tongued talk of evil persuasion, and the venom that brings death: the point of the story is that evil will talk smoothly, that evil will tell that our choices are simple when they are not, and that evil will, ultimately, leave us vulnerable and unprotected. We will not be protected by the loincloths we may conjure up for ourselves from the first thing that is at hand. Sin will have its prize, and that prize is human life: evil, our reading tells us, is the reason for sin, and sin is the reason why people die.
Our Gospel reading takes us to an encounter between the author of evil and Jesus Christ. Jesus had just been baptised. There was no need for Jesus to be washed from sin in baptism. His cousin John the Baptist knew that Jesus alone among humans was without any sin, and called him out: ‘why should I be baptised by you’, John asked his cousin, ‘when I in fact have need to be baptised by you’. Jesus of all people needed no washing from sin, and yet took on the ritual in order that ‘all righteousness might be fulfilled’. Jesus submitted himself to the Law of Moses, and its requirements of righteousness. And as he came up from the waters, once all righteousness had been fulfilled, God opened heaven and anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit, and called him his beloved Son. The same Spirit that had anointed him now led him into the wilderness ‘to be tempted by the Devil’, our reading tells us.
We would expect the Spirit-filled Jesus to be full of power and strength, driving away Satan, in the same way in which he drove out demons. But Jesus does not evade temptation by driving evil away. He fasts, and prays, and at the moment of his greatest vulnerability—famished after forty days—he encounters the tempter. And Satan tempts Jesus to use his powers to serve himself: ‘command these stones to become bread’. And Jesus, who will share a few loaves and fishes with thousands and who will turn water into gallons of fine wine for others, resists. God’s gifts are used to serve God and neighbour, and not to serve self.
Satan tempts Jesus three times: tempts him to test his reliance on God by an act of wilfulness by causing a spectacle. And Jesus who would later rather endure the loneliness of the cross than call up a legion of angels, resists. The last temptation is power—not the power that serves others, or the power that sets humans free from the effects of sin and evil by bringing healing and wholeness, but the power that enthrals, subdues and tyrannises. ‘If you worship me, I will give you all these kingdoms’, will give you all human power. And Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, finally casts Satan away, and commits himself to worship and serve only God.
All righteousness is fulfilled in this act of dedication, in which Jesus commits himself to be the One who will take away all sinfulness by his death on the cross. As Jesus walks away from the wilderness, John observes in his gospel, his cousin who had baptised him, instantly knows him to be the sacrificial lamb that would be killed so that all have life. ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’, John declares (John 1.29). Sin must be terrifying indeed if it takes the Son of God to take it away. God made Jesus, the sinless one, to be sin, so that all sin might be taken away, our patron saint tells the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 5.21). The principle of sin is eradicated—taken out at the root—when the Lamb of God is killed, and Christ lifted up on a cross.
Sin is terrifying. It applies to all people, our epistle reading argues convincingly. For those living under the Law of Moses, the rules of life given to the people of God on Sinai, the Law holds them accountable for their deeds. They will be judged on the basis of their observance, or lack thereof, of the Law. Would it be better not to know the Law, Paul asks rhetorically? Well, those who live apart from the Law, those who have never known God, will also be held accountable for their living. All are subject to God’s judgement; both those who live under the Law, and those who do not. Just as all are subject to sin: ‘there is no one righteous, not one; there is no one who understands’, Paul tells the Romans (Romans 3.29): ‘All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God’.
‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’, we solemnly recalled last Wednesday. Remember that the effects of sin are death. As the ash crosses were marked on our foreheads, we were also reminded of the remedy for sin: ‘turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ’. Turn away from sin. In the next few chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans we will see that Paul has faint hopes for us: alone, Paul believes, we will never have the capacity to turn away from sin. Sin, simply put, is all pervasive, and hard to escape under our own strength. But together with God it is possible to turn away from sin. When we turn to Christ, when we remind ourselves daily—in our prayer and actions—of the goodness and love of God, and the sacrifice and selfless acts of Christ, then, Paul rightly knows, we have a chance to turn from the sin to which all of us are subjected. ‘Turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ’.
Next Sunday, our readings will tell us more about at what this faithful turning to God, this act of committing ourselves to God, looks like. We will hear words of promise and reassurance, hear that God seeks to bless and not to condemn. Today, though, let us take seriously the gravity and effects of sin. That no one lives without the daily struggle against sin. That without the daily need to turn from turning from the enticements of sin to serve self—to provide for our own comforts first, or only ever strive for our own recognition and renown—that without the daily turning from sin, and focusing on Christ, we remain subjects to the tyranny of evil. ‘Turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ’.
Where sin is deadly and clouds our life, turning to Christ is joyful and life-giving. If you have not yet committed to turning to Christ, and seeking baptism or confirmation, I encourage you to talk to one of our clergy about what committing to Jesus Christ means. If you have already made the commitment, in your baptism, to reject evil and turn to Christ, you will have experienced the joy that discipleship, that following Jesus can bring. When your fundamental commitment, made in baptism, is lived out day by day in discipleship, by every action and work of yours, choosing at every step to turn to Christ, and choose life and joy, and thereby rejecting sin and death.
This Lent, I invite you to pray with me, each day that we might choose Christ, choose life. You may wish to pray the simple prayer of the penitent, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner’. Or you may wish to pray the lines from the prayer that Jesus taught us, asking that your will be conformed to his: ‘Lord Jesus, thy kingdom come, thy will be done’. Especially when you feel that you are tempted to sin, or when you feel that God is far from you, I encourage you to pray for God to meet you in your need. And if you are already committed to prayerful living, I invite you to pray for those who still need to make that fundamental commitment to living with Christ. Pray for a friend, or a group of friends, whom you would like to see turn to Christ. Again, do so consistently, and joyfully, knowing that it is in turning away from sin, and our faithfulness in Christ, that we may share in the life that is forever.
‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But God is righteous and justifies all who have faith in Jesus’. Thanks be to God.
© Andreas Loewe, 2023