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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Remembering Life Backwards, Living Life Forwards

Great Lent Sermon 2013

by Daniel Haynes

I would like to start my homily today with two quotes. The first is from St. Augustine in the fourth century, “Through him you sought us when we were not seeking you, but you sought us that we might begin to seek you.” The second is from Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century, “We only understand life backwards, but we must live forwards.”

Modern ways of thinking theologically about God, the Church and the Scriptures often fall into a kind of trap. Sometimes we understand the “facts” of Jesus of Nazareth, and we dissect the historical development of the creeds and teachings of the Church, but as Kierkegaard points out we fail to take account of these “facts” and historical observations for life lived forwards.

What I mean by this is that we learn the objective details of the stories in the Holy Scriptures and the theological doctrines of the Church that we celebrate every Sunday in the Mass, but we disconnect them from the interpretive lived practices that ancient Christians actually used to become disciples of Christ.

Truth is understood backwards as what was, not what is now. You see, a good historian acknowledges that whatever veracity exists in the divinity of Jesus Christ is disconnected from what we can prove as facts about him. We are in fact enlightened modern people aren’t we?

Yet the past calls out to us. It calls out to us to read the Scriptures theologically and therefore open our lives to our future with Christ, to embark on the second part of Kiekegaard’s observation.

The problem is that the methods of “reading” our faith that I mentioned before are not how the apostles and early Christians following in their footsteps did theology.

We can see this in one big theological Christian doctrine, the “Incarnation.” Presumably, this term refers to the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, becoming human through the virgin Mary.

However, with few exceptions the Gospels portray the “fact” of the Incarnation as anything but obvious to the followers of Jesus. It is only after Christ’s Passion, that is his crucifixion and resurrection, that his disciples actually get it. The women who find the empty tomb think that someone has stolen the body of their Lord.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize the resurrected Christ walking with them until Jesus sits down, opens the Scriptures, and explains to them why he had to be sacrificed.

Jesus even scolds them for not understanding: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)

So, to speak theologically about the Incarnation, we must understand that it is an interpretation made only in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection. It is also a confession of the Church about the crucified and exalted Lord drawn from the experience and testimony of him in the Scriptures. “It is not a neutral statement that could be verified by an uninvolved bystander as part of an objective history, an account of things ‘as they actually happened,’ in the manner of a 19th century historian” (Behr). This is why we “confess” together the Nicene Creed every week in the Mass.

Those outside the Church cannot confess the truth of Jesus of Nazareth because they can only know the facts of history until they stand within the Church, within the body of Christ. This is why Christians need to be theologians and explain to those outside the theological meanings of the texts.

While I am not discounting the benefit of asking questions, such as “What happened way back then?” I am saying that we can miss the theological point, that is the pregnant truth of God incarnate and unfolded within the Scriptures.

A second century work entitled On Pascha, written by Melitto of Sardis, draws out this point beautifully. Interestingly, the book also contains the first reference to the Christian practice of celebrating Easter, or Pascha. Melito is deep in discussion with the angel in the story of the Passover meal and the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Melito says (Behr):

Tell me angel, what turned you away?
The slaughter of the sheep or the life of the Lord?
The death of the sheep or the type of the Lord?
The blood of the sheep or the spirit of the Lord?

It is clear that you turned away
Seeing the mystery of the Lord in the sheep
And the life of the Lord in the slaughter of the sheep
And the type of the Lord in the death of the sheep
Therefore you struck down not Israel
But made Egypt alone childless

Thus if you wish to see the mystery of the Lord
Look at Abel who is likewise slain
At Isaac who is likewise tied up
At Joseph who is likewise traded
At Moses who is likewise exposed
At David who is likewise hunted down
At the Prophets who likewise suffer for the sake of Christ

According to Melito, the Angel of death does not really Passover the homes of the Israelites because they place the lamb’s blood above their doorposts; he passes over them because he sees the sign of the mystery of Christ (Behr).

As we continue in this season of Great Lent, I wish to encourage everyone to read the meaning of the season theologically with pre-modern eyes, lest we fall into the modern historian trap. The way that I would like to think theologically through the meaning of Great Lent with you today is to first focus on the Passion of Christ, which we celebrate at the end of Lent.

The early Church, at least until the middle of the fourth century, celebrated the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus at the same time, the Pascha, which was the word used before “Easter”. We later broke up the various events of the Passion of Christ into separate days on which they occurred.

Now, the first three Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke place the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples on the day when the Passover lamb was slain (Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7), but John places the day that the Passover Lamb was slain on the same day as Jesus’s crucifixion (John 19:14). Here in John’s Gospel, Jesus is fully identified with the sacrificial lamb.

John also begins his Gospel with the same pronouncement “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus is not the victim of historical occurrences; he is God who became flesh and voluntarily offered himself as the sacrificial lamb for the salvation of the world. You can see this in the depiction of the crucifixion in the 6th century Rabbula Gospels, which you have as a leaflet. Christ’s eyes are open wide looking upward towards heaven. Jesus is not just another Jewish Messiah figure who has gone the way of martyrdom. He is at one-and-the-same-time suffering servant and exalted Christ.
Paradoxically, it is through his weakest act of suffering, that Christ demonstrates the all-powerful nature of God. Origen, writing in the second century, describes the event this way: “We must dare say that the goodness of Christ appeared greater and more divine and truly in accordance with the image of the Father when ‘humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross,’ than if he had considered being equal to God robbery,’ and had not been willing to become a servant for the salvation of the world.”

We could describe the events of Holy Week found in the Gospels using a nice historically plausible model, or we could read the Scriptures as revealing that through the death and resurrection of the exalted one Jesus Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself.

Great Lent is the time leading up to Easter, approximately six weeks, that the Church has chosen for the preparation of the believer for Easter—through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. Traditionally, Christians would fast during this period. The forth days of Lent represents the forty days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by the Devil before his public ministry. Ancient tradition also held that Jesus was in the tomb for forty hours. And, of course, the number forty has incredible significance in the Old Testament as a time of testing and waiting for redemption.

We fast or give up something important to us during Lent to live in solidarity with our Lord, but we also do this to theologically re-present how it is through death that Life comes to all creation. Fasting can be perceived as merely a duty, a set of days that must be painstakingly marked off the calendar until Easter comes and relieves our suffering, or we can also read the Christian season of Lent as capturing the meaning of the suffering of Christ in the Scriptures.

What’s more, a theological understanding of Lenten sacrifice helps move beyond the “worldly point of view” of things that St. Paul mentions in our 2 Corinthians epistle reading this morning. The Apostle to the Gentiles says that we once regarded Christ in this way. Saul persecuted Christians, who blasphemously believed that a crucified Rabbi was God. It wasn’t until he encountered the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus that Saul was converted to Paul. Paul pens one of the best lines in the New Testament, in my opinion, in verse 17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old is gone, the new is here!”

God has reconciled the whole cosmos to himself through Christ, and now he has given all of us the “ministry of reconciliation” in the world.

In the Gospel reading this morning, we read the story of the prodigal son, who returns home after squandering his inheritance. In a reversal of expectations, the father welcome the son into his arms and throws a big party. The Church is tasked with the ministry of reconciliation, to be the “ambassadors” of Christ as St. Paul says. This means everyone of us! We all have something vital to give in order to build up the kingdom of God. Don’t let the Devil tell you in the wilderness of Lent that you can’t because that is a lie! The real sacrifice has already been offered.

So, Lent reminds us that this reconciliation is taking place even through the sacrifices and temptations that befall us in life. We must read deeper below the surface of giving up meat, chocolate, or beer for forty days. We must confess together with the holy Scriptures and with the Christian movement the truth that God has brought about the salvation and reconciliation of the world through the death and resurrection of Christ. We must remember and understand backwards the truth of what God has done in the Scriptures, and we must live forward the truth of our own encounter with the risen Lord in the hopes of our ultimate resurrection and the eternal vision of God.

For Great Lent, remember that the sacrifice and trials of life are taken up in the life of Christ. Read the theological meaning of the Church’s Lenten fast. See below the surface, where we find the risen Christ.

Daniel Haynes, Ph.D.
Great Lent 2013

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