Romans 10: 8-13
Good morning on this First Sunday in Lent, and with continuing prayers that this season is and will be a time of grace and blessing. As I've said before, the word “Lent” itself in its history evolves from the Old English name for the time of the year when the days begin to “lengthen.” And so, a new springtime, and an opportunity for growth and renewal.
There is an invitation that we use in our service of Holy Communion week by week. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer only slightly edits Archbishop Cranmer’s wonderful 16th century language. What Cranmer composed for the 1549 Prayer Book --
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God and to his holy church here gathered together in his name, meekly kneeling upon your knees.
Really could be the banner over all our Lenten disciplines and practices. Repentance. Love and Charity. Intention to lead a new life in accordance with God’s will. Continuing to walk in his way. It’s a short course in the Christian way. Six weeks or so as a microcosm of a lifetime.
In his contribution for Ash Wednesday that opened our new Meditation Book Fr. Marchl talks about Lent as a “process.” That’s probably a good way to think about it. Encountering our mortality, turning in repentance, receiving grace as God’s free gift in the work of Christ. The two traditional sentences for the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Remember O Man that thou art dust; and unto dust shalt thou return.” And then, “Turn away from your sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.”
It is a process, though I think it’s more than that too—or at least it’s not “only” a process. An English priest and writer whose work I've been paying attention to over the past few years talks about how we sometimes talk about the long journey of formation in faith over a lifetime, and then sometimes we talk about the kind of spiritual crisis that can produce a sudden and distinctive decision. A mountain-top moment of clarity and conversion. But Richardson suggests that we really should see both as congruent with Christian life. Process and crisis, folded and intertwined in the stories of our lives. Times of stability and slow and steady growth, and times of great leaps. Turn-around moments.
When you look closely at a dramatic experience of conversion and renewal—the Ethiopian official puzzling over the scriptures when he meets Philip on the Wilderness Road, Paul knocked from his horse on his way to Damascus, Augustine in Rome, John Wesley and his “heart strangely warmed” at the Aldersgate Meeting—you will always see beneath the surface as well a course of preparation, a longer journey. What is so often a long and winding road, with twists and turns, times of progress and times of falling back or wandering to the side.
And when we would look closely at a story of someone whose faith story is a long journey, a story of quiet life-long immersion in the community of faith, even then, sooner or later there will be there, perhaps quietly, not so dramatic as Paul or Augustine or Wesley, but nonetheless, something in particular: a turning in the way, an awareness of a new opening, the giving and receiving of mercy and love in the person of Jesus.
Richardson writes, “no matter what the process by which people become Christians, or how long it may take, it cannot be regarded as ended until they are essentially brought to this point: to believe the apostolic message that there is a coming judgment of the living and the dead and that the crucified and risen Jesus is the savior from sin of all who believe in him, as testified to by the prophets.” And that’s of course key to this Lenten microcosm of the Christian way, this procession to Holy Week and Easter. To have in sight both the first steps of the journey and the destination.
This is my own personal taste and opinion, but for me Martin Luther’s 1515 Preface to the Book of Romans is one of the greatest expressions of Biblical commentary and interpretation. He begins, talking about Romans, “This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian's while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. “ Almost breaking into a song or hymn.
So to hear Paul this morning in the reading from Romans appointed for this First Lenten Sunday: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” for “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”
The heart of the Good News, the banner of Christian proclamation, the generosity of God: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.
If the first great act in the gospel drama is centered in the formal doctrine of the Incarnation, with the Bethlehem Manger at center stage, the curtain then rises for a second act, as the doctrine of the Atonement brings the story to its fulfillment at the Cross. And I hope we would each of us hear this as a personal invitation this morning. As Luther says, news that is "the daily bread of the soul."
All along the way first pointed by the carols of Christmas morning:
Good Christian men rejoice with heart and soul and voice; now ye need not fear the grave: Jesus Christ was born to save! Calls you one and calls you all to gain his everlasting hall. Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save!
There are many things to know about Jesus, of course, and many ways to come to know him. Who he was; why he came. It is the work of a lifetime. But here at the starting line of Lent, and at the foundation of whatever we would begin to build in our world, in our church, in our homes, in the secrets of our hearts, we would know him as our Savior.
We would give thanks for what he has given of himself, to the very end, even for us. Even for us. Our worship this morning. The words on our lips as we sing. The prayer in our hearts of thanksgiving, as we come to the Table to remember his life and his death and his resurrection. We would, each and every one of us—this is the take-away: we would, each and every one of us know that we would be lost, and entirely lost, without him.