Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Sermon at Parish Mass 1st Sunday of Lent 2018

Genesis 9.8-17
1 Peter 3.18-22
Mark 1.9-15

Many years ago, when I worked for a London university, I was a union health and safety representative. Health and safety reps have, by law, certain powers to use on behalf of the workforce, such as the right to enter and inspect any part of the workplace without notice, and even to instruct people to stop work and leave. A power only to be used in case of emergency, but it was there if needed. A representative acts with authority on behalf of other people.
Our readings from the Bible today have people acting in representative ways. The tale of Noah and the flood belongs to the genre of storytelling called myth. This does not mean it is untrue. In fact the story of a great flood occurs in several middle eastern cultures and may well contain a memory of an ancient disaster. But that’s not really the point of the Biblical story. Myth tells us the truth about ourselves and the world, not through journalistic reporting, but through epic saga, great heroes and symbolic acts.
The way the Bible tells the story, the flood is about salvation rather than destruction. The underlying message is that God does not want to cancel the project of creation, even when it has gone horribly wrong. He cleanses the earth through a flood, and saves the only righteous people he can find so that they can re-found the human race and restore creation. We are to forget modern individualism. The people on the ark are representatives of the whole human race, custodians of creation and its future.
And so the story concludes with God’s covenant, made with those representative humans who are given the task of beginning again. The story leaves us with a new understanding of God who, within the horizons of this story, appears to renounce violence. This sets the stage in the end for a Messiah, a new representative human, who, to save the world, will suffer violence rather than inflict it.
The first letter of Peter makes this link, in the passage we heard this morning. Jesus is the one who suffered for sins, but as the righteous for the unrighteous. Noah and the flood is a story of salvation, “a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water”. Moreover, the deeper meaning of this story is that it prefigures baptism, “[which] now saves you - not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”.
The symbolic refounding of the human race in the story of Noah is fulfilled in the eternal refounding of the human race through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the new Adam, the one righteous person who is saved from the deepest flood of all, the waters of death, to become the head of a redeemed human race in a restored creation. God makes a new covenant with Jesus, through his death and resurrection, on behalf of all humanity.
This is shown through his own baptism in the river Jordan, with which today’s gospel reading opens. John is baptising for repentance, and the crowds come to him confessing their sins. Jesus joins them, though he alone is without sin and has no need of repentance. He identifies himself with the mass of sinful humanity, so that he can reconcile sinful humanity with God. As St Paul says in 2 Corinthians, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”.
When Jesus identified himself with humanity in his baptism, God was revealed as Trinity: the Spirit descended on the Son as the voice of the Father was heard. Those who believe in Jesus are identified with him, through our baptism, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our baptism flows from the baptism of Jesus. In him all humanity is washed clean, and begins again. In him, we are adopted as children of God. In him, we receive the Holy Spirit and the Father recognizes us as his beloved children.
And so Jesus has to experience the whole of what it means to be human. The Spirit, the Father’s gift, drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The Spirit of God does this. Why? Because from now on Jesus is identified with all humanity, and all humanity is tempted. But, apart from Jesus, all humanity fails. We have fallen into sin. Jesus does not. The new Adam will not fail the way the first one did. He is victorious over temptation, and in him we can be victorious too. But only in him. Jesus was tempted, not only as the Son of God, but as the Head of the Church, and we are his members. If we reply on our own strength against temptation we will fail. But faith in Jesus gives us access to the victory he has won for us.
Forty days. The length of time that the rain fell on the earth in the story of Noah. The time of sweeping everything clean and beginning again. Jesus must endure that time of testing. He must prove the truth of the vocation he has received from the Father. But, once he has, he can proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. And that proclamation comes with power, because it flows from his tested, authentic, identity as the Son of God.
The Church too keeps a season of forty days every year, in imitation of the temptation and fast of Jesus in the desert. Originally this was the season of preparation for those who were to be baptised at Easter. 
But in time all Christians came to observe Lent. Knowing that we drift away from the grace of baptism, this became a season of self-examination, repentance and renewal, of beginning again. A time to rediscover our identity in Christ. A time to wash clean the rust and dirt of sin that accumulates in our souls. In baptism we received once for all a wellspring of eternal life, our rebirth in the image of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But that life-giving source can become choked, clogged up, ineffective, through sin and neglect.
Lent is a time for renewal, a time to discover once more the Lord who is always waiting to forgive us as soon as we turn back to him. It’s is a time for renewal in faith, faith in Jesus who was tempted and suffered for us, so that we, in him, can know forgiveness of sins and victory over temptation. It is a time for deeper examination of conscience, to renew our baptismal promises to renounce evil and follow Christ.
Many Christians also use the ministry of reconciliation, confession and absolution by a priest, as part of the discipline of this time. In the modern Common Worship rites, the ministry of reconciliation is subtitled “recovering baptism”. That is exactly what it is. Baptism cannot be repeated, but the ministry of absolution, with the authority that Christ has given to the Church, has the same effect for sins after baptism as baptism has for sins committed before: a deep clean, a washing away of the detritus of the past, a fresh start.
In this season of Lent we are recalled to the greatness of what God has done for us. Adopted in Christ by faith and the grace of baptism, we are joined with him in his death and resurrection, made children of God, heirs of eternal life. It is time to recover that grace, and live it in our lives once more. It is time to live Lent. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

No comments: