Returning to the Lord

“In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light. To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him.  Those are the words that we hear at every service of Holy Baptism as a child or adult is brought to Christ’s cleansing waters, to be incorporated into his death and his resurrection.  This is the vision in which our whole lives are encompassed, to live not in the darkness of sin and death but in the marvellous light of the glory of God, both now and for all eternity, holding onto the promise that through our baptism, we have died with Christ, and been raised with him already – and incorporated into his Body, the Body of his Church.

Each year at the Easter Vigil, and on Easter Day we reaffirm this hope as we re-commit ourselves to the baptismal promises that were made on our behalf, as we renew our desire and intent to follow in the Way of Christ.  Many of us have made this re-commitment every year for as long as we can remember, as the beauty and depth of our Easter liturgies inspires us to strengthen our resolve to live as disciples of Jesus.  This year, in this penitential season of Lent, as we prepare ourselves to be renewed in the overwhelming joy of Easter, I want – with my colleagues – to lead us in preparing for that renewal through our reflections in this Lenten season.  We are doing this principally in six ways:

  • Firstly, through our sermon reflections at the weekend Eucharists;
  • Secondly, through gathering together on Thursday evenings, for an opportunity to discuss the sermon theme together, part two, if you like of each week’s learning during the season of Lent;
  • Thirdly, through our home group discussions on being called to holiness, (and there is still time this weekend to sign up to be part of one of those groups beginning this week);
  • Fourthly, through our renewed attention to worshipping God during the week, either through the pattern of services here in church, or by deliberate and intentional prayer at home;
  • Fifthly, through a re-examination of our own plans for our earthly dying, as an act of faith –including, for those who wish to, making use of a funeral customary which were distributed last year in this Season of Lent, and which are being offered once again for our use today;
  • Sixthly, finally, through our almsgiving – using our Lenten giving envelopes (one is in your liturgy booklet today) and our bringing of food each week to support the work of Saint Peter’s Emergency Relief.

We have entitled our Lenten programme this year “Baptised into the Body of Christ – Called to Holiness”.  Beginning today, and continuing over the coming weeks we will be exploring together the five baptismal promises that we will re-affirm together when we reach our Easter celebrations. Those promises are listed in the Lent leaflet which is inserted in your liturgy booklet today. Here is this week’s question: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

Well, will I? will you? Will we together? In a way we have to concede that it would be hard to publicly say no to this question, and still have some claim to be part of the life of the Church.  In a sense this first question summarises the intention of all of the questions that make up the decision of Baptism.  Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?  Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? Do submit to Christ as Lord? Do you come to Christ, the way the truth and the life?

As Bishop Weatherill reminded us last Sunday in our celebration of the Feast of Candlemass – there is a fundamental journey here for all of us who are disciples of Jesus – rejecting, renouncing, and repenting on the one hand: walking away from the devil, and evil and sin; and turning, submitting and coming to Christ on the other hand, moving from darkness into light as we sharpen our focus on our Lord and Saviour. This reaches to the heart of what it means to be a Christian: laying aside all that is alluring and self-gratifying but ultimately destructive, and instead seeking to walk in the way of Jesus.

If I ask this question of myself, and of you, it would be difficult (on first reading at least) for us to say no.  Which follower of Jesus will say that they do not want to persevere in resisting evil? Which disciple of Christ will say that when things go wrong they will not turn to Christ and try again?  But if we dig a little deeper we have to concede that the Church has rather lost its nerve on these things. In fact, the idea of the devil, the idea of sin has really gone out of fashion.

I remember receiving a telephone call in the Rectory not long after I arrived here back in 2012 from a lady who had seen a news report on my arrival. The purpose of her call was to find out whether I preached on sin, and when I said that I did, and that that preaching was largely talking to myself, she let me know that she would not be visiting here.  There was no place for talking about sin in her understanding of faith. But it is a funny kind of Gospel which has no sin. If there is no sin there is no need for a saviour. If there is no need for a saviour then the Cross is futility, and the resurrection is inconsequential.  And yet, there is a certain embarrassment about sin in modern Australia. So the question is not quite as straightforward as we might imagine when we first hear it.

There is another problem too that we have to face as we reflect on this baptismal commitment together. It is the problem of the devil. If the church has gone largely quiet about sin over the last few decades, it has certainly become almost silent about the devil.  A few weeks ago the largest of the local gangs was here in force in church for a baptism. We know each other a little through other baptisms and funerals.  All three of the god parents were members of the gang, as was the father of the child. All of them and many of the congregation were in their gang jackets as we gathered to baptise this beautiful little boy.  When we came to the question “do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?” there was silence. There was no response at all from the parents or from the god parents.  There was a sense of disbelief on the part of these men that they would have to publicly reject the devil. We had to stop the service and have a little discussion, and we got there in the end, because rejection of the devil is not an optional extra for Christians. But it was clear that they were quite puzzled by the question, and embarrassed to have to respond to it.

We follow Jesus – not just in the Season of Lent – but throughout our lives, in resisting the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, evident in our Gospel reading today which is so familiar to us.  To be a Christian, baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, is to stand with Christ; and to stand with Christ is to stand against the temptations of sin and the devil.

So what has changed? What stops most of us and those who live around us from being able to comprehend the idea of sin?  Those of us who gather on Thursday evening will I hope, reflect on this in some more detail, and whether you are able to be with us then or not, I hope that you will give this more than a passing thought in the days ahead. At its most basic, three things have fundamentally changed for us:

Firstly, we have moved away from the idea that our identity is inseparable from our community. We are now autonomous individuals, no longer bound together by what is best for us all, but rather what is best for me.

Secondly, we have drifted away from the idea that our fundamental reason for being alive is to delight God in our worship of him. We now live for ourselves, for our own happiness, and religion is useful only where it serves to help us in our own plans.

Thirdly, we have given up on the idea that there is an eternal consequence for our actions. The frequency of “I did it my way” as a song to be played at the end of funerals simply Illustrates that.

In this new world where I am autonomous; and in which I can do whatever will bring me the most happiness; and in which my happiness is more important than the happiness of those around me; what is sinful is now re-oriented to be about those things that stop me being happy. The practices of Lent in their worst and most mis-understood manifestations confirm this.

I think about the person who gives up chocolate for Lent, but not because they want to give the money that they would have spent on chocolate to the poor, but to lose weight;  I think about the person who stops drinking wine during Lent, but not because they want to take extra time to focus on the things of God, but simply because it has become an annual habit, an annual test of will to do so.  Our sacrifices focus us in on ourselves, and sin becomes about the things that other people do to us, or the things that prevent us from being happy.  That is a far cry from the teachings of the Church that remind us that sin is about all those things that separate us not from our own happiness, but from being faithful to God. Sin is about all that alienates us from being truly alive to God, and God alive to us.

So let me state what is blindingly obvious from our Christian tradition. Baptism is not a self-help programme, neither is Lent. The baptismal promises are not the major headings of a twenty first century Lenten detox plan.  They are not about self-help, they are about divine help; and they call us primarily not to self-fulfilment and certainly not to self-sufficiency, but to genuine life in community with God and with each other. Aware of our need for him, aware of our location with each other.

Will you work hard to resist those things that separate you from being open to God, and which form a barrier that prevents God being open to you; and which prevent you from being truly alive to others? That is what we are being asked to re-affirm in this baptismal promise.  The joy in this for me, is the realism in which the second part of the question is stated.

David, will you persevere in doing this? ‘Yes,’ I respond. And when you mess this up again, which you will obviously do, will you try again Right here in this baptismal promise we hear the echoes of God’s grace. Knowing that it is beyond our power to do what we hope we will do, we are asked what we will do when it goes wrong! There are not many promises that are like that.  But this promise is different, because it is not about law, it is about grace.

It is not so much about grand gestures, as it is about small steps. Perhaps even two steps forward and then one step backward. In other words, we are invited into a precious place of honesty. Where it is possible for us both to promise to God to persevere, whilst clearly knowing that we will not always attain what we intend.

Do not ever believe that the devil’s tempting of Jesus ended when he left the wilderness. The wilderness experience, is an example, a telling of the story of temptations that he experienced throughout his ministry.  He has been here: he knows about sin, evil and the devil. He knows about perseverance. And he is with us now as we share in his life.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  With the help of God, we will.