The qualities of penitence and humility are not very fashionable today, although they belong to the oldest traditions of not only the Christian and Jewish faiths, but of many others as well, including what we might call the Wisdom tradition of the ancient world. In the Old Testament we read of sackcloth and ashes being put on by people who have done something they regret and are now mortified at their error of thought, word or deed. Penitence does entail a huge effort of acknowledgement or recognition of what we have done and then screwing up the courage to say sorry. It is a profoundly humbling experience. Penitence and humility go together.
The Lenten Collect is one of my favourites, because after acknowledging our sins we then ask God to: “Create in us new and contrite hearts….” This word “contrite” is still used today to refer to people who have done something wrong and know it and want to apologise and make good. The word derives from “con” meaning “wholly” and “terere” meaning “to bruise”, of which the past participle is “tritus”. So contrite means “wholly bruised” which has developed into meanings such as “brokenhearted or deeply sorrowful for sin”, “penitent”, or “remorseful”. These words, heavy with meaning as they are, convey the seriousness of our sinful actions, which have the effect of separating us from God in whose image both we and our neighbour are made.
So it is good that in the Church’s wisdom we are given the Lenten period of five weeks to think about our behaviour and priorities, our speech and thoughts. It is a highly personal business. But we pray in that collect prayer to be given not just a contrite heart, but also a new one. In other words we are appealing to God, through the agency of Jesus Christ, to forgive what is in our hearts and on our consciences, that “we may receive from him, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness”, and so allow us to make a new start.
As we all know we are far from perfect. It is precisely because each one of us has a reason to ask for forgiveness that Jesus urges us to be very careful about judging others. In John 8, which we heard on Ash Wednesday, the Pharisees come to Jesus with the woman caught in adultery, in order to test him; they represent the authorities of the Jewish Law, presumably pointing to Leviticus 20 or Deuteronomy 22 which deal with adultery. What is fascinating is that Jesus is silent for so long, before making his statement about a sinless person being the one entitled to cast the first stone. What, we wonder, was he writing on the ground in the meantime ? We can only speculate. Jesus himself would therefore be entitled to cast the first stone, as he is without sin, but he does not condemn the woman. The Pharisees melt away, all suddenly aware of the truth of what he has said. So it is for us, who are quick to judge others but are blissfully unaware of the mote in our own eye. All God needs from us is the insight and humility to recognise that and act accordingly.
On Ash Wednesday Simon referred to the German theologian Meister Eckhardt, who coined the phrase “God sees us with the same eye with which we see him”. This is about insight and humility, but also about learning to be a disciple, a follower of The Way which Jesus taught us, and which God always wanted us to follow and emulate.
As we have emphasised in previous sermons we are all called to be disciples; it is our choice whether we answer the call. The first disciples recognised that the Kingdom of God was drawing near in the ministry of Jesus. They were called to a life of repentance and faith. They were called to be with Jesus together and to be sent out, just as we are called through the Holy Spirit today (Matthew 28: go and make disciples of all nations).
To be called to be a disciple of Jesus is to be called to a life of learning, growing and formation (dare I say it, even transformation) into the likeness of Christ. Jesus draws us his disciples apart and teaches us the ethics and actions of the Kingdom of Heaven, the pattern of prayer and worship, and the principle of life together in community.
Being a disciple also carries a cost: the first disciples left everything they had to follow Jesus, who experienced great pain and suffering, as did some of them later. By denying ourselves, leading selfless rather than selfish lives, and taking up the cross which we all have to bear at some stage in our lives, we also can join in the hope and joy which Jesus has in store for us – in the words of John 10, have life in all its abundance, even beyond our earthly death.
Being a disciple implies learning, continual learning by the renewing of our minds (as Paul puts it in Romans 12). It starts with baptism, when we are washed and made holy, set apart for God. God has marked us with the seal of the Holy Spirit who is at work within us constantly reminding us of his love and compassion, so that we can respond by offering our whole lives in service. We cannot be part-time disciples. We are being formed by the Holy Spirit into a new community – the people of God.
Whether or not you have had a discipleship conversation with a member of the Ministry Team, please think about having one, or a second one if you feel the need. This Lent we are once more offering a variety of ways of continuing our learning: the Quiet Day at Ham Common on March 7 which is devoted to prayer, the Sunday evening Lent Talks on the global expressions of Anglicanism, and the four Lent study groups looking at songs of praise in the New Testament, details of which are given on the board at the back. Both the Quiet Day and the groups are currently under-subscribed, so please have a look and take the opportunities we are providing for you.
So as we enter the season of penitence and self-examination I wish us all a fruitful and insightful Lent, and a greater sense of discipleship, of knowing God and Jesus Christ to be at the centre of our lives.