Ten days from now – a Wednesday – I’ll stand right here and say these words: “Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent … was a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church… I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
Self-examination – repentance – self-denial. Penitence and fasting. Notorious sins! These are big, weighty words for a weighty truth: God loves us just the way we are, but God isn’t going to leave us that way. While the life of faith always calls us to seek God’s will for us, Lent is the season in which the Church invites us to reckon with the place of sin in our lives.
Sin. The outline of the faith in the back of the prayer book says, Sin is when we do and say and choose things that distort our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. I wish they’d added self there, because many of our sins harm ourselves, first and foremost. The Greek word often translated as “sin” in the New Testament means something like, To miss the mark. To fall short. When I talk about sin, I like to offer author Francis Spufford’s alternative term: The Human Propensity to Eff Things Up, or, The HPtFTU.
Contrary to popular belief, Episcopalians actually take sin pretty seriously. You won’t hear a lot of hell and damnation sermons here, true; but every Sunday, our liturgy has us acknowledge that we are sinners, and ask God to forgive us, restore us, help us. And we have this whole season, six weeks, when we try to look frankly at ourselves, and ask, Where is God calling me to amendment of life?
One important tool is taking on a Lenten discipline or fast. A fast means you’re giving something up – not necessarily a food; you can fast from social media, or video games, or whatever. Discipline is a broader term – it could mean giving something up and/or taking on a practice. Either way – fast or discipline – it’s not an end in itself but should serve a purpose: To strengthen you in all goodness, as our prayer of absolution says.
Sometimes a Lenten discipline is a set thing, like giving up sweets for the season. The sugar in your coffee might not be a destructive habit. But you’re changing a small daily practice, taking on a small deprivation, and using that to remind yourself daily of God’s role in your life and your commitment to doing what God asks of you. Think of it as training, of a sort, for following through on larger commitments.
But what I’d like to focus on today are the kinds of Lenten disciplines that are more individual, more particular to your circumstances, your struggles. The kind of disciplines intended to help you come to grips with the things that distort your relationship with God, neighbor, creation, self. And I’ll talk about that through the lens of Paul’s writings in the text we know as First Corinthians – our epistle for the last few weeks.
Today’s passage comes from a chapter that is very specifically about Paul – his call to ministry, and how he chooses to live it out. But he does – parenthetically and provocatively – dip into one of his big themes: Christian freedom. He says he’s not under the Law – meaning, Jewish law. But then he says he IS under the law – God’s law, Christ’s Law. Make up your mind, Paul! Law or no law??
This paradox is a big focus in Paul’s writings: what the ethical and holy life looks like, in the absence of the old Law. That was a contentious question in the early churches. On one side, there was a push for Christians to keep elements of Jewish law. For example, some felt that Gentile converts to Christianity should be circumcised, and that Christians should keep Jewish food laws. The practices of holiness inherited from Judaism were so integral to some peoples’ sense of what it meant to be God’s holy people that was really hard to set that aside.
At the other end of the spectrum were people who thought that as Christians, ANYTHING GOES. That Jesus’ ministry and teaching began a new era of Christian freedom that transcended the narrow constrains of human morality and decency. Earlier in this letter, in chapter 5, Paul rebukes the church in Corinth because there is someone in the church who has shacked up with his widowed stepmother – and the community is PROUD of it, as a sign of how free and non-judgmental they are. Paul is unimpressed. He says, Our freedom in Christ should not mean that sexual license or drunkenness or greed are to be celebrated as proof of our liberation!
In addition to the legalists and the hedonists, there’s one more camp Paul is worried about – those for whom becoming Christian seems to have made no difference whatsoever. We heard about that a couple of weeks ago, in a portion of chapter 6, about Christians taking each other to court. Paul says, Listen: God appointed us to judge the whole WORLD, and you still get into legal tangles with each other??The other part of that chapter says people shouldn’t be going to prostitutes, because that isn’t showing respect for their own and other’s bodies. Paul’s making the same point with both issues: You shouldn’t do tawdry, soul-staining, hurtful stuff just because it’s normal, because everybody does it. Your life should show that you belong to God.
In this letter, and elsewhere, Paul tries to define an ethic of Christian moral behavior that isn’t legalism – it’s not the old Law of Judaism, or anything like it;
that isn’t “anything goes”; and that still marks the lives of Christians as a people set apart to love and serve. And he does that by developing a kind of Christian situational ethics, based on context and conscience.
There’s a thing he says twice in this letter, a core concept: In chapter 6: “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” And again in chapter 10: “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.”
“All things are lawful” – Our translation puts that phrase in quotation marks. Paul is repeating a saying here – and it seems likely that it’s one of his own teachings. He preached a sermon once on how Jesus had abolished the old Law and we are FREE in Christ – and people have taken him a little too literally, and now he define some limits.
“All things are lawful” – this is a core part of the Gospel message: Christianity does not have a holiness code, a set of practices and behaviors proscribed as off-limits, and prescribed as necessary, in order to know you’re right with God. Jesus tells us, Love God, love your neighbor as yourself, and share the Gospel. There are a few other specifics – gather to share Eucharist; feed the hungry – but it’s not a long list. The “rules” of Christianity, while often difficult, are not complicated.
Which is why Paul qualifies the “All things are lawful” teaching: All things are lawful – but not everything is beneficial, good for me or others. All things are lawful – but not all things build up. Not all all things are constructive or healthy. All things are lawful – but I will not be dominated by anything, and lose my freedom to habit or compulsion.
Liberty in Christ, Christian freedom, comes with the responsibility of Christian discipline. With self-examination, and penitence, and sometimes self-denial. Because the things we choose to do with our freedom can begin to rule us instead of serve us.
Although he was writing nearly 2000 years ago, at the very beginning of the Christian era, I find that Paul puts his finger on something that remains one of the perplexing cores of Christian life. We may all be striving to follow Jesus and live out God’s intentions for us, as we best understand them; but what that looks like in our lives is very individual. There’s not just one template or map. I can listen and learn from the experiences and wisdom of others, but ultimately I have to know my own mind, my own heart. I have to know what in my life is beneficial – or not. What in my life is building up – and what is not. What in my life is dominating me.
In the verses just before today’s Epistle text, Paul gives us an example of a personal discipline in his own life. He’s talking about a hot-button issue of his time: whether traveling preachers and apostles like himself should be financially supported by the churches they visit. And Paul’s answer is, ABSOLUTELY. He calls up examples from Scripture and real life: Do you plant a vineyard and not benefit from what it produces? Do people serve in the military for free? Of course apostles should be compensated for their service.
But then he says: But not me.
Paul worked, everywhere he went, so that he wouldn’t have to rely on the generosity of the churches he visited. He offers this amazing humblebrag – he says, I don’t have any choice about preaching the Gospel; God TOLD me to do that; I get no credit. But I can choose how I do it, and I choose to do it this way: giving up my right for people like YOU, Corinthians, to pay my way.
He doesn’t really explain why, but I can imagine a couple of reasons that seem in keeping with what we know of Paul’s heart. I think he never wants to feel beholden – tempted to soften his message to keep a generous donor happy. And I think he wants to know deep in his heart that he’s doing what he’s doing for the right reason, for love of God, and not because it provides a comfortable living. (Paul would sneer at my benefit and pension package!…)
It would have been fine for Paul to be supported by the churches. Only his enemies would have criticized him for it, and they criticized him anyway. But this is between Paul and God. And Paul feels in his heart that this a discipline he needs, to keep his motives and his message pure. He’s very clear that this policy isn’t for everyone; but it IS for him. Friend of the parish Jonathan Melton has written an essay about giving up his smartphone, which you’re invited to read this week. In it, he says: Some people can have a healthy relationship with their smartphone. I can’t. Paul says something similar here, in effect: Some apostles can be financially supported by churches and not have it distort or undermine their ministry. I can’t. He feels a temptation, a risk; and he chooses a way of living to keep that temptation at bay. To resist being dominated.
Paul doesn’t have the vocabulary of addiction, but that’s a big part of what he’s talking about in this letter. Addiction, broadly defined – not just substance abuse, but all the things in our lives where we say, “It’s not that important to me,” or “I could stop anytime I want,” and know we’re lying. The impulses or habits or things in our lives that we feel powerless to change. Some people wrestle with their relationship with food. With online shopping, or social media, or just the act of picking up your smartphone to fill every quiet moment. With an unhealthy relationship. With the adrenaline rush of conflict or danger or outrage. There are so many things that will dominate us, if we let them. If sin is what disrupts love of God, love of neighbor, love of creation, love of self – addictions do that. They become the center of our lives. Or, just as insidiously, the background of our lives, the thing we fall back to whenever we’re not doing something else.
In today’s Gospel we see Jesus casting out some demons. Apparently he did that a lot. There are a couple of ways to make sense of these stories. One is that 1st century Palestinian Jews understood some things we’d call biological illness, as demon possession. So what we might see as a healing, they would see as exorcism. On the other hand: Maybe demons were really around, back then. There are some pretty great demon stories in the Bible.
I am personally agnostic about evil spirits and such. But I know this: Addiction acts a lot like a demon. It makes someone act like something other than their true self. It take away their control over their actions, their lives. It can cause them to endanger themselves. And it’s Jesus’ desire to free us from their grasp.
I’ve learned so much from my recovery community friends, for whom the Twelve Steps are a core spiritual practice. They know that recovery from addiction is ongoing, lifelong work. You don’t quit whatever it is, and just walk away. You have to keep choosing not to be dominated. And you need the help of a higher power, and ideally of an understanding community, to keep making that choice – because it’s hard. But life in recovery is better than life as an addict. Being addicted can feel like freedom, but it’s a lie.
The Invitation to a Holy Lent from the prayer book that I quoted earlier makes mention of “notorious sins” – that always tempts me to giggle. We are all sinners, friends – but if any of you are notorious sinners, I must have missed the headline. Sin usually takes pretty mundane forms: the things in our lives that diminish our capacity for love – given or received; that confuse our purpose, that numb our conscience, that dim our light, which is really God’s light shining through us. If we’re honest with ourselves, if we’re listening to God, we know what those things are. If addiction is too heavy a word, think about your habits instead. Habits of action or of thought.
We need to undertake this work – to approach these heavy words, self-discipline, self-denial – holding firmly in mind that Jesus’ Great Commandment calls us to love ourselves, as well as God and neighbor. Don’t let your self-reflection become a weapon of self-harm. Practice your self-awareness with compassion!
But there is – there has to be – a place in our faith for asking ourselves these powerful questions Paul gives us: What in my life is hurting instead of helping? What in my life is undermining instead of building up? What in my life is dominating me? And for undertaking the work of change. Of recovery. Of liberation.
Lent begins in ten days. Often it sneaks up on me, which means that it probably also sneaks up on most of you. But this year, Paul has given us notice. He’s called us to examine how we’re living our freedom in Christ – and where that freedom may be compromised by the things we allow to have power over us. So I invite you, today, to begin noticing, and reflecting, and praying about taking on a Lenten discipline or fast. Have a real honest conversation with God about something you’d like to do differently – at least a little bit. Lent is a good length; six weeks isn’t an overwhelming amount of time to commit to something, but it’s also long enough to perhaps establish a new habit, or release an old one. Practice self-compassion and set realistic intentions: don’t aim too high and disappoint yourself right away. And remember the wisdom of the recovery community: One day at a time.
I invite you, friends, in the name of the Church, to begin your preparation for the observance of a holy Lent.