The Preacher’s Study
Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
1 Corinthians 10.1-13;
“He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:2–3).
On March 18th, 50 people lost their lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, as they knelt, in quiet, preparing for their Friday mid-day prayers. A grave tragedy highlighting the fragility of the human condition, how we are still enslaved by the reigning darkness, the king of this world.
It has always been a sore spot for me when well-meaning folk thank God for their supernatural escape from an accident, illness, or tragedy, proclaiming their blessedness or the proclamation that God ‘saved them.’ Miraculously, God sent down his magical hand and cushioned their car as it made that final roll off the cliff, defying gravity and all sense of reason to save them, his beloved. Or, astounding medical professionals and against any possible scientific explanation, the cancer disappeared from their body, a powerful act of God almighty, a response to fervent prayer.
So what about those souls who didn’t make it out of the car accident, or the patient who died too young on the operating table? How about the one born with a tragic impairment? What about those Galileans? And how about those 50 Muslim men, women and children shot dead as they prepared to glorify God? Were they somehow less favoured? Is a vengeful God punishing or is it part of some ‘divine plan?’ Everything happens for a reason — right?
This Christian thinks not.
God’s doing is love. God’s doing is creation. God’s doing is the symphony of being, the pulsing rush of new life. God does have a miraculous body to live out His will on earth — that body is you, or rather, us.
Made in the image and likeness of God, human being wears the crown of glory: freewill, a gift God never transgresses. Surely, how God acts is beyond my infinite smallness to conceive, yet I do believe “God has no hands but yours,” as St Teresa of Avila tells us. That is why we are all called to repent.
Repent is to ‘turn around’, to ‘re-orient’ your life, to be in right relationship. To repent is to choose to redirect your life, your dispersed desires, your shallow treasures, your submission to your private pharaoh. Repent is to reorient your heart away from phantom treasure to the one true source of all being, to life itself. Our ultimate purpose and meaning is to freely return to communion with this mystery, we call “God”. God freely gives us his life, as we will soon discover in the first of the great three days, a gift we can only receive freely.
Repentance is allowing ourselves to die with him — to let our addictions, our seduced wills pass through the cross, that we may be transfigured and rise with him. St. Symeon, the New Theologian (1022+), calls repentance our “second baptism.” Every time we repent we return to the waters of relationship, wet in our tears of contrition from having wandered far, and tears of joy that in such a wide mercy He still offers the invitation of return. “Do you not know,” we will hear from Paul on the third day, at the great Vigil of Resurrection, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3–4).
Terrible things happen in this world. There is suffering. Humanity commits evil. Bad things happen to good people. Death, sin, decay and disease still reign, but because of that third day, they are not victorious. The heart of the matter is our choosing to yield to the divine gift which vanquishes the tomb, not how God tinkers with creation and rescues his favourites. A wise elder, Murat Yagan, once said, “you cannot pray for more grace, he has already given you everything could possibly give, including his life — pray for your capacity to receive it.” To receive the gift of life, we need to turn and ask for it: that is repentance.
“Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6–9).
The work of repentance is not for God, as if to placate His wounded pride; rather, repentance reforms us. Repentance creates the space, the posture, the humility to hear the invitation and to cultivate the will to yield to that surrender. Sadly, sometimes it is our own suffering that prepares us to hear and accept that invitation. Sometimes it is the stench of our own “manure” that moves us to hear (Lord knows this preacher has it in abundance). The humiliation of the discovery of our own motivations that are not quite as holy as we once thought. The loss of our convictions, righteousness or presumptions or, sometimes tragically, the loss of something held dear moves us towards that great consent. The “manure of life” becomes the holy food of regeneration. Repentance is not about our purity; rather, we bring our broken lives to God, to pass through the eye of the needle, the threshold of faith, the cross.
The invitation is always there, but we need to be ripened to hear and consent, a powerful consent that is a surrender to an infinite love that even transcends our earthly lives. A consent that bares a fruit far more than we can ask or ever imagine. Surely God weeps with us in our sorrow, surely God weeps with broken humanity, weeps for the fifty beloved Muslim souls made in His image and likeness, and for the one consumed with evil, who murdered them. God takes suffering, not because it is good or because he desires it, but takes up all suffering to be transfigured in the refining fire of love crucified that makes all things new.
We repent and freely give our broken body to God, just as God freely gives His broken body to us.
Gregor Sneddon is a Presbyter serving St Matthew's Anglican Church in Ottawa. Chair of Liturgy Canada, a council member of APLM, and a participant in the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, he is first and foremost a Dad, husband, and undercover blues man...