Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (14 March 2016) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

Today at the Cathedral View More
8:00am Holy Communion
8:45am Morning Prayer
11:15am Sung Eucharist
3:00pm Choral Evensong
5:30pm Eucharist
6:00pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (14 March 2016) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The Dean asks: How's your Lenten disciple going?

Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent: we’re 33 days into the Christian Lenten fast.

How’s your Lenten discipline going - if you’ve got one at all?   I have tried…. As part of my Lenten discipline, I made a commitment to give up alcohol and chocolate between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  

Alcohol has been fairly easy; I've really noticed the lack of chocolate though – which is part of the point of fasting, which makes you stop and look at what you do and why, with food as well as the rest of your life. Apart from one lapse during a Chapter meeting, I’ve managed to avoid chocolate; however, my consumption of fruit cake has gone up hugely…

It reminds me of my 25th wedding anniversary, when I decided I was going to wear my original 1970s wedding suit.

It was far too tight, and trying to squeeze one bit of me into my trousers made other parts of me bulge out somewhere else, like trying to stuff a half inflated balloon into a bag too small for it. Not a pretty sight, and I had the scars for weeks afterwards.

Why am I telling you this?

Because it helps us to understand something about what St Paul was saying in our New Testament reading this morning from the letter to the Romans chapters 7 and 8. It’s a difficult passage about our inner conflict between good and evil.

What's it all about? Paul writes at a time when people thought there were 613 commandments, and if you kept them all then you’d be on the right side of God; if you didn’t keep absolutely all of the commandments, then you’d be condemned as a sinner. Paul tells us in another of his letters that he saw himself as blameless with regard to the law: in other words, he really could and did keep it. He thought he could please God and keep his bulging spiritual waistline under control by stuffing himself into the confines of religious law.

There was just one, big, problem: he couldn't stop himself from feeling and thinking things which broke that law.

Only one of the great 10 commandments in the Book of Exodus is explicitly about what we think on the inside, rather than what we actually do. The 10 commandments tell us to not to do bad things, not to swear falsely, not to dishonour parents or kill or steal or lie. But Paul earlier in chapter 7 quotes the last of the 10 commandments: 'I wouldn’t have known sin...', he says, 'if the law hadn’t said, 'You shall not covet.'' To covet is to desire something which belongs to someone else, to want what they have.

If keeping the law was just about what we do on the outside, then Paul would have been fine, because he did all that – but he didn’t keep the law on the inside.

Paul knew that his thoughts and desires didn't match up to what God required of him - and that he therefore was a sinner like everyone else, no matter how hard he tried not to be. He says, ‘I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my body another law at war with my mind… Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ Paul knows that he’s failed, and will fail, to do everything that God requires - and so he faces the condemnation he fears and has worked so hard to avoid.

And that’s like my story of chocolate and cake. I decide to be disciplined and give up chocolate: but the desire for something delicious is still there, and rather than resist the desire, I give in and eat cake instead. Our needs and desires are always there, and if we push them in at one place and time, they’ll bulge out somewhere else. Give up smoking and you’ll eat too much. Go on a diet and you’ll be tempted to start smoking again. Try living a holy life and you’ll want to do something outrageous as a protest against it. Try to be good, and we end up being at least a little bit bad.

In order to cope, we think it doesn’t matter.

‘I’m a good person really’ we think, and try not to notice when we’re being greedy or unkind or selfish – because we can’t keep being good all the time.

But Paul is both more honest than us, and more hopeful.  Yes, I’m a slave to sin, he says, but Jesus has set me free from any condemnation which that brings. ’Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ he cries.

Yes, of course in our frailty we can’t do the right thing all the time. But look at how Christ on the cross takes our failures on himself and sets us free to live in the Spirit of love; free, not to look in despair on our bulgy spiritual inadequacy, but to be filled with God’s powerful love which holds us and will change us and bring us safe to God.

How’s your Lenten discipline going?

Be encouraged as St Paul was, that our failures do us more good than our successes, if they drive us to trust not in our own goodness but in the love of God for us through Jesus Christ our Lord.