The Third Sunday of Lent - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Third Sunday of Lent

Luke 13: 1-9

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1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things?

I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?

I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.

Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?

And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:

And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.

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The weekend before last Sandra and I spent a couple of days in Norwich and we managed to visit the church where Mother Julian was an anchorite in the Middle Ages.  Julian wrote the earliest surviving book in the English language to be written by a woman, 'Revelations of Divine Love', based on a series of visions that she experienced after having received the last rites during a period of severe illness and which after her subsequent recovery she wrote about and shared.

In one of these visions Julian received a comforting answer to a question that has long troubled her:  "I often wondered why (she says) by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented...But Jesus... answered: 'It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'

She goes on "these words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved."  As a result Julian realised her need to be joyful in all circumstances, however adverse, and for no particular reason, except this: that all things will ultimately be put right by Christ.

This suggestion of necessary sin seems odd doesn't it?  And it's a suggestion we see elsewhere.  In the Exultet, the Easter proclamation, that is sung before the Pascal candle at the Easter vigil service when we celebrate Christ's rising in the early hours of Easter Sunday, we hear the lines:

O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!

O happy fault
that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

Obviously, this is a retrospective view of events.  It is in the light of Christ, literally and metaphorically, that we can refer to Adam's fall positively.  All is redeemed in Christ's victory.

Julian's question about why the onset of sin was not prevented is not one we often hear today but the question about why suffering is not prevented is common, indeed it's one of the most frequent challenges to faith.  The two questions are closely related and this connection between sin and suffering in the world is explicitly address in today's Gospel.   

The passage began with Jesus' audience telling him of Galilean pilgrims who appear to have been murdered at Pilate's order and whose deaths they apparently attribute to sinfulness.  But Jesus refutes this and goes on to do the same in consideration of another recent tragedy when eighteen people were killed when the tower of Siloam tumbled upon them.

Jesus challenges his audience: "Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish".  He then goes on to illustrate his challenge with the parable that tells of a landowner impatient with an unproductive fig tree. The landowner proposes cutting the tree down but the gardener argues for a reprieve. Let me work with the tree for one more year, he asks, and then, if it does not produce fruit, then cut it down. 

Jesus challenged his listeners with a call to repentance and his words challenge us today, to recognise the gift of life, the gift of another year and to grasp the opportunity to repent.  His words echo the urgency expressed in the passage we heard from Isaiah: "seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.  Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts.  Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon".

The word repentance, just like sin, has become a difficult word for many in that it is seen to signal archaic and impenetrable teaching.  Its derivation is helpful though, it comes from the Greek 'to think differently afterwards'.

For many the observation of suffering leads them to think that the idea of an omnipotent loving God is incompatible with the facts before them and with no omnipotent loving God the idea of sin, of falling short, of God's purposes is meaningless.

Julian's words speak of another way of thinking differently about sin and resulting suffering: 'It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'

I expect, if we are honest, we all experience something of the doubt that comes the experience of suffering in the world.  This is as it should be.  Certainty is more the antithesis of faith than doubt is.  A Christian perspective on suffering is distinct though in that we can look on it, and even open ourselves more fully to the grief that it prompts, trusting in Christ, our glorious redeemer.

The Anglican theological Austin Farer summarises this far better I can.  He said "an overmastering sense of human ills can be taken as the world's invitation to deny her maker, or it can be taken as God's invitation to succour his world.  Which is it to be (he asks)?  Those who take the practical alternative become more closely and more widely acquainted with misery than the onlookers; but they feel the grain of existence, and the movement of the purposes of God.  They do not argue, they love: and what is loved is always known as good.  The more we love, the more we feel the evils besetting or corrupting the object of our love.  But the more we feel the force of the besetting harms, the more certain we are of the value residing in what they attack; and in resisting them are identified with the action of God, whose mercy is over all flesh".

Regardless of the pain of our lives may we all know feel the assurance of Christ's words to mother Julian that "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."


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