February 16, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
The gesima Sundays as we know them are part of the pre-lenten season and have been part of the Western Christian tradition since the 6th century when the propers were first committed to writing in the homilies of Pope Gregory the Great. Like most of our liturgical tradition, they have multiple layers we should think on.
First off, you might have noticed that last week - Septegesima - the gospel was about a vineyard and today it is about sowing seeds in the fields. Similarly, our Morning prayer lectionary this week has had us reading through the Creation story in Genesis. These are appropriate readings for the new year when Christians at the time were much more in touch with agriculturalism and would have been thinking about replanting.
More importantly, however, we should recall that the 6th century was a difficult time to live in Italy with the Gothic wars, the reconquest of the peninsula by the Byzantines, and then the invasion of the pagan Lombards. In addition to barbarous invaders, there are also records of pestilences, famines, and earthquakes. Consequently, the propers for the pre-lenten season reflect the sad and perilous times in which they were composed. They are prayers from a time when Christ’s church was facing invasion, war, natural calamities, and the people needed to be reminded that God is our ultimate and impregnable defense.
So this short season carries a theme of contending with trouble and adversity. You can hear it in our collect this morning: O LORD God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do; Mercifully grant that by thy power we may be defended against all adversity
But the last layer for today’s feast is the apostle Paul. In fact, until Cranmer omitted it, the collect originally included the line, “we may be defended against all adversity by the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles”. That’s Paul. And if any one knew anything about adversity, it was Paul. It’s why this mass of sexagesima is traditionally celebrated by the Pope at the basilica of St. Paul.
So putting this all together, in Sexagesima our ancient liturgy is inviting us to meditate on what it means to face adversity. In the Epistle lesson we hear about the physical and social adversities - the worldly dangers - Paul faced for Jesus, and in our Gospel lesson we hear about the spiritual adversities all believers must contend with, those stemming from the world, the flesh, and the devil.
We’ll begin with Paul. The epistle lesson this morning is 2 Cortinthians chapter 11 and it contains the first part of what has been affectionately known as “The Fool’s Speech”. In our reading this morning Paul recounts the numerous afflictions he has faced. In Chapter 12 Paul will go on to describe his heavenly journey, the revelation he received and the thorn in his flesh - the God-given adversity - that was given to him to keep him from becoming arrogant. This portion of Paul’s writing serves as his Apostolic Defense. Commentators familiar with Paul’s life and writings sometimes theorize that it doesn’t match the way Paul, a genius writer, usually lays out his ideas. It is possible that when he penned these words it was more of an outburst in the heat of passion written in what seems to be a deeply personal and emotional letter. This is understandable; Paul is clearly upset and with good reason.
Corinth was a young and unstable church. They were facing the pressures of living in a very pagan culture, surrounded by idolatry and rampant immorality. Paul even mentions in his first epistle that the Christians there had been thieves, had been greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers before they were washed by Jesus and sanctified in his name.
At the same time they face external pressures, the church in Corinth was being torn apart from within by internal strife. Well-polished speakers had come in to challenge Paul’s authority and claim leadership of the church for themselves. Paul considered himself the spiritual father of the Corinthian church, and his children now were turning their back on him, questioning whether Paul had any authority to lead or instruct them or chide them for doing what they had always sinfully done in the past. They were being led astray by articulate and influential false teachers, who Paul facetiously calls “super-apostles”. And here was Paul, who had literally contended against hell to bring these souls to salvation, watching them question his apostleship. “I feel a divine jealousy for you,” he writes, “for I betrothed you to one husband - to present you as a pure virgin to Christ”. In other words, this church was Paul’s spiritual daughter meant to be presented to the bridegroom, Jesus. To follow this analogy, I guess you could say, these false apostles were the handsome, ne’er-do-well boyfriends, wearing a leather jacket, showing up on a motorcycle that dad knows is no good for his daughter.
This is an important moment, not just for Paul and his ministry’s legacy, but especially for this church. We are a tradition that reveres apostolic succession and the communion of saints, so we read this story with special concern for this early church and whether it would stay within apostolic, catholic orthodoxy. So what does Paul do? How is Paul to bring his daughter back on the porch? What does he have to offer them to prove he is worthy of their love and respect and should be listened to?
First he actually chides them for allowing these false apostles to take advantage of them. They have put you into bondage, devoured you, and took from you, he writes. Then, contrary to what his rivals have done in exalting themselves and lauding their credentials, Paul makes his own boasts. He insists that it is he who is following truly in the footsteps of Christ by suffering and laying down his life in service. Why should you listen to me? Because I, like Jesus, have faced every manner of adversity and challenge for you.
He faced challenges that have come from without: persecution, violence, misfortune in travel, betrayal by false brethren - lest we forget Alexander the Coppersmith - and at times a complete lack of physical comforts.
And now Paul is facing challenges that are coming from within the church, God’s chosen people, the very body he had been sent to save and that he had devoted his life to serving. Does this story sound familiar? Everything I just said about Paul applies even more to what Jesus faced for us. After sacrificing so much on their behalf, Paul calls his jealousy a divine jealousy, and through this life of adversity Paul must have been learning what it really meant to put on Christ, to stand in persona christi.
In a time in which it seems everyone around us today has something to preach about, some cause to fight for, but no life worth mirroring, what a comfort to know more about this man who truly practiced what he taught. And what he taught ...was Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,” he writes to the Philippians, “but he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant...and he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
In the life and ministry of Jesus, in his incarnation, God humbled himself to serve his wayward children, and serve them unto death, facing every adversity we might ever face. For Paul, who must have felt so betrayed and alone, there was nothing less he could do for Corinth, or any of the churches. He faced all manner of violence, abuse, and persecution for the sake of the Cross. It is sometimes hard to think of Paul’s complete self-giving for the kingdom when we compare it to our own paltry efforts to spread the gospel today.
The physical and social adversities we face in life will surely make us feel weak. And we know they happen even when we haven’t done anything wrong. And hopefully we are living in such a way that they happen because we live for Jesus. We should think of Paul’s words when we find ourselves growing bitter at what life has dealt us and when things seem to stand in our way. “If I must boast,” Paul writes, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness”. Why? According to Paul, it is because God’s grace is sufficient, and His power is made perfect in us when we are weak. Like Job, our faithful perseverance through adversity glorifies God in a way our comfort in life does not. It’s why in the liturgy of the Litany we beseech God to deliver us both in our time of tribulation and in our time of prosperity.
And we need God’s grace not only for these physical and social adversities, but also for the spiritual adversities we will face as Christ’s disciples. The Parable of the Sower that we heard this morning lays that out pretty clearly. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah who faced people who could not hear or see the truth. In that same passage, Isaiah 6, the prophet called these the holy seed of God. But they only grew to be stumps in the ground.
And now Jesus lays out that the greatest adversity he is facing in his ministry is the unbelieving hearts of those he came to save, just like the Old Testament prophets. In his story the seed is not the people but the Word of God, which will not fail despite the challenges we wrestle with. To be a disciple of Christ, one must contend, he’s teaching, with the Devil, represented as the birds eating up the seed; with the Fleshly temptations, represented as a rocky ground that never lets the word of God take root; and the world itself with all manner of pleasures and distractions that prevent us from bearing good fruit.
We should hear this parable as an exhortation to be the last category: “the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience”. We are to keep the word and to bring it to fruit. We struggle with rocky times and thorny temptations in life. The answer is to grow deeper roots, to center ourselves more deeply in a life of prayer and studying the word. I also have found it helpful often to reflect on Hebrews 12:4: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” In other words, there is always room for more of God’s grace in our lives and time to undertake a greater self-discipline when we face these spiritual adversities.
One final observation in closing. We can also hear the Parable of the Sower as a kingdom parable, a story of evangelism, if we look at it from the perspective of the farmer. Jesus knew he would face widespread disbelief and opposition, and he knew that his word, the gospel that he was spreading would in many places fall on unfertile ground. The key point of this story is that in the end, the work of the farmer was not in vain because despite rocks and thorns and hungry birds, the seed he sowed, that he freely gave out, “came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown”.
In our daily lives, with unbelieving friends, family and acquaintances, we might feel that sharing the gospel or even just talking about what God has done and is doing in our lives - and especially through our adversities - might be a waste of time. They wouldn’t be interested. Everyone who wants to go to church is already going to church, right? But we have no idea where that good ground might be. What are we afraid of? Are we going to run out of seed to sow? Should we sow any more conservatively than the farmer? Should we fear persecution any more than Paul?
The great missionary Hudson Taylor, who himself faced all manner of adversity in evangelizing China, put it this way: “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supplies”. We should read in this morning’s lessons - the struggle of Paul and the ministry of Jesus - that we will never lack God’s supply to glory him in adversity for the purpose of spreading the kingdom.
Brothers and sisters, Lent is just around the corner already. Let us prepare our hearts to be contrite and so be fertile ground for His word. Let us remember God is our ultimate and impregnable defense. Let us pray this Lenten season that we might learn to boast in God’s glory shown in our weakness so that like St. Paul we can walk in Jesus’s footsteps through every adversity.