Sermon for the London Diocesan Senior Staff
26 February 2018
The church of which I am Rector in the city of London uses only the Book of Common Prayer of 1662. This has reacquainted me with the regular use of the rite which I knew in my youth. It is famous for his bloodcurdling confessions. We are to “acknowledging and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” And to acknowledge that we have “offended against thine holy laws, done those things which we ought not have done”, and to recognise that that “there is no help in us.” In this Cranmer is channelling Daniel who, in the context of the exile of the people into Babylon was clear that the cause of punishment was the failure of righteousness, treason against God, sin. Daniel’s lengthy prayer, a portion of which we had for our first reading this morning, cries out to God in sorrow and penitence. All good stuff for Lent.
|The Altar S Andrew by the Wardrobe|
Should we accuse ourselves of sin?
But is this right? The gospel tells us to judge not only be not judged. We look to receive a full measure; pressed down and running over from a compassionate heavenly Father. Not just deserts of great sin. Surely Cranmer had read the gospel, and surely the church was truly inspired to include this part of Daniel in the canon of Scripture? Are we to put away the word of God, brought to us by Daniel, and reject the historic formularies of the Church of England?
God alone is the Judge
The image that we are given by Scripture is that of the court room. “Judge not that you be not judged” says Christ; ‘to the Lord alone belong mercy and compassion’ says Daniel. Judgement is not ours. The seat of the judge we are not to usurp: But the seat of the prosecutor; that is a different matter.
We depend on God for Forgiveness
Daniel is right, and Cranmer is correct and clear eyed Lenten penitence is not deceived: we stand accused both as individuals and corporately. Daniel who is presented as the perfect believer nevertheless shares in exile as a result of corporate sin; Christ Himself calls His followers to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, and the apostles ask in fear: who then can be saved? For God alone it is possible. We all share in that original sin which taints us all and makes us all dependent upon God for forgiveness.
Lent is given to us is a penitential season in which we are to draw this to mind. We are to go back to Daniel and Cranmer and heed the voice of the prosecutors who point us again to our need for salvation. But we are not to judge. Neither by condemning ourselves and slipping into despair; nor by acquitting ourselves and falling into pride; nor again by falling into that most subtle and most pervasive of traps in the modern church by judging sin, redefining it in order that we can be free of it. No one can be free of it. Not even Daniel the faithful servant of God among the exiles.
It is in Christ that we meet our Judge, and nowhere else, for He makes atonement for sins through His cross and in His recapitulation of our humanity. For he shared every aspect of our humanity from conception to death so that we might share in His divinty in every part of our life up to and including death. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. So the call of Lent is to stop the self justification and the self condemnation and simply to acknowledge our need of God, the God who keeps His covenant and knows the needs of all His servants.
The Full Measure
But Lent is more than simply waiting on the mercy of God, though it is that; it is also about the full measure. The full measure of salvation to which we are brought. If we are called to a clear vision of our sin, we are called also to a clear vision of the salvation which lies beyond our penitence. Indeed it is precisely because we see the full measure of our sin that the extraordinary measure of salvation is borne upon us. Our manifold sins and wickedness are such that there is no health in us. To us the look of shame belongs. But the measure we have measured out is met not by an equivalence either of forgiveness or of condemnation, but by a full measure, pressed down and running over, an infinite act of grace, given by one who being infinitely alive became utterly dead so that we who are immeasurably lost might eternally be raised.
The pledge of salavtion
And as a pledge of that salvation, as a sign of that measure, we are given in a tiny space, in a fragment of bread and in a taste of wine, the whole presence of the infinite one who comes to us now, while we are yet sinners. With this full measure given to us now, what might we expect when at last He has finished purging us of our sin? That remains to be understood, and His is the judgement not ours; all we can know now is that here in exile and fasting we are given a measure, full, pressed down and running over, an immeasurable salvation. So why do we pause further before turning to this great gift?