Dear People of God… What we do during Lent

March 26, 2014

A few weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, we heard a passage from the Ash Wednesday liturgy which summarizes everything that we are doing during Lent.  It’s so good, I’d like to read it again – you can find it on page 264.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

If we read this carefully, this passage tells us the season of Lent has three purposes. First and foremost, this is a season penitence and fasting in order to prepare for our celebration of Holy Week and Easter. Second, it is a time when people prepare to be baptized, and for us to prepare to reaffirm our commitment to Jesus. Third, it is a time when we put aside divisions in the community and remember that we are all sinners who have been forgiven and redeemed.

This year, our readings for Lent explore these themes of baptism and repentance and resurrection. This week, we hear about baptism. Then we get a few weeks about repentance; and then we begin to explore the mystery of the resurrection. So we begin with baptism.

This morning’s reading from St. John’s gospel is one of the most profound teachings on baptism in the whole of Scripture. But in order to find the teaching in John’s gospel, we need to look beyond the simple narrative to see the images and symbols that John uses to tell his story. In John’s gospel, Jesus often uses words that have multiple meanings, and then he plays on the confusion in order to reveal deeper truths.

Let’s just review the story. Nicodemus – by all reports a good person and a leader in the community – comes to Jesus at night, when people can’t see him. He comes because of the signs – that’s what John calls Jesus miracles – and he call’s Jesus Rabbi, Teacher. The implied question is this, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus’ doesn’t really answer him, but he says “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. This word, born from above, could also mean born again. Jesus intentionally uses an ambiguous word. Nicodemus can’t fathom what it might mean to be born from above, so he takes the second meaning – born again. This time Jesus gets even more cryptic. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” At this point, Nicodemus begins to fade from the story, and it become clearer that Jesus is really talking to us. We can only enter the kingdom of God if we are born from above by water and the Spirit.

At every baptism we have here at Trinity, there are two critical pieces. The first is the washing with water in the name if the Trinity. The second is an anointing with oil. The first part – the water – represents rebirth and the washing away of sins. The second is a symbolic anointing representing the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Baptisms really aren’t complete without both the water and the Spirit. We experience the water once, but the Holy Spirit is with us throughout our whole lives.

Our baptisms are not a single static even that happened some time ago. Our baptism is something that is part of us. Through the Holy Spirit, our baptism is our new life, one that is completely different from the one that came before. It is a life that focuses on following Jesus, on caring for others, on growing in the faith. These are not one time things. This is what Jesus means when he says that we must be born from above. This is a birth which is fundamentally different from our human birth. This is something new.

As we approach the celebration of Holy Week and Easter, we have a time to reconsider what our baptisms mean for us. How are our lives different than they might be? How can we be more open to the way that the Spirit speaks to us? What role do we play in making sure that we live as if we are born from above every day? Lent is a time when we carve out the space to ask ourselves these questions. When we come to Easter, we embrace the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and we give thanks for Christ’s work of redemption.

– Michael Tuck+

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