The Third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
March 24, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I first sat down with these lessons, I wasn’t all that inspired by Paul’s fear-provoking message to the Corinthians, nor was I thrilled about the idea of unpacking Jesus’s statement “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” I have a feeling that many Episcopal parishes will hear sermons about Moses and the burning bush today. But we are in the season of Lent, so we may as well suffer through some of this difficult biblical material together.
It’s no surprise that this epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians is used during Lent. In the early church, Lent was a time of preparation for those desiring to be baptized, and the scholars who compiled the new lectionary have brought back in the baptismal focus in the lessons used during Lent. In this passage, Paul spoke to the church at Corinth, a church with all sorts of division and strife going on. Some of its members were falling back into paganism, the church was at risk of splitting into three groups loyal to three different leaders, and bad moral decisions among the members were causing big problems. In other words, the church at Corinth was a hot mess. As they were Jewish Christians, Paul starts with a story about their Jewish ancestors. He told them that despite being “baptized into Moses” – despite being passing through the sea and under the cloud, despite eating the spiritual food and drink that God provided them, they were still struck down in the wilderness. These Jewish Christians viewed this “baptism into Moses” – their Jewish ancestry – as a birthright. A privilege. “Since God brought us out of the desert, he should provide for us,” they thought. And yet, God wasn’t pleased with them, and they were struck down.
Paul then gives the Corinthians a list of things not to do lest they get struck down like their ancestors did. Don’t indulge in sexual immorality, don’t put Christ to the test, don’t complain. Don’t worship idols like your ancestors did. For if you do, you’ll share in a similar fate as they did. The key to all of this is in verse twelve: “If you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations, and maybe even some of you believe in that the Bible teaches a doctrine called “eternal security,” or “once saved, always saved.” The idea is that since there is nothing a sinner can do to earn salvation, there is nothing a saved person can do to lose it. The moment a person “accepts Jesus,” they claim, her salvation is secured, and she faces no risk of ever losing it. Back in my Southern Baptist days, I remember thinking at times, “I’m saved. Nothing I do can separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ. It’s all about grace, not about works.” These are all true statements, but back in those days, I had a tendency to take them to their logical conclusion and view my own salvation as a birthright. A privilege. Because I was “saved,” I felt immune to bad things happening to me as God would protect me. I suppose I felt spiritually invincible.
But God’s grace isn’t a license to sit around and eat bonbons all day. Paul’s warns us today, “If you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.” The Church today is full of human beings who fall into the same patterns, both individually and as a group, as our ancestors at Corinth. The Hebrews thought their birthright – their Jewish ancestry – would shield them from God’s punishment, and we, too, sometimes think that our baptisms shield us from God’s punishment. Paul reminds to watch out lest we fall.
In Luke chapter 13, Jesus is given two historical scenarios when horrible things happened, and he’s asked whether those horrible things happen to them because the people involved were worse sinners than others. Were these two groups of people being punished for their sins? Jesus answers both scenarios in exactly the same way, and in both cases, he ignores the details, and gives a precise and clear answer. He says, “No, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Jesus isn’t saying that unless you stop all the bad things you’re doing, you’ll go to hell. He wouldn’t have told the Church at Corinth, “If you would only stop indulging in sexual immorality, and putting Christ to the test, and complaining, you’d be spared from destruction.” I’m not going to give you a formula – a list of sins to avoid so that you can avoid hell. Repentance is not about stopping cussing and telling white lies at work, it’s about changing your perspective about what is real. It’s about choosing to believe that the values and priorities of God’s kingdom are more important than those of our culture. Repentance is choosing to be open to seeing how God is at work in the world rather than being overly focused on our own desires. Repentance is knowing that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, but that despite our unworthiness, he is the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Repentance is knowing that when bad things happen to people, it’s not because they sinned too much. God’s favor doesn’t work like that. There is no such thing as karma in God’s economy of salvation. Frankly, if God doled out judgment and curses according to our sinfulness, you and I would be in dire straits.
The two historical scenarios that Jesus hears about – the untimely deaths of the Galileans and the people crushed by the tower at Siloam – remind us that it is not wise to put off repentance. The time to change our perspective about the nature of reality is now. Jesus underscores this urgency in the parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree. The man’s fig tree had been planted for three years, but despite his having tended to it appropriately, it bore no fruit. Three years should have been plenty of time! His gardener responds by asking the man to be extravagant – perhaps even wasteful – by giving him another year with the fig tree, despite its lack of results. He proposes digging around it and fertilizing it with manure. St. Gregory the Great, in one of his homilies on Jesus’ parables, says that the manure in this story represents our sin. He said, “So the tree is fertilized when we awaken our conscience with the memory of our own perverse doings.” In other words, sin is……manure, but when sin is turned to repentance, it is spiritual fertilizer.
Lent is the time to fertilize our souls for the upcoming harvest. It’s a time to forsake our idols and recognize that we cannot earn God’s favor, no matter how hard we try. It’s a time to be careful that when we think we’re standing, we should watch lest we fall. Lent is a time when we dig deep into the spiritual disciplines of the Church and gradually, day after day, with God’s help, train ourselves to be attentive to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom around us. During Lent, our Lord bids us to return to our baptismal roots and allow our repentance to fertilize our souls as we prepare for the great harvest at Easter.
 The quote is from St. Gregory the Great, homily 31, and the exegetical outcome is from a private Facebook post by Mimi Dupree on 3/25/2019.