"So run that ye may obtain." (1 Corinthians 9:24)
Today we make a decisive turn in the Church year. During Epiphany season it is as if we were looking backwards, walking in the right direction, but looking back at Christmas and Jesus in the manger, looking to see the meaning of the Word made flesh, the Son of God become the Son of man, looking to see divinity manifest among us. Now we turn our heads around to look toward Easter and to what brings us to Easter: the ministry of our Lord Jesus, his suffering and death, his triumphant rising again. We look forward to Lent, Holy Week and Easter. And the Church asks us to begin considering and preparing for these holy seasons. The Church calls us in Lent to “self-examination and repentance by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditation upon God’s holy Word” (BCP, p. 612). What new discipline of soul or body? what new generosity of time, money and talent will you undertake this Lent? Now is the occasion to ask these questions. But, before you arrive at the answers, our Church asks you specifically this Sunday to ask ‘Why?’ Before asking ‘what should I do this Lent to prepare for Holy Week and Easter,’ ask yourself ‘Why?’ For this is the question answered in today’s Epistle and Gospel.
Today we are shown the two opposed aspects of our salvation. The Gospel emphasizes that salvation is God’s gift to us, a generous gift more than we could earn, and an equal gift: everyone is given the same at the end. The Epistle emphasizes our labour: our discipline and effort: an effort which will differ from person to person, some doing more, others less.
The teaching about salvation as God’s equal gift is of course the Gospel story told by our Lord Himself: the story of the master of the vineyard who paid all his workers the same at the end of the day despite the fact that some had come early and laboured all day long; others had come late and had worked only one hour. The master protests that he is nonetheless just because he has paid the longest labourers what he had agreed to pay and he was generous to all. This story teaches us three things about our salvation.
First and foremost, salvation is God’s gift in virtue of what Jesus has worked for and paid on our behalf. It is never what we could earn, and, as it is a generous heart which gives it, so also, it is only a humble and thankful heart which can receive it.
Second, the reward for us all is the same: life with God. The way to the reward is the same for all the redeemed; the work of Jesus who was obedient unto death to pay what we owed and could not pay. The work of Jesus makes us friends with God and everyone’s reward is friendship with God, life with Him in this world and seeing Him face to face, enjoying the fulness of his presence in the next. This is our happiness. It is the only reward which is offered. It is the same for all, the greatest and the least.
Third, we are reminded that latecomers are just as welcome to the kingdom as those who have laboured all the day. Jesus tells us to seek the lost coin, to go out and find the lost sheep and tells us that there is more joy over a lost sinner returned than over the ninety and nine which need no repentance. “This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1.15)
We all know this: scarcely any know how to live it. Those who have laboured all day in the vineyard are almost always full of self-righteous disdain and resentment when someone is received at the last hour. Consider working to overcome this as your Lenten discipline. I would be astonished if anyone of us here is free of the resentment of those who have “borne the burden and heat of the day.”
The other aspect of salvation is our effort, here compared by St. Paul to the training and hard running undertaken by the runner of a race. He preaches the same message as the Gospel does: keep your eye on the goal, the prize, he says, the incorruptible crown, the prize which, like the coin, is equal for all, namely immortal life with God given through the work of Jesus on our behalf. So in all our effort, we must always keep before our minds on the equal prize, the free gift of God through the one Lord Jesus our Saviour, namely life with God. But, there is another side, our discipline, exercise, our labour and effort: like the practice, discipline, exercise, and finally, the effort of a runner. The runner’s exercise is likened to the work and discipline we undertake in Lent. But why do we undertake this? To earn the prize? No says Paul: rather to “keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.” For both St. Paul, in the Epistle, and Jesus, in the Gospel, our work and the prize are disproportionate: we cannot earn the prize by our labour. It is equal for all no matter how much they have laboured. It is given in virtue of the generous love of the giver, not in virtue of our labour. According to the Collect “we ... are justly punished for our offenses” and we are “mercifully delivered” by God’s goodness.
Our labours do not earn salvation; they enable us to live lives of temperance, humility, generosity, thankfulness, and praise consonant with the salvation God gives us. Lent trains us to live lives “worthy of our calling.” Remember this: the obstacles between us and our goal in God’s kingdom are erected by us. The devils and idols who stand between us and God have no power of themselves to stop us. They are impotent against us by themselves. Christ destroyed their power. They have only as much substance, power and reality against us as we give them. That is why we ourselves must be subdued. This why having come under God’s rule we must bring every aspect of our lives within his control.
The doctrine that Christian salvation is not all free gift but is also partly in our effort is a great comfort. For if it were all in God’s gift, then every aspect of our lives should be already experienced as saved. But we discover the very opposite. We discover that we are not even able to repent. We rid ourselves of the evil deed, but the love and consent to the evil desire is still there. If we were simply saved already, on reflection we would find ourselves damned. But we are not damned.
We are not damned because Jesus has won salvation for us as the free gift of God offered to everyone. We are not damned because the Father and the Son sent their Holy Spirit to work and labour with us and in us to make us day by day more conformed to the perfectly obedient humanity of our Lord Jesus. We are saved by free gift which is the beginning and end of our labours and we have also the gracious comfort of good works by which we are able to live lives of thankfulness and praise, the lives to which we are called that we might in all things glorify God, the Father, the Son and the Spirit, to whom belongs all might, majesty, dominion, and praise, honour and glory, now and ever.
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne