AS SOON as the “L” word (Lent) appears in our calendars, a change of gear takes place. Church will be darkly different for the next two months. In a strange counterpoint, the world around us gets brighter and warmer, while we move towards the chill of shame and shadows. In Northern Europe, this seasonal counterpoint does the work of exegesis for us. The end result of the Christian Lent will be an opening, a warming up, of life.
All the same, the price to be paid for that light and warmth is a high one. We must look at our own lives in the light of Jesus’s Lenten journey, and, when we do, we have to confess how far our lives fall short of his example. When we have acknowledged that, the next task is to decide what we are going to do about it.
There is a time for focusing on Jesus as a “sacrifice for sin” more than as an “ensample of godly life”, as the Prayer Book collect puts it. Christ as a sacrifice, made once in place of all on the cross, belongs to Passiontide. But Jesus the healer, teacher, and friend of sinners? He belongs to Lent, and to these strange transitional weeks we enter into today.
During his active ministry, before he turned his face to Jerusalem (Luke 9.51), Jesus gave us an example and a call to follow. This Sunday, as we prepare for Lent itself, we look at beginnings. We must reflect on three stories of the start of discipleship — that moment we often refer to as a “call” or “calling”. We shall find out what three people made of receiving such a calling.
Isaiah’s response to his vision of God enthroned on the cherubim is truly that of an inspired prophet. He speaks first for himself (“I am a man of unclean lips”) and then for the nation to whom his words of power must be spoken (“a people of unclean lips”). His reaction to being in God’s presence is intense awareness of being “unclean”. This is not a matter of physical dirt, but a condition that demands distance between the person or thing and God, who is not simply holy, but thrice holy.
Paul’s calling takes place the best part of a millennium later, and yet his reaction to it is markedly similar. His initial response is also dismay. Where Isaiah was conscious of being an “unclean” person from an “unclean” people, Paul draws a narrower contrast, between himself and the other apostles. Among them, he is last in sequence of time, and least in status, because of his failure to perceive God’s purposes, which led him to persecute the “church of God”. When he likens himself to an aborted foetus, we catch a bitter tone of self-disgust. He is describing himself as being unformed, premature, and lifeless.
By the time we reach the Gospel, we are well prepared for Peter to follow a similar path. But Simon Peter (Luke calls him by both names here) manages to surprise us. In a single word, he sweeps us aloft from the humbling prospect of Lent by addressing Jesus as “Lord”: that is a title that the Evangelists usually ascribe to him only in the time after the resurrection. Peter often gets it wrong in the Gospels. Here, though, to his credit, he does not think to himself, “Here is a powerful man who can work miracles: I must stick by him.” In a single short sentence, he acknowledges Jesus’s true nature, and in the same breath confesses his own.
Peter could have stuck by Jesus the wonder-worker for his own advantage. Instead, he lets his weakness and terror show. Confronted in different ways with divine holiness, all three — Isaiah, Paul, and Peter — know their unworthiness. Jesus has seen beneath Peter’s sense of shame to expose the fear that has driven all three men’s reactions. They feel (and admit to) woe and worthlessness. They feel shame for their misdoings. But shame should not be an abiding home: it is a point of transition, as we learn to turn regret into resolve.
In the beginning, fear and shame were Adam and Eve’s reactions, too. Yet they did what we must now do: shoulder the burden of our broken selves, walk into the wilderness, and search for our promised land.