A Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday
by Dr. Robert Crouse
All Saints’ Rome, 1991
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but
one receiveth the prize?
So run that ye may obtain.
Today’s liturgy, with its special Collect, Epistle and
Gospel, marks an important turning point in the Christian year. Students of
liturgy would say that we have now completed the Christmas cycle – that is,
Advent, Christmas and Epiphany – and we begin the Easter cycle – Lent, Holy
Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Let’s think for a moment about the
meaning of those cycles.
In the weeks since the beginning of Advent, all our
Collects, Epistles and Gospels have centred around one theme: the
expectation, the coming and manifestation – the Epiphany – of God, the Son
of God, in our midst – the word of God made flesh, full of grace and truth,
manifest in wisdom and in power. Now, in this second cycle, which begins
today, we turn our minds to consider God’s work for our salvation in Jesus
Christ – his ministry, his suffering and sacrifice, his triumph in Easter
and Ascension, and his sending of the Holy Spirit. So, the first cycle is
about God’s coming among us in Jesus Christ, the second is about his work
for our salvation.
The three Sundays with Latin names – Septuagesima,
Sexagesima and Quinquagesima – are really meant to constitute our
preparation for that second cycle, and the scripture lessons for today
should be thought about in that context. Perhaps it will help if we think
first for a moment about the history of the selection of these particular
lessons. The “Lectionary”, as it’s called – the selection of lessons we
read Sunday by Sunday at the Eucharist – is actually very ancient. In the
form in which we have it in the Prayer Book, it goes back, with very few
alterations, well over a thousand years; much of it, including today’s
lessons, is much older than that, and goes back to early Christian times;
and it was, until very recently, the more or less common lectionary of the
whole Western Christendom. As you probably know, there is now a new,
three-year Roman Catholic lectionary, which has been quite widely adopted or
adapted by some other churches, including some Anglicans.
However, we still use the ancient common lectionary, and
there are perhaps still some things to be learned from thinking about its
history and its rational which seem to have been largely forgotten. For
instance, one might recall that at one time in the early days of the Church,
Septuagesima was actually the beginning of Lent, the day on which
catechumens – new converts to Christianity – were first in church to begin
their preparation for baptism for Easter. Think what today’s lessons must
have meant for them:
In the Epistle lesson, from St. Paul’s first epistle to
the Corinthians, they were reminded of the discipline which Christian life
involves. Like those athletes in the Isthmian games in that great marble
stadium near Corinth, they must direct all their energies towards attaining
the prize – not a crown of wilting laurel leaves, but the imperishable crown
of eternal life. They must not run erratically, nor wrestle with energies
beating against thin air – they must become disciplined athletes of God.
Then the Gospel lesson, about the labourers called at
various times to the vineyard. “They received every one a penny.” Those
who came at the last, eleventh hour received the same as those who had borne
the burden and heat of the day. Well, just think of that early Christian
congregation, which no doubt included many who had indeed borne the burden
and heat of the day; many for whom their Christian profession had not been
easy. Perhaps some of them had even been tortured in persecutions. They
were reminded that the reward of these newcomers – these catechumens – must
be the same as theirs. And everyone was reminded that their salvation is
finally, at the end of the day, not something they have earned – for all
their struggle; it is finally God’s gracious gift, which they can only
accept with thankful humility.
Well, conditions have changed. Lent does not begin
today, (we have two more weeks of preparation – and excellent preparation it
is if we really think about its meaning), and we do not have the catechumens
here preparing for Easter baptism. But the lectionary has not changed. We
still have the same lessons, and the Church wisely retained them, because
they are the ideal first step in the preparation of our minds for Lent and
for what follows Lent. They insist upon two essential points, as relevant
today as ever they were.
The first is this: Christian life is a life of
discipline – discipline of mind, discipline of heart, discipline of will.
We must train ourselves and shape our lives in ways consonant with our
calling: in humility, in thankfulness, in charity, in temperance, and so
on; mindful of our goal. We dare not run erratically, nor waste our time
and energy beating empty air. We must concentrate our task – that is what
the discipline of Lent is all about.
And the second point is this: for all our labour and
struggle, we do not earn salvation. Salvation is the free gift of
God’s mercy and his grace. It is God who calls us to the vineyard, perhaps
at the last, eleventh hour, and the prize is his free and generous gift.
The master of the vineyard asks: “Is it not lawful for me to do as I will
with what is my own?” It is indeed his own, won by him in the saving work
of Jesus Christ, and it ours only by faith in him. We have not
It seems to me that nothing could be more relevant than
these two points – our discipline and God’s free gift of salvation – as we
prepare ourselves for Lent. But before I finish, I want to broaden the
relevance of these two points just a bit:
I suppose there is no one here today whose mind is not
occupied with the state of world affairs, especially in the Persian Gulf –
the misery already caused, and the possibility of miseries to come. What do
our lessons have to say about that? First, the point about discipline, the
Epistle Lesson, the discipline of mind and heart and will. There is nothing
truly evil in this world which is not the fruit of ill-will; that is to say,
of greed, or lust, or envy, or pride, or bigotry, and so on; and in that
ill will, we all have part, however insignificant it may seem. We are
called to shape our own lives in the ways of charity and justice, and, so
far as we are able, to influence the lives of others, in our own families,
and communities, and nations, and internationally, in those same virtues.
That is at the heart of our struggle: the discipline of will. “I keep
under my body,” says St. Paul, and that is exactly what he means – the
discipline of will.
The second point, the Gospel Lesson, is this: The prize
is God’s free gift. God’s providence rules all, and that providence,
however hidden from us may be its ways, is always good, and always present:
“Not a sparrow falleth without your heavenly Father.” He upholds all things
by the work of his power. And so we run the race, not uncertainly, but in
the sure confidence, the faith, that all things, even the ugly, horrible
things, work together for good to those who love God.
Therefore, says St. Paul, “So run that ye may obtain.”