Lectionary Central


     Home      Back to Septuagesima





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 earned it.


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.”