The church of God has completed 10 days of fasting since Ash Wednesday. Today, the second Lord’s Day in the period of Lent, we relax the discipline as we celebrate with joy and in solemnity the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and prepare for another week of outward and inward fasting for him.
The content of the EPISTLE (1 Thess. 4:1-8) is both particularly applicable to the Lenten theme of self-examination and repentance (= inward fasting) and also generally applicable to the continual vocation of the Christian to be holy even as God himself is holy.
In verses 1-2, Paul the apostle writes to church members whom he had taught the basics of knowing the Father through the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the Holy Ghost. His theme is the vocation of all Christian believers to be set apart from all sin in order rightly to serve the Lord in commitment and consecration.
His very deliberate emphasis upon Christian holiness as a solemn duty and calling for all is seen in (a) his use of the double injunction -- he “beseeches” and “exhorts” them “to walk and please God”; (b) his use of the moral imperative - “ye ought to…please God”; and (c) his use of “charge [commandments]” - a word more at home in a military context, being a command from a superior to an inferior.
In the rest of the verses Paul takes up an important aspect of holiness unto the Lord, that of chastity or purity of life. In the very loose sexual morality of the Greek cities, the apostle writes particularly to the male members of the congregation who faced severe temptations. This is because it was commonplace for married and unmarried men to have multiple sexual encounters with women who worked at the pagan temples and public baths. Generally speaking fornication was taken for granted by the majority as normal and was taught to be a sin only by the Jewish elders and then by the Christian apostles and evangelists.
The Christian vocation of both man and woman is to chastity, is the clear message of Jesus and of Paul. Instead of following the standards of the respected neighbours, the Christian believer is to follow the clear commands of Christ and the teaching of his apostles. The baptized are called to keep their bodies pure and undefiled for the Lord.
Chastity is rarely commended or exalted today even in the churches. And to add insult to injury, the commands of the Lord to chastity are said to be “ideals to aim at” by the majority rather than “commands to be kept by all”! By many different means we have been led to believe that we have a right to sexual fulfilment and we have the duty to get this in the best way we can – by fornication or by serial monogamy or by lesbigay partnerships or otherwise! To abstain for the Lord’s sake from all fornication and uncleanness as a gift to him is seen as very strange teaching indeed!
Thus in the third millennium, as in the first, we urgently need to hear the word of the apostle of the Lord – “this is the will of God even your sanctification” and “God hath called us not to uncleanness but to holiness” . And in Lent we need to apply this word to our lives not only in the realm of sexuality but also in terms of how we eat and drink, how we dress, how we keep our homes and so on. And let us remember that to be tempted is not sin, but to yield to temptation is sin.
The COLLECT is a prayer that fits well with the exhortation of the Epistle. It begins from the recognition before God our Father of the inability of man in his own strength to cause himself to become holy. So casting ourselves upon the mercy of God and the presence of the Holy Ghost we pray, “Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our soul” for we are a psychosomatic unity; and we ask that “we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body” (e.g., excessive pain and disease) and “from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul…”
The GOSPEL (Matt. 15:21ff.) is the story of the healing of a Gentile girl by our Lord in response to the persistent and profound faith in our Lord of the girl’s mother. It proclaims to us that while our Lord was sent as the Jewish Messiah “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” his grace and saving work is for all of us, Gentile women and men included.
Therefore, since his grace is offered to us we can pray the Collect and pursue the calling of holiness and sanctification and chastity not only in Lent but in the whole year.
The Rev’d Dr. Peter Toon February 19, 2002.
[Dr.Toon is the Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor, Lichfield Diocese, and the Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large of The Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A.]