Lent IV.   Saint Andrew’s, Tallahassee, FL.  2020.

Saint John vi, verse 4 – And the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it on your own or if a preacher has ever pointed it out to you, but the  gospel lessons for the first three Sunday in Lent all involve the devil.  On Lent I we have the story of the three temptations of Christ – by the devil.  On Lent II we have the woman of Canaan, whose daughter is ‘grievously vexed with’ – ‘a devil’ (Matthew 15).  Then last Sunday, on Lent III the gospel began with our Lord ‘casting out’ – ‘a devil’ and continues with a long discussion of demonic possession.

In short, the first half of Lent is surprisingly focused on the demonic and spiritual evil.  Why is that?  It seems odd at first, but really it isn’t.  Lent is the season for spiritual renewal and for getting rid of unhealthy things in myself and in my relationships.  This healing requires both negative and positive work.  Spiritual growth has a negative element, which spiritual writers often speak of as purgation.  This means that we have to turn away from or do away with or purge bad habits, bad attitudes, and bad associations.  We can’t make spiritual progress until, if you will, the devils are cast out.  I think that is the point in the heavy emphasis on the demonic in the first part of Lent.  To borrow a phrase from Paul and the Advent collect, in Lent we ‘cast away the works of darkness’.  We clear away the junk.  We open up room in ourselves.

But as last week’s gospel told us, making room in our souls by casting out some bad things doesn’t do us much good if a vacuum remains within us.  Vacuums tend to fill.  It does us no good to cast out one devil if, in the words of that gospel, he ‘then goeth…and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in, and dwell there:  and the last state of that man is worse than the first’.  We need to fill ourselves with God and goodness, or removing this or that bad thing won’t do us much long term good.

Which is why, I think after three weeks dealing with the negative work of exorcism, of renouncing evil and casting it out, we find that today’s gospel changes gear.  Today we turn towards a more positive message of the gospel.  Today we begin to consider what will replace evil within us if make room.

One of today’s popular names is Refreshment Sunday.  Today we learn of the help God offers us in our spiritual warfare through the refreshment and grace of the Eucharist.  In fact the whole of chapter 6 of John, from which today’s gospel is taken, concerns the Eucharist and its heavenly Bread.

The chapter opens with John’s version of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand.  One of the persistent themes of Saint John’s gospel is the way in Christ replaces Jewish feasts and observances with himself.  In today’s gospel this theme is clearly presented in the introduction:  ‘And the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.’  As you will remember, the Passover was and is a feast that involves a meal.  The meal includes bread, wine, and lamb.  In today’s lesson bread also appears, as our Lord feeds the multitude.  This miracle in turn ushers in a long discussion that continues past the end of today’s lesson. This discussion, involving Christ, his disciples, and the Pharisees, concerns the true and proper meaning of the Passover with its bread and the manna.  Christ tells those around him that he is the true Bread, the Bread from heaven.  And so for us as Christians the meaning of the manna, the Passover bread, and the bread of today’s miracle is fixed.  All of these breads – indeed all of the bread and grain which abound in Scripture – are types, foreshadows, prefigurements, and symbols that point us to Christian realities.  Christ is the Bread of Heaven.  Christ is the Bread of the Eucharist.  Christ is our spiritual food, our sustenance, our life, and our hope on earth.  Christ is our Refreshment.  Christ is the living Bread that came down from heaven.  And in the Eucharist Christ replaces the Passover.

This replacement occurred decisively at the Last Supper and at Calvary.  As the gospels for the coming weeks remind us, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion occurred historically and originally during the Passover feast.  And that is why my text is so appropriate:  ‘And the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.’  Was nigh and is nigh.  And at the Last Supper and on the Cross our Lord himself becomes the true Paschal bread, as well as the true Paschal Lamb and the true Vine and Wine of God.  As a shadow recedes to insignificance when we see the original that casts that shadow, so the Passover, though nigh, does not so much disappear as recede.  Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here.  The old rite is the Passover.  The new rite is that in which you and are engaged at this very moment.

So let us combine the themes of the previous group of Sundays and of this day.  At our baptisms we promised manfully to fight under Christ’s banner against sin, the devil, and the flesh.  The fight is usually interior and spiritual, though Satan is quite capable of persecuting Christians and the Church in external and physical ways as well.  In this warfare we were enrolled on one side at our baptism and we confirmed that enrollment at our confirmation.  In Advent we are told by Saint Paul to put on the armour of light.  In this warfare we are not left by God to our own strength, which is very feeble and faltering indeed.  God continually offers us grace – his free and undeserved gift of himself to us.  It is this grace that is our reliance and strength.  Constantly in the Christian life we gain help from unexpected quarters.  We are aided by a reminder that comes from a book; by a kindness from a stranger; by forgiveness from another person that we have not deserved; by an unexpected solution or resolution of a problem that seemed insoluble; by a resolve and determination in myself that surprises me.  On the worldly level these are coincidences.  But Christians find that such coincidences seem to come to us when we are using the means of grace, and seem to elude us when we are neglecting prayer and the sacraments.  God opens doors for us.  God sends his Holy Spirit upon us.  But an open door does no good if we don’t try it or walk through.  The Holy Spirit, who is in truth always with us, cannot do anything for us if we are utterly inattentive.

So today’s miracle of feeding, and the Eucharist that it foreshadows, remind us of the great help and aid that God is offering.  Grace upon grace is held out to us.  Grace is offered to us in very concrete, tangible, and immediate ways.  God offers himself to you this very morning.  All we must do is hold out a hand or open a mouth to receive the Bread that came down from heaven.  In the face of the grace that is presented to us this very day, the power that is against us is nothing.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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