No Power to Help Ourselves
The Third Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2015
St. George's, Summerville
I Corinthians 1:18-25
Today’s collect and readings escort us into the depths of Lenten self-examination. Of course, this is the journey we take in preparation for Easter. And today we certainly find ourselves deep into that journey.
The collect for the Third Sunday in Lent includes some stark words. Listen to them once again. “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” (BCP, p218). For people well-versed in self-help terminology, that is a strange admission. For a society that reveres the self-made individual, those words represent an unlikely observation. However, deep in Lent, we come to realize that those words actually are true, and, further, they offer us good news … stark, strange, unlikely good news. “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”
At this half-way point of the Lenten journey, we read the Ten Commandments as our Old Testament lesson. And the fact is that these laws as a whole often are misunderstood. As Christian people, we should not understand the Ten Commandments to be a measuring rod, by which we may sense how well we are doing on our religious pilgrimage. Rather, the Ten Commandments present us with a call to honest self examination. With that attitude, we will perceive that we all have sinned and fallen short of our calling as ones created in the image of God. Thus, as we read the Ten Commandments, we should hear an echo of the theme from today’s collect. That is, within ourselves alone, we do not have adequate power to save ourselves, in an ultimate sense.
The next reading today, chronologically, is the Gospel. There St. John reports on the cleansing of the Temple. But that dramatic episode actually points to a different message. Jesus and some Jewish people began a conversation about the Temple which had been under construction for forty-six years. As they were talking, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). That claim made no sense at all to his hearers at the time. However, as St. John points out, “He was speaking of the temple of his body” (2:21). Therefore, this conversation about the Temple becomes an affirmation of faith in the resurrection. And, in turn, the resurrection is precisely the event of power which is beyond ourselves and which can help ourselves.
We also read this morning some words from the First Letter to the Corinthians. These words, written after the crucifixion and resurrection, bring together today’s several themes – resurrection, power, and salvation. St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (I Cor 1:18). The cross of Jesus – representing his crucifixion and his resurrection – does not depend on any action by you or by me – any action, that is, of ourselves. No power of our own has any impact whatever on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And yet – and yet – we believe that it is precisely the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that does have power to help us … indeed, to save us.
So, the fact that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” is good news … very good news. The power that helps us – the power that saves us – comes from beyond ourselves. That power comes precisely from the cross … the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Thus, the journey of our Lenten self examination arrives today at a point of deep paradox. “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Nevertheless, our personal powerlessness is good news. The power to save us comes from beyond ourselves and beyond anything that we can do or say or be. It is the power of Christ on the cross. The power to save, therefore, is not our own, but it is the power of our Savior who died and rose for us. Therefore, “to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” And for that, thanks be to God! Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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