Concerning the Epistle:
In today's Epistle St Paul is exhorting us to a distinct lifestyle and moral standard based on the life, but even more on the death, of Jesus Christ. The final verse of Ephesians 4, just before the Prayer Book selection breaks in, admonishes us, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted,m forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." That free and total pardon is grounded on the event of the Cross where Jesus died for us.
In Eph. 5:2, in our reading, Paul tells us that "Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour." Because the term "sacrifice" occurs so frequently in our Prayer Book (three times in the Prayer of Consecration), it seems strange that Paul hardly ever used this word to describe our Saviour's death. The Epistle to the Hebrews, which Paul did not write, is where the themes of sacrifice and priesthood are explored in great depth.
For those present on Calvary on the afternoon when our dear Lord was crucified, it hardly looked like a liturgical event. Someone has written that He did not die on an Altar between two candles but on a garbage dump between two thieves. The execution of Jesus bore little resemblance to the elaborate ceremonies which were going on in the temple, in which lambs and bulls were slaughtered and their roasted flesh distributed for reverent ritual consumption. Yes, there were priests present on Calvary, not to offer sacrifice but just to make sure that Pilate did not change his mind.
Perhaps it was Paul who was the first to see the grim and cruel judicial murder of "this innocent man" (Pilate's words) as a sacrifice offered to God to satisfy the Divine justice and reconcile us to God. We recall Paul's outburst, "Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast." This is a powerful aspect of the Gospel which we will soon explore again in Passiontide and Holy Week.
But Paul's point here in Ephesians 5 is that the death of Christ is the ultimate demonstration of his love for us. He loved us not because we deserved his love; we deserved the very opposite. "My son is love unknown, my Saviour's love for me; love to the loveless shown, that we might lovely be." The love of Christ for sinners, for prodigal sons, for faithless disciples, is a love we have no words to describe. The hymn-writers keep using the word, "amazing."
That amazing, self-sacrificing love, demonstrated on Calvary, was exactly the pattern for the life-style and moral standard Paul urges upon us. "Be ye therefore followers of God; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us."
The Christian loves those who do not and who perhaps cannot love him in return. That painful love is the love exhibited on the Cross.
Concerning the Gospel:
In the Gospel readings appointed for Lent I, III, and V we have the repeated theme of our Lord's conflict with the powers of evil. This is strikingly different from the more typical Lenten emphasis on Jesus as the humble and submissive Lamb of God. On at least three of the six Sundays in Lent, our Saviour is presented as God's Warrior, the King of glory, mighty in battle. It is not for nothing that He was called “the Son of David.”
On Lent I we saw Him in the wilderness, in confrontation with Satan the tempter. In His threefold resistance Jesus scored a decisive victory against Evil, reversing Satan's victory over Adam and Eve. On Lent V we will see Jesus in another confrontation, with His unbelieving fellow-Jews, whom He declares not to be “children of Abraham,” but actually “the seed of the serpent” with the blistering words, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires.” In today's Gospel, we have a striking announcement of victory. “If I by the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.” Here our Lord is proclaiming a new regime. The old dominion of Satan and the forces of hell is being over- turned; the reign of God in His creation is being re-asserted. Satan, we are informed, is the “strong man armed,” but Jesus is the One Stronger than he, who strips him of “his armor and all wherein he trusted.”
Of the numerous temptations with which Satan attempted to destroy Jesus, possibly the most persistent was the temptation of setting up the Kingdom of God through a secular or even political strategy. In John 6, from which next Sunday's Gospel is taken, we hear of the attempt, mind-boggling to us, of the multitude who ate their fill of earthly food to take Jesus by force and make Him king against His will. The same temptation comes to us as well—to make the church successful and the Gospel popular through secular marketing strategies.
The real and stupendous combat between Jesus and Satan was no ordinary conflict. It was a war which had its final battle on the Cross. There, at Calvary, was the final show-down between obedience and disobedience, self-sacrifice and self-assertion, faith and fear, love and hate. We know the outcome, which we will celebrate on Easter Day.
“O love of God! O sin of man!
In this dread act your strength is tried;
And victory remains with love;
For thou, our Lord, art crucified.”
As we come to the mid-point of our Lenten observance, let us remember that we have a victorious Lord, whose struggle was real, who won a real fight.