A Sermon for Sunday: Fourth Sunday in Lent | Revd Dr Robert Wilson

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Fourth Sunday in Lent

But that Jerusalem which is above is free, which is our mother

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and it is a day that has more different names than any other Sunday. It is called Laetare Sunday from the Introit for the Mass. It is known as Rose Sunday from the rose vestments that are traditionally worn for this Sunday. It is also called Refreshment Sunday, for it is a day of relaxation from the austerity of the rest of this season and the Gospel is from the Feeding of the Five Thousand. But the most common name given for this Sunday is Mothering Sunday. Today this is most commonly understood to refer to our earthly mothers and it is set aside as a day when we give thanks for them. However, this is not what this Sunday was traditionally understood to be about. The mother was our holy Mother the Church and it is this that is referred to by St. Paul in today’s epistle when he reminds the Galatians that “the Jerusalem which is above is free, which is our mother.” The epistle was chosen for this Sunday because today’s station is from the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem and the propers for the Mass reflect the theme of Jerusalem, not only the city of David, but also the Jerusalem that is above, the heavenly Jerusalem.

But what was the context in which St. Paul wrote these words? St. Paul wrote to the Galatians in order to combat the first great error or heresy that arose in the history of the Church. This was the belief that a Gentile (that is, a non-Jew) needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses (in other words become a Jew) in order to be within the Church, the Israel of God. By contrast, St. Paul teaches that it is not necessary for a Gentile to become a Jew before becoming a Christian. The Church, the true Israel of God, and heir of the promises of the Old Testament, was now defined, not by race, but by faith. St. Paul’s opponents had pointed out that Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, had received the covenant of circumcision, thereby defining for future generations the membership of the covenant people. St. Paul replied that Abraham had been counted righteous before God not because he was circumcised, but because he believed in the promises of God that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham was therefore the father of all that believed, whether they were Jews or Gentiles.

The Book of Genesis describes how Abraham had two sons. The first was Ishmael from Hagar, a slave woman. The second was Isaac, from Sarah his wife, a free woman. It was Isaac and not Ishmael who was the heir of the promise of God that in the seed of Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. St. Paul interpreted this as an allegory of the two covenants. Hagar, the slave woman and her descendants stood for the covenant on Mount Sinai (the Law of Moses). “For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia, which hath affinity to that Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.” By contrast, Sarah, the free woman and her descendants stood for the people of the new covenant, the true heirs of the promises of God to Abraham. “But that Jerusalem which is above is free, which is our mother.” “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise…. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free: by the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free.” We became members of the Church, the Body of Christ, at our baptism and are therefore the heirs of the promises of God to Abraham. It is not circumcision, but baptism that makes us members of the people of God, our Holy Mother the Church, the Jerusalem that is above. As St. Paul put it in another passage to the Galatians, “For as many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

It is especially important to emphasise this point today because the contemporary obsession with keeping this Sunday as a celebration of our earthly mothers, rather than of our Holy Mother the Church, fundamentally distorts the true meaning of this Sunday. There is nothing wrong with setting aside a day in the year to give thanks for our earthly mothers, but it is not right to remove the focus of this Sunday from our Holy Mother the Church to our earthly mothers. This is in effect to substitute the worship of the old creation for that of the new creation. We were conceived in the womb of our earthly mother and from her we receive the gift of life, but we must then be reborn in the regenerating waters of baptism to become part of the new creation in Christ. Our true identity therefore comes not from our diverse circumstances in this world, but from our new life in Christ, through whom we become citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, the world to come. That is the whole point of why St. Paul expressed himself so strongly to the Galatians, for they were in danger of ceasing to define themselves by their identity in Christ and seeking to erect other barriers by which to identify themselves.

If we are to follow the teaching of St. Paul today we must say that we too, like the Galatians have been led astray by turning this Sunday from a day which should be about our true identity in Christ, to one about our own identity in this world derived from our earthly mothers. There is something truly demonic about the way the advertising industry has corrupted this day into one in which people are encouraged to buy things they do not need with money that they do not have in order to impress people. Let us pray that we will take heed to St. Paul’s warning and seek to find our identity not from our earthly parentage but from Christ, in whom there is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free, male nor female. This does not mean the abolition of our earthly identity, but rather our common need for redemption. For all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace, bestowed on us in the waters of baptism whereby we become members of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Saviour, since of Zion’s city

I, through grace, a member am,

Let the world deride or pity,

I will glory in thy name,

Fading is the world’s best pleasure,

All its boasted pomps and show;

Solid joys and lasting treasure

None but Zion’s children know.

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