The First Sunday in Lent, Year B, St. Augustine’s Chapel, Vanderbilt, February 18, 2024

“Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).

The morning after Monday night’s “wintery mix” this past week, I snapped a picture of our backyard Lenten Roses, blooming in the sunshine and the snow. These hellebores are about the first thing to come up in our garden, and the contrast between the frost and the flower is not at all unfamiliar at this time of year. When you add in the nature of photography, inherently dependent on the play of light and darkness, what you get is a pretty pleasant “study in contrast”: sun and shadow, spring and winter. The charm of this picture, like a lot of things, depends on difference in order to create definition and perspective.

When it comes to the Holy Scriptures, definition and perspective are created by a primary contrast, between God and humanity. You know the drill: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is. 55:8), as it says in Isaiah. “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Is. 64:8): again Isaiah. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job.38:4), God says to Job: a question he cannot answer without repenting in dust and ashes, which is where we end up at the end of the book. God is God, in other words, and we are not: the fundamental contrast that defines us as creatures and gives us a unique perspective on the universe.

There’s a contrast of another sort that’s lurking in our second reading this morning, from the First Letter of Peter. “Christ also suffered for sins once for all,” it says, “the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). “Lurking” like an unwelcome visitor, perhaps, as we consider the contrast between a righteous God and an unrighteous humanity. A difference like this is one that can catch you up, bring you to a halt, stop you in your tracks. You might even feel put upon or put down at the contemplation of such a chasm of difference between a righteous God and a sinful human race.

The point of this contrast, however, is not distance but proximity. “The righteous for the unrighteous,” as it says, “in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). The distance between a righteous God and the human race is collapsed by the preposition “for.” It’s this that brings us close to God. Born for us. Crucified for us. Raised from the dead for us. The contrast between the one and the other gives us this perspective, a play of light and darkness that illuminates the scene and draws us close to God. What’s given to us in this picture is the perspective of redeemed sinners.

Here’s how one Christian writer put it in the early second century: “God himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us – the holy one for the unjust, the innocent for the guilty, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal.” A series of mighty contrasts, without which we would not be able to see clearly. The writer goes on to exclaim, “O sweetest exchange! O unfathomable work of God! O blessings beyond expectation!” (Epistle to Diognetus, 9).

What we do today fills in the picture. Our confirmands will reaffirm their baptismal vows, once again claiming their identity and perspective as followers of Christ. Through our prayers and the laying on of hands they will receive the gift of the Spirit. Not only will they reaffirm their baptismal vows, but the rest of us will have the opportunity to do so, claiming our own baptismal identity as well.

That baptismal identity is fundamental. It’s the basis of our sharing in the eucharist, which nourishes our life in Christ through the sacrament of his body and blood. As Jesus said on that night, “This is my body, which is given for you… and my blood, which is shed for you.” There they are again, those significant prepositions which shed so much light, which allow us to see who we really are.

Can we see, in these mighty contrasts of sun and shadow, spring and winter, that constitute our life, the new life of Jesus Christ breaking into the world? I think we can. As we look on the faces of our confirmands, we catch a glimpse of the promise that we all share. Lent is the time of dust and ashes, surely, but it will not always be so. There is still an Easter ahead.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee