Have you given up anything for Lent? Some of my friends have denied themselves the usual chocolate. Another has started an annual practice of giving up Facebook.
But if you had asked this of my wife some years ago, she would have given you a strange look. She came to faith and had her early Christian formation in a Baptist church. When she met me, she found the practices of the Methodist Church strange. I must admit that as someone who has been in Methodism since the womb, I still find it strange!
And one practice Debbie had never encountered before was Lent. The day she asked me what Lent was, I couldn’t believe I was hearing what she said. Surely everybody knew what Lent was? It’s been part of my background all my life! Indeed, except for when Easter Day occurs on the very latest day in the year that it can, my birthday always falls within Lent. Thankfully, I’m allowed to feast on my birthday – according to my rules, anyway!
Now the reading from Philippians seems a good one for Lent. Not that the earliest Christians practised it, but it is a passage that explores the importance of self-discipline. Now while Debbie’s home church was lower than low – calling baptism and Holy Communion ordinances, not sacraments – I’m sure they too would have endorsed the importance of self-discipline in the Christian life. And at Lent or any other time, that is a critical part of our discipleship. It’s also – as we shall see – an area where we can be a counter-cultural witness in our world today.
Implicit in Paul’s teaching here are various core Christian reasons which provide the foundations for living a life of self-discipline to the glory of God. It’s those beliefs I want to explore today.
We begin at the Cross. Christians always have to begin at the Cross, and Paul does so here.
For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. (Verse 18)
Paul sees that a root cause of self-indulgence is not taking the Cross seriously. The Cross is not merely the place where I am forgiven – so that I can keep living however I like and then return for the next batch of forgiveness. The Cross is the model for our discipleship. What Paul teaches here is consistent with Jesus telling aspiring disciples to deny themselves, take up the Cross and follow him.
Christianity, then, is less about what I can get and more about what I can give. So much of our conversation, even in the Church, is peppered with the assumptions of consumerism. Does this church suit me? Did the worship feed me? Does it have what I need? It’s very me-centred. But the Cross says we have to take a different approach. And disciplines of self-denial and self-discipline are those which call us back to the Cross. They are not preventing ourselves becoming fat, they are about tuning ourselves into the wavelength of the Cross.
So a week ago, when there was a news story reporting the development of a new low-fat chocolate bar, where the fat particles are replaced with water, air or gels, the Daily Telegraph was wrong to call it the ‘Chocolate bar that can be eaten during Lent’. The point of self-denial isn’t about losing weight, it’s about a sign that we will walk the way of the Cross. As one person put it,
Lent is supposed to be concerned with spiritual discipline and self-denial, not a handy way of losing a bit of weight. If the new low-fat chocolate tastes as good as an old-fashioned one but doesn’t pile on the pounds, then where’s the self-denial?
So we approach Lenten disciplines of self-denial not as some kind of belated New Year’s Resolution to get ourselves in shape; we embrace them as a sign that we accept the Cross will shape the way we live.
The second Christian building-block in Paul’s teaching is worship. Hear verse 19 again:
Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
‘Their god is their belly.’ Who do we worship when we are self-indulgent? Ourselves. This comment of Paul’s tests what we truly believe worship to be, because it’s a question of allegiance. Does my stomach deserve my ultimate allegiance? I need to feed it, but when it becomes my god, something has gone badly wrong.
This, then, is about how we understand worship. Much as I enjoy worship with a band, featuring a lot of contemporary songs, and other people love their hymns, how dangerous it is when we end up worshipping worship. And we forget what worship is. The main New Testament word translated ‘worship’ means ‘to move towards and kiss’. However, the ‘kiss’ envisaged is the ‘kiss of homage’, like that offered to a monarch, and even still kept in a symbolic and ceremonial way in our society when a new Prime Minister or bishop is appointed. They have to go to ‘the Palace’ to ‘kiss the hands’ of the sovereign.
Worship is not in the first place about the good feelings and the positive experiences. It is about declaring our allegiance to Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord or Lords. When we deny ourselves as a spiritual discipline, we do so not to torment ourselves but to affirm that God’s will comes first in our lives. We are to indulge his will, not our appetites. We ‘do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’, and so our worship is seen by taking God’s word seriously and putting it into practice as a priority. When we do that, our god is not our belly. Instead, we give ourselves in devotion and worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we come to our third and final foundation, you could say this is a question of past, present and future. A past event – the Cross – shapes our behaviour now. Our present activity – of worship – needs to be rightly directed to God. So thirdly and finally, that leaves a future component – the kingdom of God.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Verses 20-21)
Jesus is coming, says Paul, and our minds are set on him rather than ‘earthly things’ (the worship point again). But Paul goes further: what Jesus will do when he comes also leads us to consider our behaviour now. When Paul says, ‘He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory’, he is making a reference to the Resurrection. Jesus’ own ‘body of humiliation’ was transformed into a ‘body of glory’ in the Resurrection. You will remember that the risen Jesus was identifiably the same man who had been crucified (once the disciples’ eyes had been opened), but his body was also somehow different (remember how he appeared in their midst in a locked room, and how he disappeared from sight after the meal at the end of the Emmaus Road journey).
So, says Paul, we are in for transformation, too. When Jesus comes again and renews heaven and earth, he will raise us up and renew our bodies, just as his was. This will be an expression of his reign in his kingdom, for he will do it ‘by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself’ (verse 21b).
If you’ve followed me thus far, one thing you will understand is that our bodies matter to God. They are important to him. The great future of God’s kingdom is a physical one. The idea often trumpeted that our body is just a shell and that the real person is the invisible soul simply doesn’t match the New Testament’s teaching. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. Yes, they are imperfect and they decay (what Paul calls here the ‘body of humiliation’) but God does not intend to discard them, he will renew them at the resurrection of the dead.
What does all this have to do with our Lent theme of self-denial? For one thing, it reminds us that self-denial is not about self-hatred. It is about self-discipline, and that’s a whole lot different. When we deny ourselves, we are not doing so in order to torture ourselves, like Filipino Christians being nailed to crosses as acts of devotion. It is more that we are training our body for better use in the service of God. It is why in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul uses the image of an athlete training to compete in the ancient Olympics. So too our self-denial is an act of training: we are getting ready for the Great Games themselves in the Kingdom of God.
In other words, self-denial is a positive action. It is about love for God and his ways. It is part of building for God’s kingdom.
In fact, it is something we practise in other areas of life. I remember one particular aspect of our marriage preparation. We sat in the lounge of the manse where the minister friend who was to marry us lived. I recall how awkward he felt about having to ask some of the standard questions to two people he knew. I was one of his circuit colleagues!
One question in particular stuck with me. he talked about the promises in the marriage service where the man and the woman say they will honour one another with their bodies. Now I guess many couples think that when they say, ‘With my body I thee worship’ or some modern equivalent, it is really a coy, veiled reference to sex. But our friend had a different take. He looked at me and said,
“Dave, how are you going to look after your body for Debbie’s sake?”
Well, as someone who has put on a stone in weight since marriage, it may well be I haven’t honoured that as well as I should have done!
But perhaps the point stands. And perhaps it helps us see that while we naturally accept we would deny ourselves for our loved ones, how much more we might do so for the love of our God?
In conclusion, I can’t tell anyone whether they should give up anything for Lent and if so, what. But I can invite us all to examine ourselves and ask, is my life being conformed to the Cross or are there areas where I need to deny myself in order to make that more true? I can invite us to look at who or what we worship, to see whether our priorities need correcting by self-denial. And I can put before us all the hope of resurrection to enquire whether we need to deny ourselves out of love for God and his ways, by building for his kingdom.