The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Ash Wednesday      26th February 2020
Ash Wednesday
Jan Rushton

‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

Turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ.’


Tonight we gather to make our solemn commitment

to fast with Christ as he fasted forty days in the wilderness.

Together we are signed with the cross of Christ

sharing in the ash, the dust, of last year’s palm crosses.

We come forward tonight as individuals,

yet in the ritual and music of our service, we are also and become,

an integral part of one body, a part with one another

as we make our own journeys to the cross - and ultimately to resurrection. 


In the early Church at this time of year deep study of the gospel

was part of the preparation of new Christians for their baptisms

traditionally held on Easter Day.

With rising numbers of those who had fallen away from their Christian faith

under the pressure of persecution, this sacrament of baptism for new converts also became a vehicle for re-admitting such people back into the Church.

Thus this season of ‘lengthening’ days - Lent for short -

became a season of repentance for all Christians.

Traditionally a time when we ‘fast’,

when we practice some chosen form of self-denial

to demonstrate the seriousness of our intent to be reconciled -

with God and with one another,

our intent to be growing into the likeness of Christ. 

As Paul remonstrates with us: to remember the cost of our redemption; 

to recognise, now is the day of our salvation.

As Jesus will announce to the woman caught in adultery,

we do so in the midst of the overwhelming mercy of God.


Isaiah, and Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians,

challenge us to get into action - social action.

Justice, kindness and generosity towards one another.

Our gospel speaks to us of God’s forgiveness and grace

without which we can achieve little of this,

without which we shall never become

as Isaiah’s beautiful and much to be desired ‘watered garden’.


The extraordinary story of Jesus confronted with a terrified woman

appears only in later manuscripts of John’s gospel.

More in the genre of Wisdom literature - and in the style of Luke’s gospel,

a later compiler of the gospels has placed this story, here in John,

in the middle of Jesus’ teaching of the crowd in the Temple

at the Feast of Tabernacles -

a festival time when the Temple will be thronging with visitors.

Jesus is well received by the crowd - and the religious leaders,

the scribes and the Pharisees, even more put out!

They drag this sinful woman before him,

tempting him to break the Law - and thus reveal himself to be no prophet!

There is no question of her guilt.  The question is:

should she be stoned to death according to the Law - or not?

Here is their chance to bring a charge of blasphemy against Jesus!


Jesus’ teaching and his practice have been filled

with love, understanding and mercy, precisely for the sinner.

This is why the crowd respond to him with such annoying passion!


Now the religious leaders have caught him out! He bends to write in the dirt.

The Greek word used here for ‘writing’ refers to the keeping of records.

We are not told what Jesus wrote - or perhaps drew,

but could he have been suggesting to this woman’s accusers

some sins of their own?

Jesus takes his time.  The scribes and the Pharisees hassle him.

Finally he stands and speaks.

He can but concur that in accordance with the Mosaic Law

they are right in their judgement, this woman deserves death.

So be it.  ‘Any among you without sin, you cast the first stone.’

Writing on the ground again, avoiding all gaze, he awaits their response.


In his demeanour they too are challenged - and let us note, also, released.

Of course none is without sin, and this woman’s accusers slip silently away.

Jesus now addresses her, speaks directly with her.

In doing so he also, breaks Law and custom: ‘Woman, where are they? 

Has no one condemned you?   Neither do I condemn you.’


It is in this love and acceptance that all, both the woman and her accusers,

are able to respond and repent of their sins, find reconciliation with God,

begin that transformation of their lives.



Of all the gospels, John is heavy on the notion of ‘sin’,

making repeated use of the word.   A word not used by Luke at a,

by Mark once, and by Matthew half a dozen times.  Personally

I can’t help feeling that those final words of Jesus in our text tonight,

‘Go and sin no more’, are an adjunct added by the early church, embarrassed and unable to cope with the assertion of such extravagant grace!

So it was good to find myself in company with the classic Johanine scholar, Barnabus Lindars, who points out in his commentary that this last injunction is not included in the version of this story found in an early third century teaching manual on church discipline, the Didascalia,

where it is rather, used to assert the importance of mercy

in the life of the Christian community.


The priest and theologian Leslie Houlden, now ninety,

former principal of Cuddesdon Theological College, comments:

“It is dispiriting, though not perhaps wholly surprising,

that this story has become known as ‘the woman caught in adultery’,

when so many readers have been glad to find it

the story of Jesus’ generous forgiveness and his shaming of the censorious.”

As we read the gospels it is abundantly clear

that those for whom Jesus has the harshest words,

are those who sit in judgement on others.

The fiercest taskmaster we can embrace is to be judgmental - both,

of those around us, and of ourselves.

It kills not only the spirit of those we sit in judgement on -

it kills our own spirit, blocks that generosity of heart,

the love for one another which alone is able to transform our situations,

offer that encouragement which enables change of heart, repentance.


Jesus here recognises the complexity of human living.

The destructive patterns of thought and behaviour

we accrue through life - often without much real awareness.

The agonising situations we may find ourselves hurtled into;

the fierce choices that may confront us.

And assures us, our failures need not be the end of the story.


What else is Jesus saying to us?  Are we listening?

How important it is we learn to listen - the purpose of our disciplines,

listen in the stillness of prayer

to hear the word of God speaking into our hearts;

listen intently and deeply to each other’s story.

In Lent we choose to forsake the chocolate or the alcohol,

not as some sort of self-punishment for sin, but rather,

in order to create that space in our lives where God may enter.



Our purpose in Lent through the disciplines we choose -

whatever they may be, our central task is to develop: a deeper self-awareness, a deeper relationship with God, a growing into the likeness of Christ.


Will we then this evening

invite Jesus into those places where we know our lives are broken?

Allow him to speak to us - as he spoke to that astonished woman.

It is vital for our well-being that we refrain from casting our difficulties

as the responsibility of others - albeit their actions impact on our story;

vital that we rather, take responsibility for ourselves before God.

For it is only in this way that we will grow in self-esteem,

grow into the freedom of spirit we all long for.


Tonight in the rhythm of the Church year,

in our liturgy - in the power of doing so together -

we formally respond to Christ’s call to repent.

In a few days time, each year on the first Sunday of Lent

we come to Christ and stay with him a while,

in his desert of temptation. We are not alone.  Amen.


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