You may be wondering what today’s reading has to do with Ash Wednesday, and with the theme of repentance and turning back to God. Or, to be precise, you may be wondering why we are gathered here tonight for this service, given that today’s reading appears to be an example of Jesus expressing a preference for private over public prayer and worship. But the reality is that today’s reading continues a theme we have already experienced in the season of Epiphany, and which is articulated throughout the whole of Lent. A theme that not only governs our conduct during Lent, but which is the blueprint for our whole life of faith.
You may recall a couple of Sundays ago when, in preaching on the so-called Holiness Code in Leviticus, I told you that the life of faith was also a disciplined life, and that to be a disciple was to live in an intentionally disciplined way. You may also recall that I said this discipline was not about controlling behaviour, but was instead directed toward relational living; the disciplined life was necessarily a life lived in relationship with others. Indeed, this is what all the disciplines associated with the life of faith draw our attention to: the fact that we do not exist as autonomous agents serving our own needs, but as part of a relational network: with God, with one another, and with the whole human community. The disciplined life, the life of discipleship, was a constant reminder of our need to engage with others, and with the Other who is the God who calls us into this relational existence.
Today’s reading from Matthew is a further elucidation on that theme. Except it approaches that theme from, as it were, the “dark side”, the negative dimension to relational and communal life. Today’s reading is an exposition on the discipline of faith gone awry.
But note the starting point from which this exposition commences: Jesus does not say “if you pray” or “if you fast”, he says “when you pray” and “when you fast”. In other words, Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to lead a disciplined life; he assumes, he expects that they will do so. But Jesus is also alert to the dangers inherent in any relational existence: namely, that the “theatre” through which the shared experience of faith is so frequently and effectively communicated, can degenerate into a show of superficialities and deceit, a program of self-promotion and charade. Jesus knew all-too-well how the relational discipline of faith can be subverted by the prerogatives of ego assertion.
This is why Jesus inverts the “theatre” of faith experience from the “stage” of the synagogue to the locked room, the anonymously given gift, the undisclosed fasting. Not because Jesus is arguing for the privatisation of faith, but because Jesus is stating quite clearly that the starting point for the communal “theatre” of faith must be the “theatre” of our one-to-one encounter with God. Nor is this about the individual taking possession of God, about God being “my” Lord and personal Saviour, God being who and what “I” want God to be: on the contrary, it is about us submitting ourselves to the gaze of God, of surrendering ourselves to the One who invites us into relationship. The “theatre” of our one-to-one encounter is the “theatre” of our prerogatives giving way to the prerogatives of God.
And in the context of Ash Wednesday, this means that the point of our being here tonight is not because we are participating in some communal display, in which we can look around and note those who are present and those who are not, and be satisfied with our place in the company of the virtuous. On the contrary, the point of our being here tonight is that we have already surrendered ourselves to relationship with God, and that it is this surrender that forms the basis for everything else that follows. For unlike the charity gala events whose real purpose is not to raise money for the needy but to see and be seen, our presence here tonight is a necessary outcome of our own encounter with God: we are compelled to communal worship and prayer, to the relational domain of faith precisely because we have already entered the relational domain of responding to the possibility of God in our own lives. The former proceeds from the latter, and each informs the other, different sides of the same coin, without which, either is insufficient. Because privatised faith is a contradiction in terms, it is an attempt to make autonomous and independent that which by its own nature is relational and other-centred; and a merely communal coming together, lacking the support of a personal, intentional, and disciplined faith, is an empty shell, a façade and a pretence that is more about what we want as individuals as distinct from what we are called to be as a community.
So the message that today’s reading has for us is that the discipline of faith – a life of discipleship – has two necessary dimensions: a personal life of intentional prayer and worship that leads into a communal life of intentional prayer and worship. And that means that if we do not have the personal dimension, then being here tonight is a lot like the empty posing of the hypocrites: we cannot truly repent as a community unless we have first turned to God ourselves, unless, in the hidden depths of our hearts and minds, we have first confessed our transgressions and called on God for help and forgiveness. And if we do not have the communal dimension, then we can earnestly pray and study Scripture and do good deeds for all we are worth, but we will quickly find ourselves running out of energy, running out of the nourishment that necessarily comes from an experience of faith shared with others with whom we are in relationship. For it is one thing to be a member of a community; it is another thing altogether to be a member of a community of faith.
And this is what the whole season of Lent is about – not a time to make a “special effort”, or to make gestures like giving up chocolate or being on Facebook or whatever else we think is required of us. Rather, it is a time to remind ourselves, to re-focus our attention, on who and what we are called to be the whole year round, both personally and communally. And we begin with an act of repentance precisely because repenting – turning back to God – is a reminder of what we have failed to be, a reminder of all the ways we have separated the personal from the communal, the individual from the relational.
In today’s reading from Matthew, we have an example of the corruption that results from this separation: the distortion of holiness by piety, of communal life by personal self-aggrandisement. And this reading also draws our attention to all the ways in which we are guilty of this corruption, from our self-destructive neglect of the environment to our shameful treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. But it also points us to the necessary corrective, to the re-integration of personal and communal that links our being here tonight with all the times when we are on our own. For what we are called to do is not to treat these separately, but as the same: as times to call on God our Father who sees public and private alike, and who responds with the same compassion and grace, wherever and whenever we are.
 Wells, David F., “Holiness: Simplicity (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21)”, located at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2055, accessed 5.3.14