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5th Sunday in Lent
March 29, 2009
The Jeremiah passage brings to a conclusion the series of reflections on covenants that have occupied the First Testament readings during the Lenten season. God’s promise to deal with sin not by destroying it but by creatively transforming it—given to Noah, amplified in Abraham, codified by Moses, and tested in the wilderness—is transformed once more in Jeremiah’s vision of a covenant written in faithful people’s hearts. This new covenant will not be imposed on the people from without, but will arise spontaneously from within, grounded in an intuitive knowledge of God: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’” Jeremiah foretells, “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.” This new covenant will bring a new degree of intimacy with God: where the Mosaic covenant was filtered through a metaphor of God as the “husband” of the people (vs 32), the new covenant will bring direct relationship: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (vs 33). And the intimate knowledge of God granted in the new covenant will be moral as well as intellectual, a redisposition of the will as much as a renewal of the understanding, inasmuch as the heart-covenant will originate in God’s gracious forgiveness of iniquity and sin. The new covenant, therefore, will complete the movement begun with the covenant with Noah: God’s way of dealing with sin will not be destruction, but forgiveness and intimate relationship that will transform sinners from within toward greater satisfaction of God’s aims and ideals for the world.
The psalm selection echoes the theme of transformation-from-within sounded in Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant. The psalmist acknowledges sin and separation from God: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight”; the psalmist even seems to feel such sin is not incidental, but is constitutive of his very being: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” The only possible remedy for such sin is transformation from within: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” The poem uses language of purgation and washing, but in the end it is more intimate images that convey the central meaning: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me... do not take your holy spirit from me.” The longing for a transformed life expressed in the psalm serves as a devotional complement to the prophetic promise in the Jeremiah passage.
The passage is part of a larger section of the Letter to the Hebrews in which Jesus is named as the great high priest of the new covenant. It seems chosen for this Sunday largely in connection with the brief mention of Jesus’ soul being “troubled” in the Gospel. Here the “trouble” in Jesus’ soul is described as “loud cries and tears” with which Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications” in fulfillment of his priestly role. What is unique about Jesus as priest, according to the epistler, is that he is both priest and victim, both offerer and offering: “When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come... he entered into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (9:11-12). That means that Jesus’ “suffering” as priest is both expiatory, connected to his role as sacrificial victim, and exemplary, connected to his own intimate relationship with God as Son. Jesus suffered death on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for sins, of course; but more importantly, in the epistler’s view, it was through this suffering Jesus “learned obedience” and “reverent submission” and so was “made perfect.” And having been made perfect, Jesus can now invite into that same intimate, saving relationship with God “all who obey him.” That is, Jesus in his “obedience” and “submission” willingly conforms himself to God’s aims for him, and in so doing provides a model that others can feel and follow in conforming their own lives to divine aims as well. This sort of “obedience” is not a simple accession to an external and heteronomous authority, such as the “covenant with the ancestors” in the Jeremiah passage; but this “obedience” is the result of internalizing divine aims and seeing one’s personal aims in relation to them; it is a discovery of autonomy-in-relationship with God; it is the “service that is perfect freedom.” Jesus’ priestly service, including his self-offering in suffering, is therefore the exemplary fulfillment of the promise of the new covenant written in the heart.
The Gospel passage assigned for this day is a sort of “hinge” between the end of Lent and the beginning of Passiontide next week. Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem for the Passover when some Greek-speaking Jews, also in town for the festival, come to Philip, himself from a Greek-speaking region, and ask to see Jesus. When Jesus is told of their request, he responds “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” We saw last week that in John’s vocabulary Jesus’ being “glorified” includes both Crucifixion and Resurrection, and it is that sense of “glory” which informs Jesus’ discourse in the following verses. Two sayings are paired: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” and “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Process-relational interpretation can draw some specific meanings from these sayings. In process thought, the universe is composed of moments of feeling which arise from an impulse from God, unify in themselves all sorts of shades and nuances of feeling derived from the world, become what they are, and then perish. In perishing, each moment yields up its particular feeling of the universe, so that the feeling can be felt by new moments yet to arise. Unless the moment perishes, it cannot bear fruit as a constitutive contributor to new moments. From a process perspective, dying-and-arising is a fact of life in the universe, a reflection of the way all things are and the way all things become. What is unique about Jesus’ passion and resurrection is not simply the pattern of dying-and-arising, but the way his whole person is taken up into that pattern, the way his entire self-constitution is attuned to the successive satisfaction of ever-richer divine aims. This utter devotion is the pattern of Jesus’ life, and so is the defining characteristic which Jesus makes available to be felt and followed in the self-constitution of moments of experience in the lives of those who follow him. That is why Jesus says: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Although our devotion to divine aims is not so whole as Jesus’, we do in fact experience perishing and transition in the moments of our lives, and so we can even now follow Jesus in the way that leads to larger life. “Coming to this hour,” being “lifted up” to reveal this mystery of dying-and-arising as a personal possibility for larger life in relationship with God, is the heart and purpose of Jesus’ mission; this is why Jesus will not pray “save me from this hour,” even though he is “troubled” by the knowledge of the suffering that awaits him; instead, Jesus prays that his own dying-and-arising will glorify God’s name, that is, that it will be accepted by witnesses as the pattern of God’s aims for the lifting up of all people. Today’s Gospel passage thus serves to sum up the themes of Jesus’ ministry given to us in Lent, and to turn our attention ahead to the Passion and Resurrection stories of Palm Sunday and Easter.
Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.