A New Day for God’s People
As our Lenten journey nears its culmination on Good Friday, we are reminded that a new day is about to dawn. We are in a period of preparation and reflection, knowing that before there will be life (resurrection), there will be death. The seed must fall to the earth, in essence dying because is separating from the tree that gave it life, if it is to germinate and bring new life. This is a season of letting go, even if our efforts are meager or non-existent, we understand the principles. If we’re to embrace what will be, we must let go of what was.
The hope for today and tomorrow is this establishment of a new covenant, one that will usher us into full and true communion with God our Creator. Whenever we reflect on covenants we must remember that God has made a number of covenants, but all are designed to draw Creation into relationship. The question is – are we willing to embrace this covenant that God seeks to make with us? Are we willing to love God with our entire being, and as a result of that love, love our neighbors as we love ourselves?
As I take this Lenten journey I’m reading, among other books, Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. In this book Diana speaks of the movement that is taking place in our day from religion to spirituality. Growing numbers of people have decided that traditional religion is not sufficient. It is an old order that is externally focused and doesn’t provide the inner meaning that so many people today desire to find in a relationship with God. Not all of these seekers after God want to abandon the church, but they want to find an authentic, experiential faith, not just an organization to join. Is this not the message that Jeremiah proclaims in his day. The old order would not sustain the people of God as they transitioned through the exile from monarchy to a new way of being God’s people. It was a question dealt with again in Jesus’ day, and it is one we deal with in our day.
And so on this fifth Sunday of Lent we seek to hear a word from God from these texts, passages of scripture that in their own ways speak to this need to be in covenant relationship with God, and therefore with God’s people wherever they may be found.
When Jesus gathered his friends together on that fateful night of his betrayal, he broke bread and spoke of a new covenant to be established through his blood (1 Cor. 11:23-26). In speaking of this covenant, Jesus would have been looking back to the words of Jeremiah, who spoke of God making a new covenant with Israel and Judah. This covenant is different in that it isn’t institutionalized but personalized. It is written on the heart rather than on stone. From that moment on persons would know God and be God’s people. No longer would they need to say to one another “Know the LORD!” This is because from the least to the greatest, everyone will know the LORD. It doesn’t mean that a religious order is imposed on a community, but that the people will gather to the one who seeks to make a covenant with them, and they will do so because they have the promise of divine forgiveness. With forgiveness comes word that God forgets this offense. Of course, this idea of forgetting is a problematic one, for the definition is crucial. Yes, there are acts that must not and will not be forgotten lest they reoccur, but as Lee Butler notes: “when the prophet declares that God will forgiven and not remember, the prophet is not declaring that God will forget but, rather, that God will not hold our failings against us. This should be true in our individual relationships” (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: Year B, p. 167). This word of forgiveness brings an end to fear and enables relationships to emerge.
Although many Christians struggle with the concept of sin, feeling that it represents an unattractive and unhelpful view of deity, life clearly demonstrates that bad things happen. While religion and state have often used the idea of “sin” to control people, it’s clear that there are broken relationships that need to be identified and rectified. As Lee Butler suggests, forgiveness provides us with a new start. Those past failings no longer haunt us, and we can move forward into the future with a new vision of how we should live together with God and with each other. Thus, the way to go forward is to remember that the Law written upon our hearts is that which Jesus pronounced as paramount, the Law(s) that define two interrelated relationships – with God and with neighbor. Living in covenant relationship with God and with neighbor heals this brokenness. It brings new opportunity to live in a way that expresses from the heart the promise that in this new covenant we know God and God knows us. In the cross we see how this transpires. Humanity demonstrates how this broken relationship with God and neighbor expresses itself through violence, but on the cross, the one who initiates the new covenant declares forgiveness.
As we come to Hebrews 5, we see how this relationship is embodied in the person of Christ, who becomes for us the divinely ordained High Priest. Christ, the son of the Father, is appointed priest forever, eclipsing other temporal forms of priesthood. It’s not that these priesthoods were bad or deficient; it’s just that the purpose is now fulfilled in Christ, who like Melchizedek has a priesthood that is without end. His priestly actions began during his earthly life, as he shared his cries and tears, and then tasted death on the cross. In doing so, he changed the dynamics of relationships, allowing this new covenant to be established. His sacrifice is the last sacrifice. Through his obedience, he has been perfected and thus becomes the source of salvation to those who align themselves with him. Therefore, even as he suffered for standing for God’s ways, so will we, if we choose to stand up for God’s ways. As he suffered, and as we suffer, God is working through that persistence to transform our earthly realities, so that justice might prevail. It’s not a transactional thing; it’s a covenant commitment to reconcile that which is broken – the relationships with God and with neighbor.
As we come to the Gospel reading, we find this passage from the Gospel of John. John’s telling the story of Jesus is always enigmatic. His telling of the story is so different from that of the synoptic. Rather than being a teller of parables, he’s the giver of speeches, and we see this reality played out in John 12. We’re told that a group of Greeks (assumedly worshipers of God, but not Greek speaking Jews) come to Philip, who hails from Bethsaida in Galilee, and seek an audience with Jesus. Why they go to Philip, we’re not told. What difference Philip’s hometown makes, we’re not told. Perhaps this information meant to tell us that Philip was Greek speaking and thus able to mediate with Jesus. Whatever the case, Philip goes to Andrew, and together they go to Jesus, but instead of getting a straight answer, Jesus gives a speech. We never do learn whether these seekers get their audience? There’s nothing in Jesus’ speech that would give us such an answer, but we do learn how Jesus understands his destiny, which involves his death.
In John’s version, the cross is the means by which Jesus is glorified: “The time has come for the Human one to be glorified” (John 12:24). In this speech (John loves to have Jesus give speeches), Jesus must die so that his message can multiply. Life requires a death. One must “hate” one’s life; that is, let go of the earthly bonds that keep one from following the one who will be glorified in death. To serve is to follow, and if we follow him, we will share in his honor and glory. That is the promise of God – the covenant relationship. Jesus could ask to be relieved of this calling, but he remains true to the call, and as result God affirms this calling. Jesus cries out (in prayer?): “Father, glorify your name.” And then, the voice of God thunders “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.” Is it thunder or an angel, there is a difference of opinion, but Jesus receives his answer – I will glorify my name – and that will be through the cross. In this moment of death and life, God’s judgment will be rendered, so that the ruler of this world will not only receive a vote of no confidence, but be tossed out and replaced with a new ruler, and one would assume it the one who is being lifted up, for as Jesus is lifted up from the earth (the cross not ascension), he will draw everyone to himself. John adds parenthetically that he said this to indicate the nature of his death. In his death there is reconciliation and new life. A new covenant is written – not on stone but on the heart.
Are we ready for a new day? Are we ready to let God’s spirit write upon our hearts the covenant that is made as we walk with Christ, whom God has chosen to glorify? Our goal is not to embrace an other-worldly spirituality that doesn’t make a difference in this world, but a worldly faith that embraces Jesus’ work in and through our lives. As Bonhoeffer puts it:
Isn’t God’s righteousness and kingdom on earth the center of everything? And isn’t Rom. 3:234ff the culmination of the view that God alone is righteous, rather than an individualistic doctrine of salvation? What matters is not the beyond but this world, how it is created and preserved, is given laws, reconciled, and renewed. What is beyond this world is meant in the gospel, to be there for the world – not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ . . . . (Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, 8:373).