Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent – St Benedict’s Priory

Readings for the day

As Lent progresses we are called to turn our thinking from repentance, our work at the start of Lent, to focus on Jerusalem – specifically on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Today’s scripture readings are clearly part of that shift.

The shift is not just a call to think literally about the city of Jerusalem and the pending crucifixion. Embedded within the shift is a call to change the way we think about God.

We start in Jeremiah… “I will make a new covenant… I will write it in their hearts… I will forgive their sins and remember them no more.” Long before Jesus, Jeremiah is already telling us that God is changing the relationship. The new relationship is built on loving forgiveness. But the call is more urgent in Jesus’ time. Jesus is the embodiment of the new covenant that Jeremiah is talking about, and crucifixion is, in some way, the sealing of that covenant.

It’s also worth noting that when Jeremiah speaks of “they” and “them” – he is talking about “we” and “us”… we are the beneficiaries of grace, of salvation. This dreadful walk that Jesus is making is, after all, for us.

John’s telling of the Gospel brings us up to date on events just before the Crucifixion. A crowd is assembling for the festival – that would be the Passover Festival – when faithful Jews remember the release from slavery in Egypt, the story told in Exodus.

Jeremiah is telling us about a new covenant of forgiveness – of freedom from bondage to sin. And John is telling us about events taking place during the ancient festival that celebrates the freedom of Jews from bondage in Egypt. A new relationship with God is in the midst of these stories.

Clearly as we journey with Jesus through the events we know are coming, the underlying message is one of freedom and release rather than sorrow and remorse.

John’s narration begins with some Greeks… we don’t know much about them, how many they were, who they were. These details are, apparently, not important. What they do tell us is that this Jesus Movement has outgrown Judaism. Before we get comfortable with that, I think we have to consider that this Jesus Movement may have outgrowing parts of the Church, of today’s Christian thinking. Being followers of Jesus is about following, not about arriving. To borrow from the mystical poet John Dunne – when we have done, we have not done…

The narration in John’s Gospel seems a bit clumsy. The Greeks find Phillip and tell him they want to meet Jesus. Philip doesn’t take them to Jesus but instead goes to find Andrew… and then Andrew and Phillip go to find Jesus and tell him. What do they tell Jesus? We don’t really know, but it’s probably along the lines of “Hey Jesus… there are some Greek folks here who want to meet you.”

Jesus gives an answer that is, to say the least, a non-sequitur. “The time has come”, he says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” What has this got to do with some Greeks who stopped by to say hi… We get no help on that because Jesus continues with a discussion of death, seeds, fruit, and eternal life.

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” By now our Greek chorus is probably saying “OK, we’re just going to be going …” But like John Dunne, Jesus is not done… “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

Jesus gives some clear clues that sorrowful times are at hand and then seems to tell God what to do: “Glorify your name.”

And God answers… “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Part of me wants to hear God saying “Jesus – don’t tell me what to do…” Part of me wants to hear a threat – “I will Glorify my name and then we’ll see how you like it…” Apparently, much of the crowd can’t even recognize the voice of God – they hear thunder.

Jesus clarifies that God is speaking for our benefit, not his. How much we are like that crowd. How many times does God speak and we only hear thunder? Or something… anything but the voice of God. How often do we dismiss the voice of God as something else? I find this a humbling thought…

Jesus goes on: “Now is the time of judgment! Now the rulers of this world will be driven out! I will draw all people to myself.”

The situation feels ominous, even dangerous. Thunderclaps from God precede a tirade from Jesus. But if you focus on Jesus’ words and ignore the thunder, we could understand Jesus to say he will embrace all of us – He will wrap his arms around all of us and draw us close in a wonderful and loving embrace.

That is sandwiched in between “I will be lifted up” and “Jesus said this to indicate what type of death he would have.” As we turn toward Jerusalem it’s hard not to think about crucifixion. John seems to be underscoring that thought. But if we remove the bread from the sandwich, we have a message of love from Jesus – all of us will be drawn in. How inclusive… how expansive…

People who know me know I love my qualifiers. Before I was a Monk, I was a broadcast journalist. One of the first things you learn in journalism is that qualifiers make just about any sentence true. “Human beings have landed on Marz” is obviously false. But “according to some folks, human beings have landed on Marz” can be true. You have to love those qualified statements…

But Jesus puts no qualifiers in his statement. He does not say “I will draw all ‘faithful’ to myself… or I will draw all ‘right thinking’ or ‘right living’ people to myself… I will draw all ‘Anglicans’ to myself… All ‘monastics’… No. There is no qualifier. I will draw all people…

Jeremiah tells us that God will be written in our hearts – not in our minds. And Jesus tells us about a pending embrace when we all get drawn in. This is a radical shift in the way people have been accustomed to relating to God. Gone is the God who punishes our sins. Gone is the angry God; the God of vengeance. Gone is the God who favors our tribe and destroys the others… Faithful people for generations have known God by studying the law. Now they must look to their hearts. We still struggle with this.

John gives us this discussion by Jesus of seeds falling into the ground and dying, only to rise again. Certainly, part of what John is telling us is about the near-at-hand death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. But if that was the only story John wanted to tell, he certainly could have been more direct.

I think John wants us to hear a larger context. Death and resurrection is not only about Jesus. It’s about all of us. Our understanding of God must die in order for a new understanding, a new way of knowing God to take its place… to resurrect. Our ways of living and ordering our lives and culture must die so that a more Jesus-oriented life might come into being. Ultimately, we must die in order that we can be free of death – death being our attachment to things of this world. This is the Glory of God.

We live in a culture that fears death. And not just death, we fear aging in any way. Plastic surgeons are among the best paid medical professionals in our society. We can, at great cost, create the illusion of eternal youth, but it is a lie. The message in this morning’s Gospel is that rather than denying death, we must embrace it. This is surely not an invitation to suicide or murder… it is a spiritual call. In our understanding death is not the final word. It is just the thing that comes before resurrection.

As Lent gives way to Holy Week and Easter the question we can ponder is how can we die? What of my own attachments can get nailed to the cross with Jesus? What pieces of myself can I toss into the tomb? Can I kindle a bonfire of my own vanities at the Easter Vigil? What space can I clear for resurrection to fill? What seeds can I drop into the ground? And what might spring up from them?

Faith is trusting in things not seen.  

There is an old hymn which we generally think of as a Christmas song – Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. The text uses the image of an apple tree for the resurrected Jesus. And I want to call a bit of to mind partly because Advent and Lent, Christmas and Easter, must always be bound together. And, because I think it has some special use in the last part of Lent: 

This beauty doth all things excel. By faith I know, but ne’re can tell 

The beauty which I now can see in Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree. 

For happiness I long have sought and pleasure dearly I have bought. 

I miss’d for all, but now I see tis found in Christ, the Apple Tree. 

I’ll sit and eat this truth divine. It cheers my soul like spiritual wine. 

And now this fruit is sweet to me that grows on Christ the Apple Tree. 

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