The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
With holy week on the horizon, this Sunday’s readings are soul-full in nature. They call us to align ourselves with God’s vision for our lives. God’s vision is not externally imposed but emerges out of the depths of our spirit. The goal of spiritual practices is to align with the dynamic movements of God within and around us. Christ’s spirit constantly speaks and practices enhance our listening and following.
While the preacher and her or his congregation must contend with the
challenges of Psalm 51(repeated from Ash Wednesday), the passages from Psalm 51
can be interpreted in ways that avoid the pitfalls of the following: the
doctrine of original sin and natural theologies that condemn sexuality and
contraception, and see sex as a necessary evil, reserved only for procreation. Such theologies have found themselves, by implication, in recent political dialogue and proposed public policy.
Jeremiah 31 describes a new covenant and a new heart for individuals and the nation. In God’s age of Shalom – and in those specialmoments of life – God will write on our hearts, giving us guidance from
within. We will not need to talk about God as an external reality, judging and condemning us, creating laws that goagainst our perceived nature; rather there will be a continuity between the
laws of God and our inner lives. We will come to “know” God with the intimacy of two lovers, experiencing heartfelt grace and companionship.
Jeremiah connects our ability to be in synch with God with the realities of divine
forgetfulness and forgiveness. Newpossibilities emerge when we are forgiven – and know it. A paralyzed man walks when he experiencesJesus’ forgiveness. No longer paralyzed
by spiritual guilt, he is able to walk again. To consider such healings psychosomatic is not to demean Jesus’ healing ministry, but to see healing as involving the whole of our lives, from our
cells to our souls.
God’s forgetfulness and forgiveness – and here God does not “forget” in terms of
obliteration of memory, but in minimizing the impact of the negative past,
including our misdeeds – opens up new possibilities for personal
transformation. Although God always works concretely and contextually, God may take the initiative within the normal processes of cause and effect to create a new orientation in our hearts
and minds. While God may be limited byour behaviors, God’s energy of love can break through our negativity to create a new heart.
Readers of Jeremiah 31 may also ask themselves: What would it mean for a nation to have
God’s law written on its heart? How would affect discourse? How would it
shape public policy and care for society’s most vulnerable persons?
This new heart, described by Jeremiah, is the focus of Psalm 51. We may recoil at the passage relating to
being conceived in sin, but I suspect that this passage is NOT about any of the
following: original sin, the connection of sexuality with evil, or the
requirement that sexuality be implicitly connected with procreation. Such connections diminish self-esteem, lead to sexist attitudes and public policy, and bodily denial. The connection of sexuality with sin has been one of the most damaging Christian doctrines, along with the soul-deadening,
doctrine of original sin. We must affirm, if we read this passage in church that: 1) we are God’s beloved
children, 2) God creates a good world in which sexuality is intended to be
joyful, intimate, and loving, apart from procreation, and 3) sexual expression
is a healthy reflection of our love of God and one another.
What is essential in Psalm 51 is the experience of a new heart, that is, a new
orientation in life, in which the past no longer limits but serves as the
foundation for creativity, intimacy, and justice. To say we are conceived in sin, then, is not
a statement of our essential nature, but the recognition of the social nature
of sin. We are called to challenge any political or religious approach that adds to the pain of the world, especially by inflicting guilt on innocent people; failing to provide adequate care during
pregnancy and during childhood; encourages greed and consumerism; and
implicitly blames people for poverty while accepting the inevitability of the
widening gap between the wealthy and the impoverished.
Hebrews 5 can be read alongside Philippians 2:5-11.
The fully alive, fully human Jesus, is not a disembodied apathetic
spirit. Jesus does not want to experience pain, rejection, or death.
But, he goes to the cross not as an external demand or as an actor in a
predetermined drama but out of obedience – listening to – his vocation. His vocation takes him to Jerusalem: he does not run to the cross but places himself in danger for the sake of God’s realm
of Shalom. I believe that Jesus has options but all of them fall into the background as he seeks to embody his vocation as God’s embodiment in human life. Our healing comes from the power
that emerges through Jesus’ obedience to his vocation, and God’s vision for his
John’s gospel speaks of losing your life and gaining it. Some Greeks want to “see” Jesus. This can mean “meet,” but it can also mean“know” who he is. In response, Jesus speaks of dying and rising and losing and gaining. Creative transformation always involvesloss. Transformation – like the wood
that gives heat in my stove as I write – requires a type of death to the old,
familiar, and safe ways of life. Adventure requires letting go of security. Justice requires going beyond self-interest and placing our good in thecontext of the well-being of others.
Jesus’ soul is troubled. He knows what may be ahead, but again he follows God’s vision for his life, willing to face death for the sake of healing the world.
The question needs to be asked: Where do we need to “die” today? What do we need to “loose” to be faithful to God? Each of us will have to answer this question individually, but I believe this passage and the gospel invites us to consider – losing the tight grip we have on our possessions, letting go of
rugged individualism, sacrificing for the sake of community, reconciling with
enemies. This is what spiritual staturemeans – letting go of the firm boundaries of self and other to embrace our common history and destiny.
Sadly, many Christians have been captivated by an unbiblical rugged economic
individualism, inspired by writers such as Ayn Rand, in which lower taxes, the
right to bear arms, and denial of global climate change are identified with
Christian faith. While I recognize the need for effective and efficient government, the role of ownership of property and firearms, and the need for energy, none of these are inherent in the gospel
message. In fact, giving more to charity and possibly paying higher taxes if they support better health and education outcomes is implied by the gospel message. Greed and self-interest are unbiblical, and having said that in mycritique of conservative identification of God and country, I need to ask: Where
is our greed and self-interest? Where do liberals need to lose their souls and self-interest? What do we need to jettison to be faithful? Again, the response is individual, but perhaps it includes letting go of: judgment, polarizing politics, and demeaning of opponents, at the very least.
We can accurately critique another’s position or way of life without judging as inferior humans those with whom we disagree.
Despite the challenges, these passages are hopeful. They affirm that with the proper pruning, self-sacrifice, and clarity of heart, the constrictive powers of self-interest, isolated individualism, and
consumerism can be minimized, thus giving us the capacity to be faithful and
large souled people.
BruceEpperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two
books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is
Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process:
Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly
for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures,
workshops, and retreats.