The Adventurous Lectionary – Fifth Sunday in Lent

Lectionary Reflections for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 17, 2013

The Next Great Thing?

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians  3:3b-14; John 12:1-18

Commercials occasionally present insights into the nature of things. As I was reflecting on this week’s lectionary readings, two rather synchronous comments wafted into my study from the living room of my high rise apartment. The first came as a question, “What’s the next great thing?”  The second, in a rather Zen-like manner, pondered why the rear view mirror is smaller than your front windshield and suggested that it’s because it’s the future and not the past that determines who we will become. These could be models for today’s readings.

Isaiah ponders God’s “next great thing.” After a time of exile, God’s future beckons the people forward. God’s vision is magnetic; it draws humankind and the non-human world toward new possibilities and makes possible the energy to achieve them. God provides the pathway to the future, making a way where there once appeared to be no way forward. “Don’t remember the former things; or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.” God is not changeless, nor is God locked into some predestined vision of the future.

The problem with the doctrine of predestination is that although it appears to place all the power in God’s hands, it makes God the prisoner of God’s past decisions. God can’t change the script God has written in eternity. God’s eternal decrees make less creative and real than us because God can’t change God’s course or explore new possibilities. Indeed, an omnipotent and unchanging God is less powerful, ironically, than a relational God because an unchanging God’s power is complete, whereas a changing, relational God has an infinite number of future expressions in companionship with the world.

Isaiah, a proto-process theologian, portrays a free-spirited, open-ended, creative God, who changes the course of history and God’s own vision as God goes along. Could it be that the tragedies of the Hebraic exile challenged God to revise earlier visions to provide the people with the “new thing” they needed to sustain hope and chart a pathway to the future? God is praiseworthy precisely because God’s fidelity is manifested in changed behaviors to embody God’s love in changing situations.

Psalm 126 proclaims the great and surprising works of God. God has restored the people to new life. God’s way forward is so unexpected that the people experience it as almost dream-like. A return to wholeness is almost miraculous for those who have been down so long that failure, addiction, oppression, and grief seem like the only realities. But, God is still at work: in all things, God is working for good; God’s movements are not coercive but work gently and persistently to bring about the healings we need.

Paul’s words from the Epistle of Philippians describe the transformative power of the future. Paul has accomplished a great deal in his life, but none compares to his relationship to God in Christ Jesus. Paul has let go of the past in order to claim God’s way forward. Paul is pressing on toward fullness in Christ, seeking to incarnate the words with which he begins Philippians, “the good work God has begun in our lives, God will bring to fulfillment and it will be a harvest of righteousness.” (For more on Philippians, see my Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide, Energion, 2011.)

Transformation requires destruction. The heat and illumination of a fireplace requires the destruction of the wood. Creative transformation in all its wonder necessitates letting go of previous certainties, including certainties of faith. In the midst of transformation, it can feel like you’ve lost everything that previously defined your life? Can you imagine the upheaval Paul experienced on the Damascus road and his own personal wilderness as he sojourned from the familiarity of pharisaic leadership to God’s new creation through Christ’s surprising, transformative love?

The gospel reading is about celebration. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are celebrating their companionship with Jesus and the new life – literally and figuratively – their friend has given them. Mary lavished her love upon Jesus with the gift of the finest perfume. Judas, in the role of killjoy, criticizes her generosity and disingenuously asserts that they money could better used to feed the poor.  No doubt that’s true.  But, Jesus admonishes Judas, noting that sacrament of this present moment (Pierre du Caussade), embodied in Mary’s anointing of Jesus.  Jesus’ remark, “you always have the poor with you,” has often been misconstrued and misused by the haves in discouraging social responsibility to the economically vulnerable. Jesus is not advocating for social injustice; he is affirming the importance of expressing love in the present moment. Beauty and justice are not antagonistic to one another. In fact, the quest for justice is about beauty of experience, poetry and art, playfulness and wonder, as well as full stomachs and adequate housing. Alfred North Whitehead proclaims that the aim of the universe is toward the production of beauty. Mary was adding to the beauty of the universe and God’s experience by her act of loving generosity. Her affirmation of “beauty of holiness” is an example for all relationships: loving in the present moment transforms our lives and the lives of those around us.

What is the “next great thing” that God is injecting into the realm of possibility? Will we have the courage and insight to recognize a pathway in the wilderness and journey with God in creating a way where there was no way?

 

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

  • David Lawrence

    Bruce, thanks for this. Where can we get your study guide on Philippians?

  • http://bobcornwall.com Bob Cornwall

    If you go to this page you’ll find the link for Bruce’s Philippians guide, http://energionpubs.com/books/1893729974/

    And you can also find my guide for Ephesians in the same series here — http://energionpubs.com/books/1893729885/

  • Tom

    Yes thanks. I usually enjoy your reflections, but this one was particularly good.


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