The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 21, 2021
Holy Week is on the horizon, and many pastors are struggling to maintain zest from preaching as the pandemic moves into its second year. Some churches will attempt in person worship – outdoors if the weather permits; and carefully indoors, wondering whether to sing the familiar hymns of Easter triumph. There will still be a lot of Holy Saturday, uncertainty, in this year’s upcoming Easter season.
As we lean toward Holy Week, we are confronted by questions of law, grace, and mercy. What is it like to have God’s law written on our hearts? What would it be like to have God’s presence as near as our heartbeat? For most of us, there is a gap between God’s vision and our behaviors and attitudes. Often God appears as an external agent, ready to judge us for our imperfections or as the voice of conscience alerting us when we’ve gone astray, or as a force going against our individual self-interest. Jeremiah promises a different kind of experience – the experience of being in tune with God’s vision of ourselves and our society and having our hear beat in synch with God’s.
Jeremiah and the Psalmist speak of a transformed and purified heart. A new heart is a gift of grace. God initiates this new covenant. But is God the only actor here? Is God’s action entirely unilateral, or do we have a role in our alignment with God’s vision? Surely, God can do a new thing in accordance with God’s choice, and God can choose to be more active in some places than others. God can address us in lively and energetic ways. Still, God’s call invites us to response, and our response emerges from a partnership between God and us that enhances rather than minimizes our creativity and freedom.
Psalm 51 is a prayer for divine mercy. Lost in his sin, the Psalmist asks God to take the initiative in forgiveness and transformation. The Psalmist experiences God as “wholly other,” as the moral law which judges humankind and the Psalmist in particular. The Psalmist has crossed a line. He recognizes that he has no rights in relationship with God, and that God’s condemnation is fair. In this divine-human encounter, the Psalmist feels bereft of any moral achievement. In fact, he feels his own moral nothingness. He goes so far as to say that he was created in sin and that his only hope is to throw himself on God’s mercy.
I believe that these are existential statements, reflective of the Psalmist’s experience, and not necessarily reflective of God’s attitude toward us or our inherent nature. If we use this Psalm in worship, we need to be clear that despite our imperfections, we are conceived, not as sinners, but as God’s beloved children. This passage should not be used to bludgeon people with their sinfulness. There is enough shame to go around. We need to balance our fallibility with the wonder of our being. As Celtic theologian Pelagius rightly asserts, contra Augustine, when we the face of a newborn, we see the face of God. Sin is a social phenomenon; the result of our birth in imperfect families and imperfect societies. The appropriate theological approach is to begin with what Thomas Merton describes as “original wholeness” (imago dei) then the experience of brokenness and guilt and then divine restoring and transforming. Our sin never defaces our inherent holiness and relationship with God.
In his brokenness, the Psalmist asks God to create in him a new heart and give him a new spirit. He prays for a restoration of wholeness. Once more, God calls and we respond. Yet, respond we must if we are to experience the fullness of divine transformation. Our response is one of confession, repentance, and openness to becoming a new creation.
The Letter to the Hebrews echoes Paul’s hymn from Philippians 2:5-11. Christ is known for his humility and his identification with the human condition. Christ is known by his solidarity with us. Divine love mirrors, empathizes, and connects with us. The greatest becomes the least to heal and transform us. Christ is willing to sacrifice for our salvation. Divine suffering, God’s empathy with the pain of the world, is the catalyst for personal and political healing.
The passage from John describes the final days of Jesus’ earthly life. A group of Gentiles wish to see Jesus. Their quest is theological as well as interpersonal. To see Jesus is to see God’s vision for human life and to catch a glimpse of the divine character. What they experience is the interplay of freedom, suffering, and glory. Like any mortal, Jesus wants to avoid the suffering on the horizon. Yet, he also recognizes that he must follow his vocation even if it means conflict and crucifixion. Jesus has entered Jerusalem for this “reason.” Yet, this reason is not predetermined. Jesus has options and these might even lead to avoiding conflict in Jerusalem.
Jesus reminds us that when we let go of our self-interest, sacrificing for values greater than our own, we experience the joy of God’s presence. We go beyond individualist gain to world loyalty.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus has been transparent to God’s vision. God’s vision has been written on his heart. While I am unsure that God wants Jesus to suffer, God’s vision includes Jesus’ ministry in the seat of religious and political power and this is risky business. Out of this conflict, God will be glorified. God will use the negativity to come to be a vehicle of wholeness and salvation. In the spirit of Romans 8, in all things, even the conflicts of Jerusalem, God is working for good.
The cross of Jesus and our own struggles are rendered superfluous if they are predetermined. God takes the initiative but God’s initiative enhances Jesus’ and our own freedom and ability to embrace our destiny in partnership with our Creator. In our openness to God’s wisdom, we find God’s vision written on our hearts and embodied in the works of our hands. We can lose our lives, sacrificing our individualistic self-interest, for the greater good of God’s realm. In so doing, our selves expand, and we gain new life. (For more on the theological foundations of this piece, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: Embracing an Adventurous God” and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.)
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books including PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS, MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY, WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM, PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM, and GOD ON LINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.