Adventurous Lectionary – Lent 5 – March 17, 2024

Adventurous Lectionary – Lent 5 – March 17, 2024 March 10, 2024

The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 17, 2024

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

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. The words of our mouths and meditations of our hearts are often out of alignment with God’s vision, and though God appreciates innovation and coloring outside the lines, we may diverge from God’s vision in ways that hurt ourselves and others.  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 heart beat in synch with God’s.

As we reflect on God’s presence in our hearts and in the sufferings of Jesus this Sunday, it is good to remember that – like Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day – this Sunday is mated with St. Patrick’s Day.  Perhaps the intrepid missionary-pilgrim Patrick can remind us that in times of crisis God is as near as our next heartbeat:

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me…I arise today with Christ.

Like Patrick who returned as a missionary to the place of his enslavement, today’s First Testament readings privilege transformation – from hate to love and fear to courage and mission. 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.  The emergence of the inner heart of God is prior to our efforts and yet we must open the doors of our heart for God fully to come in.  Grace does not preclude agency, it transforms and expands it.

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 and can’t get back on their own. The author recognizes that they 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, the Psalmist feels his own moral nothingness and 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 of guilt and shame, and not necessarily reflective of God’s attitude toward us or our inherent nature. Read and preached unreflectively and literally, these passages can hurt rather than heal; they can perpetrate the notion that we are unworthy rather than God loves us enough to see us as and make us fully worthy.  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…Sin is a social phenomenon and 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.  Surely we as persons and as a nation need a new heart and spirit! We need a higher love to awaken us to our true identity as God’s beloved.

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’s nature is revealed in 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.

“We wish to see Jesus.” That is our quest as well as a first century quest.  We want to see the living Jesus and then be transformed.

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 does not want to die, nor does God want Jesus killed, but the risk must be taken to be faithful to the call.

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…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 foundation of divine suffering and partnership, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed” – T.T.Clark/Continuum and Process Theology: Embracing Holy Adventure” – Energion_


Rev. Bruce Epperly Ph.D. has served as a professor, seminary administrator, university chaplain, and congregational pastor at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Lancaster Theological Seminary, and South Congregational Church United Church of Christ on Cape Cod.  “Retired,” he continues to teach in the Doctoral of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary, give seminars, write, and rejoice in grandparenting and marriage with Rev. Dr. Kate Epperly.  An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of over eighty books, “The Elephant is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theology and Religious Pluralism,” “Jesus: Mystic, Healer, and Prophet,” “Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism,” “Simplicity, Spirituality, and Service: The Eternal Wisdom of Francis, Clare, and Bonaventure,” and “Taking a Walk with Whitehead: Meditations with Process-Relational Theology.”  His books on faith and politics include, “Talking Politics with Jesus: A Process Perspective on the Sermon on the Mount,” “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” and “Process Theology and Politics.  His most recent texts are a trilogy: “Process Theology and Healing,” “Process Theology and Mysticism,” and “Process Theology and Prophetic Faith.”  He may be reached at



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