March 25 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fifth Sunday in Lent
Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Theme: As this is Passion Sunday one possibility would be to read the entire Passion narrative this Sunday; in which case there would be no sermon. My practice has been to do this on Palm Sunday as an appropriate overture to Holy Week. For this Sunday, with these readings, I am going with "Facing our own Mortality".
Introduction. This is one of those Sundays where the connection between the three readings is not immediately apparent, at least to me. That problem is compounded by the difficulty in comprehending the epistle with its mysterious reference to the order of Melchizedek. So perhaps we have to take each reading as we find it and, as it were, lay them on the table and see where they take us. The first lesson fits in with all I have been saying about spiritual growth and maturity over the last few months. Jeremiah heralds the coming of a new stage of spirituality, moving from outer observance to inner conviction. Christians see the fulfilment of this prophesy in the Paschal Mystery, beginning with Christ's death and reaching its conclusion at Pentecost with the gift of the Spirit to all believers. The epistle, in part, offers the basis for our "doctrine of calling": this is made clearer if we begin today's reading at verse 4. No one takes this honour upon himself; he must be called by God just as Aaron was. At the heart of this epistle is the author's continuous struggle to hold together both the humanity and divinity of Christ. This duality comes through in the gospel reading, where Jesus can think of his death as glorifying God, while still shuddering in his humanity at the thought of the suffering he must undergo.
Background. This may be a good opportunity to reflect on the difficulty so many people find in facing up to their own mortality. Whatever else we are to make of the three occasions on which Jesus predicted his own death, it is clear that he is talking about his own mortality. One of the things that has struck me time and time again in my ministry is how rarely people who are terminally ill – and their families – are able to talk openly and honestly about that death. Perhaps even more strangely, I have found a similar inability even in young healthy people: think how many euphemisms we use when we do broach the subject. Very rarely do we talk of "dying" – we much prefer "passing". My siblings and I used to dine out on the story of when my grandmother talked to us about the day when it would be time for her to "go along the passage". Of course, my sisters, being older and wiser than me, knew what she meant and never let me forget that I thought Granny was talking about going to the toilet! I attended a funeral service this week in which the deceased was said to have "now completed her journey", but I did not notice any reference to the fact that she had died.
Jesus did not see the need for such evasion. On each occasion that he referred to his death he made it clear what he meant, particularly in the versions recorded in the Synoptic gospels: in John the language is characteristically more indirect. But compare his discussion with the disciples about their sick friend Lazarus: John 11:11-15. Subtlety led to confusion with those men!] So Jesus did not talk of his own "passing" – much less that he was going to "fall asleep". He said he would be killed. But he also said something else. He said he would be raised again. In other words, whenever he talked about his death he also talked about his resurrection. We can't have one without the other. Our own mortality is only bearable within the context of resurrection: conversely, within that context there is no reason to fear it or refuse to face the fact of it. For Christians, death loses its sting, not by denying its reality, but by denying its finality.
Jeremiah. Jeremiah may not have the poetic gifts of Isaiah, but for sheer human pathos he takes the prize. He is the most emotional of all the prophets, often trying unsuccessfully to resist God's promptings because they always led him into conflict. But today Jeremiah has an opportunity to share some good news with the people. God is intending to enter a new covenant with the people. It is radically different from the old covenant that was backed by laws and ordinances. It required obedience; it required knowledge of the laws, knowledge that had to be learned from others. But the new covenant will involve internal guidance; we might call it conscience or intuition, and it will be available to all. There are echoes here surely of the old story from the time of Moses where a complaint was made that people outside the inner circle were prophesying. Moses squashed the complainant by expressing the wish that all God's people might prophesy – that is, the Spirit might be given to all people. [Numbers 11:24-30; see also Joel 2:28-32.] The new instruction will bind the heart as well as the mind: to know God requires both intellectual and spiritual faculties.
Taking It Personally.
· Recall an occasion when you have been prompted by your conscience to do, or refrain from doing something. Ponder that occasion in the light of this passage: can you accept that for "conscience" Holy Spirit can be substituted without changing the meaning of what happened?
· Read the last sentence of this passage again. In what way is it connected to the preceding verses? Does it mean that, once our sins are forgiven, we will know God in this new way, or is there more to it than that?
Hebrews. As stated above, this is a difficult passage, but is perhaps best understood in the light of the struggle the author is clearly having throughout this letter to hold in tension the humanity and the divinity of Christ. He seems to have a clear picture of God and Christ as separate Beings, the former being superior to the latter. Thus God calls Christ to be a priest – Christ did not claim the honour for himself. The analogy here is with human priesthood, a ministry to which we are called, not self-appointed. Then he turns to the more familiar relationship within the unity of the Trinity – Father and Son. By verse 7 he's very definitely back in the human realm, "Christ" and "Son" being replaced with "Jesus". The picture he draws of Jesus is very human, a man praying for his life, and learning obedience through suffering. But then he concludes with another reference to the eternal priesthood in the "order of Melchizedek". Remembering that this letter dates from the late first or early second century, the author's struggle with the true identity of Jesus no doubt reflects the struggle within the whole Church at the time, a struggle not "concluded" until the settling of the Creeds in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on verse 4. What has God called you to be and do?
· Remind yourself that you, too, are a son or daughter of God. Now re-read verse 5 as it is addressed to you.
· Compare your prayer life and experience with that of Jesus as summarised in verse 7.
· What have you learned through suffering in your life? Can you now give thanks for that suffering because of the learning you gained from it?
John. According to Jewish belief the "Day of the Lord" would begin with the ingathering of the Gentiles (that is, the Gentiles would flock to Israel seeking the Lord). Jesus seems to have that in mind at the beginning of this passage. The arrival of the Greek inquirers represents the ingathering of the Gentiles. This follows two significant events; his anointing at Bethany, and his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Notice that the ranks seem to have closed around Jesus at this point. The Greeks approach Philip rather than Jesus, and even Philip doesn't seem to have direct access to Jesus. He goes to Andrew, and Andrew takes him to Jesus. St John's theology is very much on display here, as Jesus refers to his "glorification". For John Christ is glorified on the cross (not through resurrection or ascension). See also verse 28. Verse 24 emphasises the idea of death being a prerequisite for new life. The voice from heaven reminds us again of Christ's baptism and of his transfiguration. This time the crowd hear something, but they are uncertain what they have heard. Was it something natural (thunder) or angelic? Once again we have a reference to Christ being "lifted up", a phrase we struck last week in chapter 3 of this gospel with Jesus' reference to the snake on a pole in the Book of Numbers. All these allusions are wonderful examples of the way St John weaves different threads and themes in and out of his narrative, more like a composer of music than an author.
Taking It Personally.
· How good are you at pondering your own mortality? Do you see in your death an opportunity to glorify God? Are you afraid of death?
· As we get ever closer to Good Friday, which one verse of this passage strikes you as being particularly significant? Why?