5th Sunday in Lent

April 2, 2006
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

Lenten Candle Liturgy
Lenten Benedictions/Commissioning/Blessings

Preaching Lent/Easter I
Preaching Lent/Easter II
Preaching Lent/Easter II

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus
John Cobb on Death of Jesus

Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Reading 2: 
Psalm 51:1-12
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 5:5-10
Reading 4: 
John 12:20-33
By Rick Marshall

Discussion of the Texts:

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The First Testament lesson brings to a close the sequence of covenant reflections that has woven through the lectionary this season. While the First Sunday looked at the covenant with Noah, the Second Sunday at the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the Third Sunday at the covenant with the Israelites through Moses, and the Fourth Sunday stepped out of sequence a bit by looking at the Israelites grumbling against Moses and God, the Fifth Sunday now brings the sequence to a climax with the promise of a new covenant, a covenant that will not be imposed on the people externally, as if written in stone, but a covenant that will arise in faithful people from within, written on their hearts, expressing itself in a spontaneous knowledge of God. The new covenant thus represents a creative transformation of the old: it preserves continuity with the old, in that it maintains the basic covenant relationship “I will be their God, and they shall be my people”; but it also adds novelty in that the newly heart-felt relationship will give a new degree of intimacy with God. As Christians, we must be careful not to interpret this promise of a new covenant in a supersessionist way. We recognize the new covenant as beginning with Jesus, but that does not mean that the previous covenants are abrogated or left behind. As followers of Jesus, we are aware of being in a new relationship with God; but we must also admit that we are far from having our hearts fully converted to God. The new covenant is not yet complete, but is a work in process; while that process continues, we must be mindful of all the covenants by which God has reached out in saving grace to the world.

The Psalm is one of the most intensely penitential texts in the First Testament. Yet the poem maintains a keen balance between deep awareness of personal sin and unshakable confidence in divine forgiveness. The Psalmist endures bone-crushing suffering, yet at the same time is open to “hear joy and gladness” and will not cease hoping in “the joy of your salvation.” This song of penitence is chosen to accompany the First Testament lesson because of its echo of the promise of a new covenant written in the heart: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

The passage from Hebrews seems chosen largely to complement the brief mention of Jesus’ soul being “troubled” in the Gospel. This passage is part of a larger section of the epistle in which Jesus is named as the great high priest of the new covenant. This is a creative transformation of the whole notion of priesthood, in that Jesus is regarded as both priest and victim, both offering and offerer. Jesus’ suffering is regarded not merely as expiatory, not merely in the role of sacrificial victim, but also as part of his priestly role, his own intimate relationship with God: through this suffering Jesus “learned obedience” and “reverent submission” and so was “made perfect.” Similarly, now, Jesus can invite into that same intimate, saving relationship with God “all who obey him.” Contemporary interpreters may find this connection between “obedience” and “intimacy” troubling; we tend to feel that “obedience” connotes an external, heteronomous, unequal relationship, while “intimacy” connotes a more internal and mutual relationship. The author of Hebrews uses the language of “priesthood” and “obedience” to indicate how Jesus’ aims became conformed to God’s aims. The text provokes the contemporary reader to question what languages we now might use to say the same thing.

The epistle passage notes that Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears”; here in the Gospel lesson we get a hint of one such occasion. When Philip and Andrew come to Jesus to tell him some Greek-speaking Jews wish to meet him, Jesus takes this as the sign that the time for his Passion has come; then Jesus says “Now my soul is troubled,” and he prays aloud. A voice from heaven answers Jesus’ prayer, though the bystanders can hear only thunder or “an angel,” depending on their capacity to believe. This is as close to an agony in Gethsemane as the Fourth Gospel gets; while Matthew, Mark, and Luke show Jesus in genuine distress, John shows Jesus only saying his soul is troubled, and then immediately choosing not to pray “Let this cup pass from me” but instead to pray “for this reason that I have come to this hour; Father, glorify your name.” This strength of will in the face of suffering is part of John’s high Christology. But it is also part of John’s high soteriology. As we saw in the episode of Jesus cleansing the Temple, John conceives of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a creative transformation of earthly life into eternal life that animates the whole of Jesus’ ministry. To be crucified and to be glorified are, for John’s Jesus, not two separate things, but two simultaneous aspects of one single reality. Jesus’ whole mission is to reveal that reality and call others to share in that reality. Death-and-resurrection is a mystery not unique to Jesus, although to be sure he is the first of the human family to experience its fullness; but it is a reality of new life in which all are invited to share. Jesus underlines the universality of the invitation to resurrection with a very down-to-earth agricultural metaphor: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” To die is prerequisite to bearing fruit. That is why, for Jesus, to be “lifted up” on the cross in death is also to be “lifted up” to God in new life. That is why being “lifted up” is, as we saw in last week’s Gospel, the sign that will draw all people to new life in Christ. The Gospel passage thus serves to sum up the themes of Jesus’ ministry given to us in Lent, and to turn our attention ahead to the Passion and Resurrection stories of Palm Sunday and Easter.

Process Theology and the Texts:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In process thought, the universe is composed of moments of feeling which arise from an impulse from God, unify in themselves all sorts of shades and nuances of feeling derived from the world, become what they are, and then perish. In perishing, each moment yields up its particular feeling of the universe, so that the feeling can be felt by new moments yet to arise. Unless the moment perishes, it cannot bear fruit as a constitutive contributor to new moments. From a process perspective, dying-and-arising is a fact of life in the universe, a reflection of the way things are and the way things become. What is unique about Jesus’ passion and resurrection is not simply the pattern of dying-and-arising, but the way his whole person is taken up into that pattern. We are not so whole in our devotion. Yet we also experience perishing and transition in the moments of our lives, and we can even now follow Jesus in the way that leads to new life.

Creative transformation in anything requires some measure of perishing and arising: something old must be let go of, in order that something new can be made from it. Creative transformation is never a complete break with the past, since that would be a new formation and not a transformation; but creativity always requires something more than a simple repetition of the past. The seed, as it were, must cease to be a seed in order to become a plant. All the instances of creative transformation in today’s scriptures call for some measure of perishing to allow some measure of new life. The new covenant cannot arise in the heart unless we let go of hardness of heart. A new heart and a right spirit cannot be created in us unless we are willing to let sins be purged and cleansed. We cannot come into intimate relationship with God unless we let go of self-centeredness and allow our aims to be conformed to God’s aims for us. We cannot be where Jesus is unless we are willing to let go of life as we know it in this world and receive new dimensions of life we cannot as yet describe or imagine.

Preaching the Texts:

It seems paradoxical that Jesus says his soul is troubled, and yet says it with such calm. Our souls are troubled, too—by war, racism, classism, oppression, xenophobia, strains in relationships personal, communal, national. What can this Gospel say to us about facing what troubles us with a calm that is rooted in trust in God’s presence in all the perishing-and-arising moments of our lives?

The preacher might want to explore the connection between intimacy and obedience in Hebrews. The author of Hebrews seems to indicate that Jesus had to submit his human will to divine direction. Process thought places less emphasis on submission to a coercive divine power, and focuses more on cooperation with a persuasive divine power. A sermon could ask congregants to reflect on ways in which their own aims can be conformed to cooperate with God’s aims for them, so that they too share in Jesus’ intimate relationship with God.

In a similar vein, a sermon could explore the notion of a covenant written in the heart: rather than being a set of laws imposed from without, a heart-covenant would be a conformation to God’s aims from within. What sort of moral commitments grow from having a heart attuned to God? In a world where moralism is so often judgmental and destructive, how could the promise of a covenant of the heart be good news?

Creative transformation requires perishing. Is there some particular instance in the life of the congregation, or the wider community, in which new possibilities can only be realized if some old ways are allowed to perish? The preacher might address such a situation directly with the words from the Gospel. Or, on a more personal level, a situation from the preacher’s own life, or some other personal story, might help the congregation understand that dying-and-arising is not the sole prerogative of a supernatural Jesus, but is God’s way for all of us to be creatively transformed.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.