Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 25, 2012
See Also: 
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 Paul S. Nancarrow

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The promise of a fifth covenant brings to a conclusion the sequence of covenants that has occupied the First Testament readings for (most of) the Sundays in Lent. The most important feature of the covenant foreseen by Jeremiah is that it will be written among the people “on their hearts”: it will be an element in the internal self-constitution of the people’s experience, not an external factor felt as imposed upon them from without.

This can be seen as a fitting conclusion for the covenant process begun with Noah: I have suggested throughout this sequence that God’s purpose in making covenants with human beings has been to find a creative way to deal with sin, to transform it rather than destroying it.

In the first covenant, God promised never again to destroy the world with a flood; the human side of that covenant was that people would be “fruitful,” not just biologically but spiritually, using their measure of creativity to co-create with God occasions in which the wreckage of corruption and violence could be taken up and redirected to potentials of new good.

This purpose was refined and specified in the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, where the human side was to “be blameless,” to strive for integrity with respect to divine aims for right relationships of mutual well-being, and the divine side was to make Abraham and Sarah the exemplars from whom many peoples and nations would inherit a blessing in place of corruption.

The third covenant, with Moses and the Israelites, specified the covenant process even more, singling out one people whose relationships were to exemplify a special degree of fidelity with each other and with God, spelled out on the human side in Torah and on the divine side with the identification of YHWH as the God who liberates from oppression and danger. Liberation and fidelity become thereby the specific transformations of corruption and violence.

Tested and developed by repeated episodes of rebellion, repentance, and restoration, that covenant had by Jeremiah’s time become so badly strained that it led to abrogation and exile, as Jeremiah saw it, and he looked forward to a new covenant that would make the qualities of fidelity and liberation constitutive matters of immediate and intimate experience. What would set this covenant apart from all the previous covenants would be that “knowing” the Lord would not be gained through teaching or exhortation, but would come to each person as needed by that person in their own unique and intimate becoming with God.

To “know” in that sense is more than possessing intellectual information, but in the Hebrew use of the word connotes a deep and life-giving relationship. The new covenant is thus the fulfillment of the covenant process begun with Noah, in that it addresses corruption and violence at their root, in the human heart, and offers at the root creative transformation toward motives of justice and peace, right relationships of mutual well-being for all. Jeremiah seems to have expected that this new covenant would be established with the Return from exile; however, no postexilic sources speak of such a new covenant in the restored Temple and community. Christians, on the other hand, see the new covenant established in Jesus and offered to all in the gospel.

Psalm 51:1-12

While Jeremiah’s prophecy is aimed at the restoration of the community in a new covenant, the Psalm is a very individual lament and plea for personal restoration and forgiveness. What connects the two is the imagery of the “clean heart” and the “right spirit within.” Just as Jeremiah promises that all will “know the Lord,” so the Psalm acknowledges that God “desires truth in the inward being,” and so asks that God “teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” This inner constitution of an alternative to corruption and violence, this “willing spirit” for liberation and fidelity, represents the creative transformation of life in a new relationship with God in “steadfast love.” Individuals with such willing spirits form among themselves communities of right relationships in covenant; covenant communities in their turn provide the harboring environments where individuals can be formed in the practices of the willing spirit. The Psalm and the prophecy are thus two aspects, the private and the public, as it were, of the promise of the new covenant.

Hebrews 5:5-10

The opening verses of this passage set in parallel the images of Jesus as Son of God and of Jesus as high priest of the new covenant, effectively conflating the qualities of sonship and priesthood. There is no requirement in the First Testament rites for the Day of Atonement, which the Letter to the Hebrews extensively reinterprets in terms of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, that the high priest suffer; the high priest performs the sacrifice and comes before the Mercy Seat with the blood of the sacrificial victim, as the representative of the people, in order to ask forgiveness for the people’s collective sins, including his own; but this is not necessarily an indication of personal suffering for the high priest.

Jesus, on the other hand, is understood to have suffered in his work as high priest of the new covenant, and this is a quality more clearly tied to the titles of the Son of God and Son of Man given to Jesus in the gospel traditions. The suffering of Jesus is most keen in his death, generally interpreted in Hebrews as the “substance” of which the Temple rites of Atonement were the “shadow”: in dying on the cross Jesus shed his own blood as an expiatory offering more efficacious than the blood of bulls and goats.

We should remember here the ancient Hebrew notion that the life-force was in the blood; offering blood to God in sacrifice was not seen primarily as pain or punishment, but as yielding life to the creator of life in order to open the way for gifts of greater life. The sacrifice of Jesus was not his pain as such, but the “reverent submission” of his life-energies to the aims and purposes of God for him.

As high priest, acting as intermediary and intercessor for the people, Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears,” in a stance of intense compassion for them, which in its own way is a form of “suffering.” The suffering of compassion, along with the pathos of “submission” of life-energies to God’s aims, is the “obedience” Jesus learned; by being obedient to God’s aims for him, Jesus was “made perfect” in his embodiment of divine ideals. Jesus’ compassionate self-offering is the chief exemplification of fidelity and liberation promised to be written in the heart; Jesus is thus the high priest and mediator of the new covenant, and “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,” all who follow him in embodying fidelity and liberation in their occasions of experience. This is what “saves from death,” what presents a creative alternative to the mere destruction of sin.

John 12:20-33

The gospel reading for this day contains the Johannine version of a saying whose Markan version we encountered on the Second Sunday in Lent: Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John changes the emotional dynamic of the saying a bit, by speaking of “loving” and “hating” life, and the resultant “losing” or “keeping” of life; John also adds a transcendent distinction in contrasting “life in this world” with “eternal life”; but the essential paradox of the saying remains. As we noted three weeks ago, the Greek word translated “life” also has meaning-overtones of “soul” or “self” or “center of personal identity,” so that the saying is not so much about physical life and death as it is about the vital energy of personhood being diminished by self-centeredness and expanded by self-offering.

This meaning is enhanced by the second saying John sets in parallel: “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.” A seed sown in the soil does not literally die when germinates; but it does become something other than a seed, as the new plant begins to take form, the husk is burst, and the stored nutrients become part of the growing plant’s body. The seed must cease to be a seed in order to become a plant; ceasing to be one thing in order to bear fruit as a new thing is a kind of death and resurrection, a perishing and re-constitution in novel realization.

It is to exemplify that truth in his whole person — body, soul, and personality — that Jesus has “come to this hour”: his being “lifted up” in crucifixion and resurrection will bear the fullest witness to fidelity and liberation, as Jesus does not waver from the purpose to which God has called him, even though it troubles his soul, and God frees him from death by including and transcending the wreckage of the cross in a new dynamic of vitality. This apotheosis of fidelity and liberation is what it means to be “glorified”: it is the revelation of God’s continuous intention in making covenants with people, and the ultimate character of God’s transformingly creative response to violence, corruption, and sin.

The hour of glorification is thus also “the judgment of this world,” in the sense discussed last week, in that it makes clearly seen the way of God’s world to be the way of compassionate self-offering in fidelity and liberation for fullness of life. This recognition of the meaning of “the hour” sums up the themes of the lectionary for Lent, and prepares our attention for the narratives of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter Day to come.