Fifth Sunday of Lent: God Will Act

A very late publication for last Sunday’s readings.

We are getting close, entering the last two weeks before Easter.

The Gospel for this Year B is a reading from John that concludes, “He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.”  What is this death—both the death of Lent that we have been experiencing, and the death of Christ we are about to celebrate?  What do we gain from dying?

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The beginning of the answer is in our Prophet, Jeremiah.  “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant.”  Covenant theology became very hip among conservative Catholics, perhaps through Evangelical influences, in the late twentieth century.  I confess I don’t understand what this is about.  But I think it’s important to challenge one idea about covenants: most covenants are two way, but our relationship with God is not one among equals.  More important—and I think this is the central point of the readings this week—it is not the case that God “does his part” and then passively waits for our response.  Our God is living and active.

“This is the covenant that I will make,” he says.  “I will place my law within them. . . . All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord.”  This is not like a two-way agreement.  It is a promise that God will act—will act within our very hearts, stirring the sources of our action.

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Our Epistle, from Hebrews, says of Jesus, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”  (Hold this word “obedience” loosely—wait to see what he’s saying about it.)  He learned to offer “prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death.”

The suffering of Christ is about begging God to act, and trusting that even if God leads us to death, he will give us life.  It is entering into the purest passivity—nothing is more passive than being dead—and trusting that God will act to save us.

And so “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  We enter into this pattern of trusting God to act—and just as Jesus in his humanity was saved from death by God, so Jesus who is God will himself save us from death.  It is about learning to trust God to act.

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Our Gospel, from John, not a famous passage, is a telling illustration of two approaches to religion.

Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem for Passover, the feast where he will die.  This is the story immediately after the Triumphal Entry.

In Jerusalem are “some Greeks.”  They tell the Apostle Philip, “who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,” a more Greek part of Israel, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Maybe I’m wrong, but this request sounds . . . tourist-y.  We’re seeing the religious sights, let’s see Jesus too.  They’re like tourists who don’t genuflect in a church, or gawking at the pope in St. Peter’s.  There’s no indication of reverence.  They don’t approach Jesus with faith, they don’t fall down in worship.  Instead, they go to their ‘connection,’ Philip—who himself goes to his connection, Andrew, a more central apostle. (John 1 tells us, “Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.”)

And how tourist-y is our faith?  How much are we looking for an ‘in,’ instead of putting our hope in God?

When Philip and Andrew go to Jesus, he changes the subject—John never mentions those Greeks again.

Instead, Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies. . . . Whoever loves his life loses it. . . . Whoever serves me must follow me”—to death—“The Father will honor whoever serves me.”

“I am troubled now.”  Literally, he says, “my soul is stirred up”—and he has just said, “whoever loves his soul will lose it.”  Yes, he is afraid of death—and he says, “damn the torpedoes,” forget the fear, full steam ahead.

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Then comes one of the weirdest moments in John’s Gospel.  Here, in the middle of Jerusalem, the Father speaks.  Jesus says, “Father, glorify your name,” and a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”  It’s a bizarre experience for the crowd, who then debate whether it was thunder or an angel or what—because they don’t expect God to speak.

But the God of Jesus Christ is alive, he acts.  He speaks.  He glorifies his name.  And he will glorify it—by raising Christ from the dead.  It’s not that we glorify him with our goodness—it’s that he shows his goodness through our weakness.

This is not the god of tourism, not a god in the zoo, or a dead idol whom we check out at our convenience.  This is a God who speaks into our lives and raises us from the dead.  That’s the kind of death Jesus will die: a way of living that stakes everything on God’s promise to act.

“Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you”?  No.  That’s the opposite of what Jesus does at the cross.  Stake everything on the power and promise of God!  Act like you believe God is alive.

How would you behave differently if you were confident that God will even raise you from the dead?

eric.m.johnston

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