A short while ago, the Bible Study group and I read the entire Book of Jeremiah. This probably should have been our Lenten observance…it required steadfast determination and dedication to get through. Almost the entire Book of Jeremiah is about how wicked the people have been because they have broken their covenant with God, and God is delivering them into the hands of the Babylonians. Chapter after chapter, we were reminded of how wicked the people were and what their punishment would be. It felt overwhelming and bleak. But occasionally, and especially after chapter 25, we would come across glimpses of hope for restoration. Sunday’s passage (Jeremiah 31:31-34) is one of those moments. God tells the people (via Jeremiah) about a new covenant, one that will be written on their hearts; that God will be their God and the people would be God’s people. It’s really quite beautiful. In this moment, God is saying essentially, that the past is the past…the slate has been wiped clean. This passage brings to mind the closing of the Rite of Reconciliation from the Book of Common Prayer:
Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Abide in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.
God’s new covenant is about transformation. When God’s love is written on our hearts, our actions reflect what brings us joy. When God’s love is written on our hearts, it frees us to be who we truly are—children of God, God’s beloved.
Traditionally, the pairing of this reading from Jeremiah with the Sunday passage from the Gospel of John (12:20-33) is a way of proving that Jesus is this “new covenant” that God is bringing about. And certainly, our Eucharistic theology supports that. When Jesus invited the disciples to break bread and share wine with him, he says that his blood is the blood of the new covenant. But I think there’s another way to think about the pairing of these scriptures.
One of my favorite theologians, Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called The Crucified God. In it he talks about this “new covenant” and the gift of the Incarnation. He believed that the crucifixion was essential to the Incarnation experience. In other words, if Jesus had not lived as one of us, and had not died the cruelest of deaths, but instead remained fully human with sparks of the divine, then God-incarnate (Jesus) would not have understood our sufferings. The love inscribed on our hearts would have been somehow distant, instead of immediate. The relationship between human and the Divine, would not be intimate…God would be “out there” and “far away”.
But that’s not the Jesus that we find in the gospels, and particularly in this reading from John. Instead, we have a Jesus among the people—Jews, Greeks, men and women. Jesus was with the people. And it is among the people that Jesus has realized that “the hour has come”. As we know, Jesus was a busy man. He had been healing, teaching, feeding, and just prior to this chapter in John he had raised Lazarus from the dead. And now, “the hour has come”.
I don’t know about you, but if I knew when the hour of my death would be, I think I would be more than “troubled”. I think I would be trying to “fix” things…I would make sure that there was enough food in the house for Matt, make sure the kitties had enough kibble and water, call my family, lay out a great outfit to be buried in…I’d be making sure that all the loose ends were tied up. Not so for Jesus. As we will see during Holy Week, Jesus spends his last days with friends and in prayer. He loved them until the end.
But before we get there, I want to take notice of the little parable Jesus teaches in this passage; “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.” What’s he talking about here? I have combed through commentaries and talked to friends trying to understand this parable. And then I read a poem by Michael Coffey that helped to clarify it for me. Here’s a part of the poem:
Either way you're gonna die:
You can open your hand and let loose
the grain of love you bear.
You can open your protected soul to life and death and mystery in the breathable air.
You can plant your seed in the welcoming earth and die to your fear and let something uncontrollable grow. When you are buried like the seed it is already free to break through soil and let the sun kiss it to life and sprinkle the earth with a thousand new grains.
Either way you're gonna die:
But if you let your seed go and die before you die there will be wheat and flour enough to bake bread with holy wild yeast and feed the hungry world, which gives thanks for your small grain to the One who made you to die for the fruit of love.
So what does it mean to lose your life? I think it means letting go of, or dying if you will, our self-importance, our arrogance and greed. It means saying “Yes” to following Jesus. It means saying “Yes” to letting go of those things which hold you back from giving yourself freely. It means saying “Yes” to God who wants to belong to you.
On Thursday I wrote my April newsletter article. And I don’t want to give away too much, but I also address this idea of “dying” or “losing your life”. When we let go of the past, when we let go of old habits and ways of being, we are invited into the “new covenant” of God…we are invited to experience new life. And it is in this new life that God’s love is written on our hearts.
So this week, I invite you to consider if you’re willing to lose your life. Will you hold on tightly to those “grains of wheat” that keep you bound to fear and anxiety, or will you let them go to grow and blossom in new ways?
John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." I have to be honest...every time I read or hear this scripture, I get an image of rednecks at professional wrestling matches holding up homemade signs that say "John 3:16" or men in full body paint at football games holding up similar signs. And it turns me off. It makes me uncomfortable to claim my Christian identity. And it makes it so that when I realized that this was Sunday's scripture, I was frustrated...how would I preach this text that has been co-opted by rednecks and football fans? How could I preach on a text that I felt had become a pity statement of Christian faith?
About ten years ago, I made my first confession. Confession has a bit of an ambiguous place in the Episcopal Church. Private confession isn’t required, but it is offered for those who request it. Corporate confession, or confession as the gathered community, is about confessing our sins against God and our neighbor, and it’s something we do every week. But private confession, I have to tell you, takes guts. So as I was saying, about ten years ago I made my first private confession. I was so nervous that I thought I would laugh through the whole thing, even though it was very serious and not to be taken lightly. And during the confession, as I started to really get to the heart of my concerns, I began to cry. How could I be forgiven for such behavior? I had done so many things wrong, I had been so “bad” that I found myself really wrestling with the idea that God could forgive me. And while the priest offered some spiritual practices for me as I learned to forgive myself and reconnect with God, what he said in that moment was more important than anything else…and something that I have since said to others who have come to me for their private confessions…God’s love and forgiveness is bigger than we can imagine.
And it is with that idea in mind that I can work with John 3:16. What does this one verse tell us about God? It tells us that God’s love is extravagant, that it is for the whole world, and that it is abundant. For God’s love to be extravagant means that it is without bounds, lavish, and unrestrained. It is a love that we cannot fully comprehend. It is a love that is sacrificial in nature. It is this love that created the world—the plants, the animals, and us—and calls us to be good stewards of the whole world. The fact that God’s love is for the whole world reminds us that it’s not just for us, here in Hood River, Oregon, USA, but it’s for everyone everywhere. God’s love is therefore bigger than us. And it is abundant, which means that there is more than enough to go around. It is rich and plentiful.
But this passage also tells us about ourselves. We can choose to not be open to God’s gift of abundant love. We can choose to disregard the beautiful world around us. We can choose to turn a blind eye to those in need around us. We can choose not to be faithful stewards of the gifts and talents that God has given us. We can choose to exclude those we call “others”. This is what it means to live in darkness.
To live in the light is about accepting God’s love. God’s love for us is what brought Jesus into the world. It is that same love that Jesus taught about…the love that calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to reach out to the marginalized, the outcast and the poor. It is a love that calls for justice.
So how do we reclaim John 3:16 from the wrestling matches and football games? How do we save it from being a tired cliché? I think we have to live into it. We have to see this passage as a way of inviting others to experience the abundant love of God. It means we welcome all, not just those who look, and act and think like us. It means we learn to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Lent is an opportunity for us to reflect on the times we have chosen not to accept God’s abundant love. It is a time to acknowledge when we have wandered away. And it is a time to examine our hearts, knowing that God’s love is waiting for us.
I’ve been thinking about Peter a lot this week…partly because I started putting together the Passion Gospel booklets and have been reading Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus, and partly because this Sunday’s gospel always makes me kind of sad. So often when we read this Gospel passage, we think Peter is stupid, or unaware of who Jesus was. But when I read it, I hear a Peter that is scared, worried, and filled with anxiety.
Up to this point in Mark, Jesus and the disciples have been busy. Being a follower of Jesus has meant witnessing healings, participating in miracles, and listening to his teachings. For these early disciples and followers, Jesus has been understood as a caring helper, a wise teacher, and someone who welcomes all. And throughout all of these wonderful and revolutionary events and experiences, Jesus has been confronted by those in authority. So being a disciple has not been without some risk.
But just before this Sunday’s gospel, Peter has identified Jesus as the “Messiah”. What kind of Messiah does Peter have in mind? Is he thinking that Jesus is the long-awaited king, political leader and warrior? Or does he understand that Jesus as the Messiah means a change in expectations…that Jesus the Messiah is about healing, reconciliation, and liberation?
So when Peter rebukes Jesus for his foretelling of his suffering, death and resurrection…well, for me it’s hard to criticize Peter as “just not getting it”. What Jesus is talking about here is that change is on the horizon. Jesus is pointing out that ideas about a politically driven Messiah will not bring about the Kingdom of God. Jesus is also bringing to light the heavy cost of discipleship. And what I imagine Peter hears is that change equals loss…loss of friendship and leadership, loss of hope, loss of direction and loss of identity.
Jesus’ response to Peter is also a rebuke, but points to an essential truth—focusing on human things instead of divine things, gets in the way of bringing about the Kingdom of God. For Peter, these “human things” are about fairness, strength, and righteousness…ideas supporting a political Messiah. And for Jesus, “divine things” are about mercy, justice, healing, reconciliation and liberation…ideas supporting the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes I think I’m like Peter…and maybe we all are to some degree. When faced with the challenges of change, unmet expectations, or loss of power or privilege, we want to argue back…rebuke the forces of change. But when we do this--when we ignore the tug to go in a different direction, to face an unknown reality, to be led into foreign places--then we become indifferent to God.
We have perspective that Peter didn’t have. We know how the story goes…Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. We know that it is because God in Christ experienced life’s joys and sorrows, because of Christ’s suffering and death, that God knows us and has compassion for us. But it also means that we know something about God. In God’s kingdom, there is strength in weakness. In God’s kingdom, there is justice and mercy. In God’s kingdom, all are welcome.
So while I understand and can relate to Peter’s rebuking of Jesus, I also have to keep in mind that God has bigger plans, plans I might not always understand, or plans that may seem strange, but that is the craziness of discipleship. And it is that craziness that calls to me to pick up my cross and follow Jesus.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.