Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sermon B 5 Lent, 25 March 2012

In the name of God who creates, welcomes & loves us now & always. AMEN.

14 days to go. Are we more ready for Easter than last Sunday? How will we do this week to become more of the person we want to be to welcome the newly risen Lord then? In earlier church times, the 5th Sun. after Ash Wed., 2 weeks before Easter, was called Passion Sunday & the next Palm Sunday, because Lent was designed in 4 Sundays and 2 Sundays of the Passion to set the stage for the crucifixion with Jesus’ predictions and understandings and his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. The readings paint the mood, actions, and complexities for us and Jesus.

He says, “Now is my soul troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father save me from this hour?”’ That’s the underlying discomfort for each and all of us in today’s readings and understanding. The combination of the Jeremiah reading and the Hebrews, pair up to say that there will be a time when the covenant with Israel, made in Exodus, will be supplanted by a new covenant. “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” Hebrews adds, “he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” I hear these as combining in two problematic ways. They suggest that Jesus said he was replacing the previous Law. We’ve just reminded ourselves of those 10 Laws, and we understand that they were less rules, and more clauses of a contractual relationship. Scholars say the 10 Commandments were in form and content an Assyrian Treaty formulation. It meant: if we uphold and do each article of the treaty as best we can, then the Holy One will be our God and be in loving protecting relationship with us. Those insights (called erroneously, but traditionally, Commandments) hold. Jesus never thought to break that relationship, but to understand these 10 again as both external practices and internal behaviors and intentions.

However, selecting these lines from Jeremiah and putting them with Hebrews, (probably not written by Paul,) but harsh sounding, transcends their meanings either in context or individually. They can and probably have led to much of the thinking in Christianity that says Jesus replaced Jewish understanding of a relationship with the Holy One—That has led to a theory of replacing Judaism with Christianity, often called “supercessionism.” In various eras, including this one, this often reduced to this: since Jesus replaced Judaism, we can replace, destroy, and negate Jews and their religion. It’s not what Jeremiah was saying. It’s highly unlikely that he was predicting the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus here, though it has been taken that way, nor was he wrapping up Judaism here either. While Hebrews seems more on that track, its clarity depends on when it was written and in what context, and we have just no idea, with opinions varying over more than a hundred years. Adding it to this Jeremiah portion though seems a likely root of deadly anti-Semitism.

More difficult even than the sorry history for which this writing has been used is the translation of “he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” The word for “suffer” could as well be translated “feel” or even “lived” or “learned.” Neither empathy nor sympathy necessarily mean suffering with or in, but more “experiencing with.” The word for “having been made perfect” is a form of telos meaning goal or object, and is often used to mean “fulfilled” or “completed,” not just “having been made perfect.” The gist of this is Jesus “learned obedience having lived and having competed his vocation,” or “having experienced life and having fulfilled his life.” He was a human and lived without sin.

For us a question is: did Jesus learn obedience having lived (or suffered,) as Hebrews suggests or did he live, even suffer, because he chose to be obedient according to what he thought he was to do. Did God command Jesus’ actions and so his necessary death, or did Jesus keep making right decisions under his understanding and so the suffering and death were acceptable not pre-programmed or planned.

I start here: Jesus was human; we’re human. Somehow sin finds us, and we’re sorry. Jesus managed to resist whatever came his way, and slogged along, without sinning, and that lead to our self-awareness of our own limitations, sins, omissions and commissions, while finding none in Jesus.

We can easily say, “My soul is troubled.” We both empathize with Jesus, and recognize our distance in thought, word, and deed from him. We can say “ He was the Son of God,” so of course he was perfect, or we can say and acknowledge that he was as human as we are, but he didn’t sin. In accepting the death he walked into, God accepted him as so fully human that he lived as a full, perfect exemplar of God. We work at that goal, but we’re astute enough to see that no one else has so fulfilled human potential and vocation to be one with Jesus. OK.

For me though an underlying additional question is: do we learn behavior by following the rules, or is it in experience we find, value, and live into what we shape into rules that look a whole lot like the once given us to obey. Which comes first— rules or experience? Liturgical theologians and canon pedants tell us baptism MUST precede the receiving of communion because baptism is the entrance to the community of understanding and faith, and communion is the fulfillment of that. Other people know that often it is through experience that we come to understand the life and shape of the community of the body and blood of Christ, and it impels us towards baptism. We want to be an eternal part of the group, and want to do the ordinary thing to be part of it. The ordinary thing is baptism. My guess is that as this becomes an increasingly post-Christian world, people will discover Christian communities, churches, art, music, culture, beliefs, works, values, mystical longings, and more through experience of happenstance or intention, not baptism. Some people will come to Christian faith and love through experience of Christian hospitality and more, while others will be baptized and grow into the full stature of Christ. The fewer people baptized by parents or others early, the more people who find, will find it on their own. It will be a found practice increasingly.

For Jesus, there’s a similar pair of alternatives: obedience towards fulfillment and so suffering or free will fulfillment, living, suffering and so obedience. God has always promised humans, humanity, free will, so the idea that the Holy One determined beforehand what Jesus was to do and endure seems at best viciously mean and at worst both that, and creating human life to be a trick which, by being human, we can never get right. These are the inevitable questions for the Sunday before Palm Sunday, because that day we’re swept into the drama of the actions.

Instead, though, we can hear the image of the seed being dormant as though dead, and yet bringing again new life. We understand it’s primarily a visual not theological image. Jesus had to die—not be dormant (comatose) for it to matter that he rose again. The image of winter to spring is all around us, even in this odd year virtually without bleak winter. The burst of new life is excitingly visible everywhere—that’s the joy to come at Easter. John says Jesus indicated his kind of death “when he’d be lifted up from the earth to draw all people to himself.” John again seems to focus on the visual image of the lifting up to the cross, rather than the drawing all people in healing to himself, as Moses provided for his people with the shining snake on the high pole.

Moreover, we can hold onto the psalm’s life-long companionship of our self-assessing or measuring up to Jesus. We ask together for a clean heart, not to be cast away, or stripped of the Holy Spirit, but to be given again the joy of our God’s saving help. We ask for and expect the sustaining presence of God’s bountiful Spirit. It’s this profound identification with humanity that allows us to understand that Jesus lived with and for us as we are, and as his Jewish forebears raised him. He was not replacing that up-bringing, but so living it that he could, can, and does offer eternal loving-healing and saving: Good News.

© Katharine C. Black 25 March 2012 Boston, Ma