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MARCH 29, 2009: FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:7-9
John 12:20-33

Though deeply moved by today’s Jeremiah passage, most of us hesitate to live by its implications. “The days are coming’ says Yahweh, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors. . . I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts. . . All from least to greatest shall know me,’ says Yahweh.”

As I mentioned two weeks ago when the Exodus reading narrated the Ten Commandments, the new covenant Jeremiah announces pertains to Yahweh’s relationship with Jews, not Gentiles. But at the same time, both the historical Jesus and our Christian ancestors were all Jews. I have no doubt the carpenter from Capernaum frequently reflected on these Jeremiah 31 words before he shuttered his shop and began his preaching ministry.

Jesus must have experienced the same temptation which haunts all religious reformers: no one else seems to notice anything that needs changing; why am I the odd one? If the institution, as it is, is good enough for them, why am I rocking the boat?

I presume Jesus spent many sleepless nights questioning his motives long before he went public with his ideas. He had to be convinced Yahweh had written something on his heart that others hadn’t noticed on their hearts. That seems to be why he identified so deeply with his peoples’ prophets. They also had noticed things in their faith which the vast majority of Israelites refused to acknowledge - and they paid the penalty for it.

Jesus’ commitment to the covenant on his heart is one of the dimensions of Jesus’ faith the Hebrews author must have had in mind when he wrote, “Son though he was, (Jesus) learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of salvation for all who obey him.” His original disciples instinctively realized that when they listened to him, they also were forced to acknowledge faith responsibilities which weren’t among the 613 laws to which their fellow Jews had committed themselves.

Their conviction that God had called them to go beyond a written covenant even led them beyond their experience of the historical Jesus. After his resurrection and his presence among them as a “new creation,” they still looked within themselves to discover the “new things” to which Yahweh was calling them. And nothing was newer than the early church’s reaching out to Gentiles.

Scripture scholars presume the historical Jesus rarely concerned himself with Gentiles. He was a fulltime reformer of Judaism. He left the “Gentile question” to his post-resurrection followers, presuming no matter what the future would hold, they’d face it as heart-filled, covenant people.

It’s no accident when John tells his readers about the “Greeks” (Gentiles) coming up to Jesus, he immediately has Jesus mention something about dying and rising. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” We need only read Paul’s letters - all written pre-gospel - to see the dying and rising aspects of welcoming Gentiles as Gentiles into mid-first century Jewish Christian communities. Such an outreach didn’t represent the majority opinion.

Some years ago, the former archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, encouraged those who disagree with specific church teachings and practices to express their disagreement in a format people can surface years down the road - like a letter to the editor of a local paper. “If you don’t,” he warned, “years down the road, church officials will accuse those of your descendants who object to the same things of being the only ones who ever had that problem.” When we ignore Jesus’ example and don’t share what God has written in our hearts, God’s covenant with us is dead-ended.