MARCH 18TH, 2018: FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
The days are coming, says the LORD,
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 fathers
the day I took them by the hand
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;
for they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.
In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh,
he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears
to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard because of his reverence.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
and when he was made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast
came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,
and asked him, "Sir, we would like to see Jesus."
Philip went and told Andrew;
then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Jesus answered them,
"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
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.
Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there also will my servant be.
The Father will honor whoever serves me.
"I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?
'Father, save me from this hour'?
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.
Father, glorify your name."
Then a voice came from heaven,
"I have glorified it and will glorify it again."
The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder;
but others said, "An angel has spoken to him."
Jesus answered and said,
"This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.
Now is the time of judgment on this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And when I am lifted up from the earth,
I will draw everyone to myself."
He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.
Why do we belong to organized religions? Though it flies in the face of popular religion, neither Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures nor Jesus in the Christian Scriptures directly commands us to do so. Our sacred authors presume we’ve committed ourselves to being disciples of Yahweh or the risen Jesus, and have sealed our commitment with various covenants, but in none of those agreements are we expected to join a specific religion.
Scholars tell us that organized religions came into existence for one basic reason: to help us have an experience of God in our lives. By regularly joining together with others who’ve made the same commitments, it should be easier to surface the divine around and in us.
The late Ed Hays once remarked, “Objectively we could do everything the risen Jesus expects of us without being a church member. But practically few of us can pull that off by ourselves. Organized religion is essential for the vast majority of Christians.”
The concept of church membership comes into play today because of Yahweh’s promise in our Jeremiah reading to . . . “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” This agreement, unlike the Sinai covenant, will be placed within them, written on their hearts, no longer just inscribed on stone tablets. “All, from least to greatest, shall know me,” says Yahweh.
In Hebrew, to “know” someone or something means more than just having an intellectual familiarity with the thing or person; it means to actually experience that someone or something. (When talking about knowing someone of the opposite sex, it usually means to have intercourse . . . as in the Genesis genealogies, and in Luke when Mary tells Gabriel, “I do not know man.”)
In Jeremiah’s covenant context, the prophet is convinced the deeper one’s commitment to Yahweh becomes, the deeper one will experience Yahweh in the depth of his or her being.
The authors of our Christian Scriptures agree. But their road to having that experience runs through Jesus of Nazareth. If we’re to experience God in our daily lives, we must do what the historical Jesus did to experience God in his daily life.
Our unknown Hebrews writer hits the nail on the head. Like Jesus, we must first learn obedience through suffering. We don’t find God’s presence by walking into a magnificent cathedral, or listening to a majestic organ recital. God only becomes present when we generously give ourselves to others. Only those who imitate his painful giving will experience his God in their lives.
John’s Jesus agrees. In one of Scriptures best-known lines, he reminds his followers of something all farmers know but rarely apply to their personal lives. “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.” Life only comes from death.
But he also shares his personal history of surfacing God: “Whoever loves his life loses it, but whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” Since for John, eternal life begins right here and now, we’re already experiencing God long before we step through the pearly gates.
I’m afraid, as necessary as they are, many of our religious institutions only provide us with an experience of the religious institution. They rarely give us opportunities to die enough to ourselves to provide us with an experience of God in our lives. Were these institutions more welcoming communities and actually developed ministries, for instance, to women, children and LBGT individuals, instead of building cathedrals, perhaps we really could do what God intends us to do. They’d be providing us with occasions to experience the kind of death Jesus experienced.