Today in the Spirit: Lent 5B (Passion Sunday)

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In the BCP 2019, you will find that the Fifth Sunday in Lent is also titled Passion Sunday. This is a pre-Vatican II designation for the Sunday beginning the week of Passiontide, which lasts through the Saturday before Palm Sunday in those churches that still observe it. The readings this deep in Lent bring us to events and teachings of Jesus in the last ten days of his life. In Lent 5B, the assigned Gospel reading in John 12:20-33(34-36) gives us John’s narrative of some Greeks who want to see Jesus in Jerusalem after the Triumphal Entry, and Jesus’ response, saying “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (23). 

The OT reading assigned for this Sunday is that magnificent text out of Jeremiah 31:31-34, in which all who are an audience to the prophet’s sermon hear, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (31). For Christians, the line “the days are coming” is understood to be the time of Christ.

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The assigned Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm appearing once each year in the three-year cycle (also in Lent 1A and Pentecost. Proper 19C), but with the church drawing our attention to different parts of the psalm each year. In Lent 5B, the designated portion from vv.10-15 picks up on the emphasis, along with the Jeremiah reading, of pure devotion leading to service to God: “O give me the comfort of your help again…Then I shall teach your ways unto the wicked, and sinners shall return to you” (12-13, BCP Coverdale).

The appointed NT reading from Hebrews (4:4-16)5:1-10 is the beginning section of a central theme in the letter: Jesus, the Son of God, a great high priest (4:14). The characterization of Jesus as a priest who “is able to sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15) connects with the Gospel reading’s portrait of Jesus with “a troubled soul on behalf of the people he came to save. The appointed Collect, once again in Lent, has worshipers in common admitting that with our “unruly wills and affections” we need grace from God to fix our hearts “where true joys are to be found.” 

The Collect

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I Will Make a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

 There really is not a lot of encouragement coming out of the book of Jeremiah. This signature passage announcing a new covenant stands out. And, with the ministry of Jesus Christ and the subsequent coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell the hearts of believers, Christians can easily identify with the promise, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (33). 

Do you remember that haunting phrase from last week’s OT reading: But they kept mocking the messengers of God…” until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people until there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36:16)? The church means for us to carry that bitter news of hopelessness about our own sinful condition into today’s declaration so we might hear it like the victory blast of a trumpet: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (31).

Out of the painful silence comes a new sound; out of the deep darkness shines a new light. For those among the people of Judah soon to go into exile with hearts turned to YHWH, it is a pinhole of light they must squint to see. Still, for us who have seen the resplendent light of the transfigured Jesus (remember from Last Epiphany), it is a blinding hope almost too bright to see. 

Holy Spirit, you are the light of Jesus Christ in me, the law of God written on my heart. Today, I worship you with the Father and the Son for the abundant hope you have given me in exile on earth. 

Then I Will Teach Transgressors Your Way (Psalm 51)

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.

As stated in the overview, the BCP 2019 emphasizes the above section of this psalm. Note the dramatic change of address in these verses from petition to God in the second person (“[You] create in me a clean heart, O God,” [10]) to personal resolution in the first person (“I will teach transgressors your ways”). Vv. 13-15 are, in fact, a bridge section in the poem between verses 1-12, a prayer for personal healing, and verses 16-19, a petition for the nation’s renewal.

Devotionally, we have to ask ourselves what the meaning of “David’s” abrupt change in the direction of his prayers is. What does it signal to us for our own maturity as Christians? Surely, one important message is that seeking healing and forgiveness from God cannot be an end in itself: confession and forgiveness must lead to compulsion for mission.

All too often, what we want in prayers for healing is only personal relief from difficulty or just to feel better. Let us take a cue from the word of God here in David’s longing to make his reconciliation with God through penance count for the furtherance of God’s purposes: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways (missional activity) and sinners will return to you” (missional results). After all, what is our reconciliation for? Paul writes, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Today, in the Spirit who lives in me, compelling me to be reconciled that I might join in the Christian movement to reconcile others, I recall, singing with David in this psalm, the baptismal prayers: that “whenever I fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord,” and that I may proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ Jesus to a lost and broken world” (BCP, pp. 166-167). 

With Loud Cries and Tears (Hebrews [4:14-16] 5:1-10)

7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

The Gospel reading from John this week displays the suffering of our Lord carrying out this priestly ministry as a man, especially this: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?” (John 12:27). Though almost certainly written earlier, the words in the Hebrews passage read like a commentary on this part of John: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (7-8).

In Lent, as we move closer now to Holy Week, we are meant to grasp spiritually the cost our Lord pays in suffering for our eternal salvation. His anguish of mind precedes the torture of body. The phrase with loud cries and tears speaks into our hearts of our Lord’s victory hard won on our behalf. Before we mourn his death, we must witness his sorrow for people, all of us, dying in sin.

This passage in Lamentations about the sorrow of Israel in exile captures the mind of Christ and perhaps our own frame of mind as we seek to identify with our Lord this week: “O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!” (2:18).

Absorbing the commentary on our Lord’s priestly ministry in Hebrews, we pray today for the Holy Spirit’s insight into the suffering of Christ for what he must do to come into fellowship with us all.

Walk While You Have the Light…Believe in the Light (John 12:20-33[34-36])

34 So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them.

Our Gospel passage from John contains content similar in messaging and language to well-known material found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke—like John’s version of the most prominent teachings of Jesus. Compare, for instance, Whoever loves his life loses it in the reading from John (25) with the Gospel text heard earlier in Lent this year, For whoever would save his life will lose it (Mark 8:35).

Another less obvious parallel may be found in the two commands at the end of the passage: 1) “Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you” and 2) “believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” The formula walk and believe here can be compared with repent and believe in the other Gospels (see especially Mark 1:15). 

Jesus speaks to an unbelieving crowd when he gives this version of “repent and believe.” Devotionally, we need to hear Jesus speaking out of John into the places of our own hearts that remain stubbornly unbelieving. Many of us have believed in an intellectual sense for a long time, some from early childhood. But know this: it is a lifelong project of the Spirit of God in all of us to transform us into people who believe to the core and are surrendered in the heart to walk in his ways. In what area of your life right now are you demonstrating to Jesus that you are unbelieving?

Oswald Chamber frequently uses the word “relinquish” to describe believing in the heart, and here he states well the challenge we all face in coming into the “light”: “There is always a sharp painful disillusionment to go through before we relinquish. When a man really sees himself as the Lord sees him, it is not the abominable sins of the flesh that shock him but the awful nature of the pride of his own heart against Jesus Christ. When he sees himself in the light of the Lord, the shame and the horror and the desperate conviction come home.” 

Today, in the Spirit, hear Jesus’ message in John directed at your unbelief in whatever form it takes. Change your mind about walking in that darkness, turn, and walk toward the light of Jesus, putting your trust in him.    

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

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