21 March 2021
The idea of losing life in order to save it may sound like a contradiction, but once we allow this week’s Lectionary to move us into Jesus’ view of things, it makes perfect sense. The struggle, though, is less about understanding what Jesus meant, and more about how we actually find the courage and faith to live his call.
May our worship lead us into losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel so we may truly find them.
Jeremiah 31:31-34: God promises a new covenant in which God’s law is written on people’s hearts, and in which no one needs to instruct another, because all people will know God, will be forgiven by God and will automatically follow God’s ways.
Psalm 51:1-12: A psalm asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and for God to wash the psalmist clean, restoring to him the joy of God’s salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
OR Psalm 119:9-16: A celebration of God’s law that keeps a young man pure, that is valuable and precious and that is hidden in the heart, making the person who treasures it happy.
Hebrews 5:5-10: Jesus has been appointed by God as a priest like Melchizedek. He suffered for God’s people, crying out to God in his anguish, and God heard him because of his devotion and obedience. Now he is the source of salvation for all.
John 12:20-33: Jesus teaches that a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die in order to produce fruit, and that those who try to save their lives will lose them, but those who give up their lives will guard them for eternal life. Then he asks whether he should pray to be delivered from his hour of suffering, but recognises that this is what he came for, and that when he is lifted up he will draw all people to himself.
REFLECTIONS ON THEME:
The Lectionary, in this last week of Lent, brings together some thought-provoking Scriptural teachings. In Jeremiah there is the promise of God’s new covenant, in which the law is written on the heart. Both Psalms echo this promise, with Psalm 119 celebrating the blessings and wisdom of God’s law, and Psalm 51 (David’s confession song) expressing the prayer that God would bring about a change of heart which would restore David’s relationship with God and enable him to obey God’s law again. In the New Testament readings, the focus is on Jesus in his high-priestly role. In Hebrews, the mysterious figure of Melchizedek is used as the metaphor for Jesus’ pleading and action on behalf of God’s people in order to bring them salvation. Finally, in the Gospel reading we have the closest thing in John to Gethsemane and the closest thing to the transfiguration. Jesus has a moment when he considers asking to be freed from his time of suffering, but then he acknowledges that it is in his suffering that his mission is fulfilled and God is glorified. Then, God speaks to Jesus affirming him and assuring him that his work will bring glory to God. But, then the question of suffering is expanded to include followers of Jesus, who must inevitably give their lives up – like seeds falling into the ground – in order to find God’s life and bear fruit for God’s Reign.
When we bring all of these threads together, we are faced with the surprising and disturbing challenge that God’s new covenant is appropriated for us through the work of Christ as both priest and sacrifice, and also through our own willingness to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel. This makes sense, since it is impossible to enter a new life unless we are wiling to release the old one, and a new covenant cannot be written on the heart if we remain obsessed with the externals of the old covenant. The call to die in order to live may appear at first as a “works-based” theology, but to view it as such is to misunderstand what it means to die. Dying is not something we do. It is, rather, a release, a ceasing to strive and live, and a submission to the inevitable. In the same way, once we have recognised the inadequacy of the old way of being – the old “covenant” with its external law – we can do nothing other than release it, to die to it, and to submit to the coming change, the inevitable transformation from who we were to who we are to become in Christ. We cannot make this transformation happen, anymore than the seed can make itself sprout. However, we can, if we so choose, resist the death and cling to the old way. This is where Christ’s example is crucial for us – as we witness Jesus’ willingness to die and trust in resurrection, so we are given the grace and the faith to follow.
CONNECTING WITH LIFE:
The idea of a new covenant, a new way of being, that calls us to die in order to live may sound too “spiritual” and esoteric to have any relevance in the “real” world, but it is, in fact, exactly what we need as we face the major crises of our generation. We need to die to the economic systems built on unlimited greed and consumption, in order to find a new way to live and use our wealth to build a more sustainable society. We need to die to short-sighted, expedient exploitation of the world’s natural resources for our own gain, in order to make a new covenant with the earth, and find a way to live on our planet with responsibility and restraint. We need to die to our false sense of disconnection with others, and die to our aggressive, protectionist tribalism in order to build a new connected, respectful and equitable world. We need to die to our lack of compassion for the poor, the sick and the oppressed in order to work more intentionally and consistently for justice for all. In so many ways the world as we know it – our current “covenant” with each other, with God and with the earth – is inadequate. Our current “laws” and “traditions” are unable to deal with the challenges we now face. Our organisations and institutions and hopelessly ill-equipped to navigate the complexity of our society. However, to bring about the needed change will require a death. We cannot build a new way of being without letting go of the old. We cannot just “tweak” the systems. We need to release them in some significant ways, and endure the pain, the death, that will result. Death, birth, and change all result in times of chaos before order emerges. Unless we can embrace this chaos, this “dying to live” we will just continue to do things as we always have done, and in the process, we will lose our lives. But, if we are willing to follow Christ, risk the new “covenant” and lose our lives, we will discover a new life – a new world – waiting for us.
No relationship can be sustained without fairly regular “dying” experiences. The single person must die to become united in a relationship or marriage. The couple must die to give birth to a family. The family must die to release the children to their own journey into love and growth. The same is true for community. The small group must die to become a community. The community must die to become an organisation. Every season of growth, creativity, change or re-orientation, requires a losing of life in order to save life. In ministry, this call to die is, perhaps, most keenly felt. The church cannot hold on to its own life if it is to be Christ’s instrument of healing and justice in the world. Rather, the church must die to its own needs, to its own agenda, and to its own self-preservation, giving itself for the sake of those around it, or it loses its life and becomes an irrelevant “club”. But, if we embrace our deaths, following Christ to the cross, we discover true, abundant life as we serve others. On a personal, individual level, the same principle applies as well. When we seek to save our lives – refusing to become vulnerable to others, refusing to release our own desires, agendas and perspectives – we lose our lives, and end up alone and bitter. But, when we willingly let go of our own life – giving ourselves for the sake of connection, family, friendship and intimacy – we find ourselves rich and alive with connections, love and support. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges in our increasingly individualist and self-centred world to learn to die to the false life of an idolised self in order to find the true, lasting life of intimacy and community.
RESOURCES FOR WORSHIP:
The Mystery Of Your Love
On Our Hearts
If Not For Your Embrace Of Death
Jesus You Have Called Us
I Will Offer Up My Life (Link to YouTube video)
Once Again (Link to YouTube video)
Jesus Messiah (Link to YouTube video)
The Wonderful Cross (Link to YouTube video)
I Give You My Heart (Link to YouTube video)
A Liturgy for the Celebration of Sacrifice