Sunday, March 17, 2024

Lent 5-B, 2024: Intimate communion with God

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

En el nombre de Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

Our Collect today is a great comfort to me. The world around us often seems unruly and I don’t think I’m alone in wondering, at times, if anyone can bring order to our chaos.

Then I remember that God can – and God will – over and over again, as often as we need it because God is with us. That’s the promise: God is with us. Emmanuel. God is present with us in the midst of the swift and varied changes that happen in our world.

In today’s gospel, the Roman occupiers are a continual threat to everyone: believers (the Jews) and unbelievers (the Gentiles) alike. Seeking the presence of God, which they witness among their Jewish friends, the Gentiles make a profound request. Our Scripture says they want “to see” Jesus, but the word means “to know, to understand.” We want to know Jesus, they declare.

How do we come to know Jesus? We’ve had some lively discussions about this in our recently concluded Episcopal 101 class called, “Be An Episcopalian About It.” Most of us have come from other traditions to the Episcopal Church and found here something real, a church that encourages us to seek to know Jesus beginning right where we are and proceeding in prayerful freedom, with companionship; a church where encountering God truly happens. That must have been similar to what the Gentiles experienced: a people among whom they could encounter the grace of God.

When Philip and Andrew told Jesus that some unbelievers wanted to know him, Jesus recognized this as the inauguration of his hour, literally, the time of his blossoming. He explained this to his listeners by likening himself to a seed. This seed must die now, Jesus says, otherwise, it remains only one seed. But if it dies, it will bear much fruit.

Jesus is the seed. We are the fruit.

As this beautiful season of Lent comes to a close, I offer you this prayer from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest (d. 1955): "…when the painful comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great, unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you …who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself… Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion… For you bring new life out of every form of death."

Teilhard says, "when the painful comes…" because it will. Being a faithful believer doesn't exempt us from the painful experiences of life; but it does give us the way to perceive them within the big picture of God's plan of redemption where everything is gift. As Tiellhard says, in those moments we are awakened to something so great that we can let go and surrender ourselves recognizing that it is God who is communing with us, joining to us at the deepest level, in "the very marrow of [our] substance," to lead us to new life. For a believer, death is always the gateway to new life.

Jesus' life story led him to the cross. Ours will too. We must, like Jesus, be willing to die to ourselves if we are to live in him. In order to do that, Jesus says, we must cling to nothing earthly. We cannot put the life we think we want ahead of the life God has planned for us.

We also must die to life as the world presents it and instead, go deeply into "the marrow of our substance," where we will see that eternal life is already happening in us - because God, who is eternal, is already there. 

I want to clarify: eternal life isn't something that happens after we die. "Eternal," after all, means having no beginning and no end. Neither is it a heavenly prize for good earthly behavior. Eternal life is living our lives in communion with God - in this life and the next. As God said through the prophet Jeremiah: “… they will ALL know me intimately, from the least of them to the greatest...”

Even in this intimate communion with God, we may find our souls troubled as Jesus did, but once again, he shows us how to go when that happens. We trust God’s presence despite our troubled souls and set out on the path God has set before us. We may not all hear a voice like thunder affirming us, but our faith assures us that God is truly present with us.

The next part of this gospel is the most exciting, amazing part to me – and most of the time we skip right over it. Jesus declares that NOW is the judgment of this world. Despite what we so often hear taught in the modern church, judgment isn’t something that happens at the end of anything – our lives or the world. It has already happened. Jesus says so right here.

Remembering that judgment is literally the separation of things, and that we are given free will to choose, we continually choose whether or not to align ourselves and our lives with God in Christ or with the world. The choice is always ours to make.

What happens next isn’t a blessing or curse from God, but the consequences of our own choice. Do we choose to desire the ways and rewards of the world or the ways and rewards of God? As we prayed in our Collect, “Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise.”

And what does God command? That we love God, our neighbors, and ourselves.

When we choose to live in intimate communion with God, we find true joy. Bp. Deon Johnson wrote a prayer this week that I want to share with you now because it describes true joy so beautifully: 

As Jesus said, judgment has already begun and it continues every time we make our choice. In this gospel story, when Jesus proclaims his purpose and destiny, he offers us hope. Now, he says, the world’s way of power and authority will be rejected, defeated, cast out. In its place will be the salvation of God: and when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself. All people.

John says this was indicating the kind of death Jesus would die, and it was, but it was so much more than that! If death is the gateway to new life, then this statement is Jesus’ promise that he is establishing the path of salvation, and it will be perfected, that is, accomplished by his own imminent death and resurrection from the dead. This would have been nearly impossible for Jesus’ disciples and followers to comprehend until the events he is speaking about took place, but we have the advantage of knowing how it all played out.

We know that Jesus' life story also led him to the grave, that dark place of emptiness, nothingness, where God continues to create beyond our sight and comprehension. We know that his life story led to the empty tomb, evidence that, in the big picture, God has been redeeming all along and we emerge from every form of death the same but different.

Our Lenten purpose has been to open ourselves to deeper communion with God; to allow God unhindered access to the very marrow of our substance; to be willing to die to something that hinders us so that God can grow new life in us.

Let us pray: God of love, we know you bring life out of every form of death. Hold us close in your embrace that your love may comfort us as we admit the painful. Breathe your Spirit into us as we let the next death happen in us. Feed us with yourself, your body and your blood, as we live into the new life you are forming in us. For we love you, we trust you, and we surrender ourselves to full communion with you. Glorify your name again in us, Holy One, our nourisher, protector, and upholder. Amen.

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