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Readings: Fifth Sunday of Lent

13 March 2015

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Fifth Sunday of Lent

Passiontide begins

Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1-13 or Psalm 119.9-16; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory;through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

PASSION Sunday signals a change of gear in the progress of Lent. This week's readings draw us closer to the cross as Jesus speaks of his death (John 12.23-33), but also closer to the gathering up of all things in Christ at the end of time (John 12.32; Hebrews 5.9). Amid the intimidating density of scriptural references that each passage assumes its audience will have at their fingertips, it is difficult to know where to begin.

When Jeremiah speaks of a new relationship (Jeremiah 31.31-32), he is expecting his hearers to remember the broken marriage bond between God and the nations of Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 2.1-3.25). The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews draws on Psalm 110 and Genesis 14.17-20 to establish the importance of Melchizedek in understanding the special identity and calling of Jesus. Our reading of what John records Jesus saying about the events awaiting him will be richer for comparison with Paul's exposition of the victory of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.42-57), and with the warnings about losing one's life in a misdirected attempt to save it, offered by Matthew and Mark (Matthew 10.39; Mark 8.35). 

Out of all this, three strong themes emerge: covenant, priesthood, and glory. Jeremiah, who had seen the tumultuous shift in power from the Assyrian to the Babylonian Empire, and prophesied, as things moved towards the exile of 587 BCE, is yet confident enough in the God he serves to be able to bring a promise of consolation to those members of the population who were not taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The "new covenant" (Jeremiah 31.31) he describes will continue to be founded in the law, but this time in a law written on the hearts of God's people (Jeremiah 31.33) rather than on stone tablets. It is a new marriage between God and a previously unreliable population, in which law and love can be the same thing (see Jeremiah 2).

With Jesus comes another new covenant, open to "all who obey him" (Hebrews 5.9). The writer of Hebrews realises that the audience will know about the covenant first made with Moses, and animated, in succeeding generations, by the intermediary function of the high priesthood, offering sacrifice to God on behalf of the people. It is just this idea which has to be radically reimagined, by claiming for Jesus the high priest's role (Hebrews 5.5). The notion is startling in two ways.

First, it trumps any priestly lineage by going back to Psalm 110.4 to retrieve the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, who came to meet Abraham after the defeat of the kings. Melchizedek has no known ancestry, but must be greater than Abraham, because a tithe is offered to him (Genesis 14.17-20). Second, having established that Jesus's high priesthood is unique, it will go on to prove this by contrasting the priesthood that offers "the blood of goats and calves" with Jesus, who offers "his own blood" (Hebrews 8.11-12).

The mediation that Jesus offers happens in his own flesh, voluntarily made subject to suffering and, through suffering, made perfect (Hebrews 5.7-8). And, because this is a "better covenant" (Hebrews 8.6; 12.24), it puts an end to sacrifice. It asks of those whose flesh Jesus shared not blood, but obedience; in return, it promises "eternal salvation", and a share in Christ's glory (Hebrews 5.8-10).

Yet it remains difficult to equate glory with a cruel and protracted death, and it is tempting to see in Jesus's reply to Philip and Andrew - who wish to introduce some visiting Greeks to him - either euphemism, or very dark irony: "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (John 12.23). If anything, that sense is intensified by the verses immediately following, which imply both risk and the deliberate embrace of uncertainty (John 12.24-26).

What comes next corrects the perspective. Jesus is by no means full of bravado: he openly admits that his "soul is troubled", and glances momentarily at the possibility of asking for a way out (John 12.27). He goes ahead, because the glory is not his, but God's, seen before in Jesus'sbaptism, and in the transfiguration, and declared even earlier in the words of the angel to Mary (Luke 1.26-33). The collect for the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated this week, sustains us through this hardest part of Lent: "We beseech you, O Lord, pour your grace into our hearts, that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection. Amen."

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