holy cross sermon for the fifth sunday in lent, march 22, 2015

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today’s readings all speak of God’s deliverance of his people. The Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah foresees a time when the Lord will make a new covenant with his people, when he will write his law on their hearts, when they will know him in the intimacy of the conjugal relationship; when, unlike in former times, as the Lord says, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Hebrews, looking back on the event of God’s deliverance, looking back on the sacrifice of the cross, speaks of it in terms of Jesus’ sacerdotal function, his role as the great high priest of God’s people. But Hebrews notes that the priesthood of Jesus is not like the priesthood of the temple of the Old Testament. It is rather “after the order of Melchizedek.”

This refers to an obscure passage in the book of Genesis (chpt. 14), where Abraham returns from defeating four kings and encounters Melchizedek – whose name means “Righteous King” – and who was “king of Salem”. Salem was a pre-Israelite name for Jeru-salem – Jerusalem – and the word “salem” means “peace”. So Melchizedek is the righteous king of peace. Genesis also says that Melchizedek was “priest of God Most High” (14.18). This is interesting because Genesis is referring here to the time of the patriarchs, a time before King David, before the law had been given to Moses, before Moses himself, a time before there was a Jewish priesthood.

Christians down through the centuries have read this passage from Genesis, following the book of Hebrews, as prefiguring the coming of Christ. And such a reading is strengthened by Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine, foreshadowing the Last Supper and the Eucharistic sacrifice, in the time when the archetypical “righteous king of peace” would offer his body and blood to us, Abraham’s descendents in faith, and to God for us.

God’s reference to himself, in the Old Testament reading, as the husband of his people is thus brought into greater clarity. St. Paul says in Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” (Eph. 5.25). Its important to say that this does not mean that God is like a husband; rather, the analogy runs in the other direction. God is beyond all that our minds can fathom. Human husbands, who give themselves up for their wives, who pour out their lives – even to death – for the wholeness and fulfillment of their wives, reveal something of the nature of God. This is a high standard indeed, and one that few if any human husbands – even Christian husbands –  can measure up to, and that’s why its important to say that the Bible is not saying that God is like a human husband – because, as any human wife can tell you, human husbands often fail, and must repent, and begin again.

The nature of this failure to give oneself for the beloved is what Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel, and it lies at the root of human unhappiness. Jesus says, “He who loves his life loses it,” (Jn. 12.25). And in saying this, Jesus discloses the diabolical lie which has been the basis for interpersonal relationships since the beginning of human culture: that if you just take matters into your own hands, if you seek your own fulfillment, your own self-realization, “you will not die… [but] your eyes will be opened and you will be like God,” (Gen. 3.4f).

And from that primordial act of self-will and self-assertion come the whole series self-perpetuating sins of which we are guilty, the measureless cycle of scapegoating, victimization, exploitation, lies, and violence – in which even we Christians, particularly in our personal relationships, are all too often willing participants. But this is precisely the nexus of sin which the Lord came to judge, conquer, destroy and cast out – because he loves us tenderly, as the Bridegroom of our souls, and he wants us to know the happiness, fulfillment and peace that we’ve endlessly failed to provide for ourselves and for one another. Jesus says, “For this purpose I have come to this hour… [and] now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out,” (Jn. 12.27ff). Now shall the powers of darkness and deceit, the devil and his minions, who have duped us into seeking what we have falsely assumed to be our own – now shall they be cast out, and now their crooked kingdom will be destroyed… “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” “He said this to show by what death he was to die,” (12.32f).

Only self-giving love, in union with the Lord, has the power to redeem from death, the power to save. Jesus said “If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also,” (Jn. 12.26). He is constantly inviting us to follow him, constantly offering us his hand, to take us with him to life.

Easter Sunday is two weeks from today. These two weeks have traditionally been called “Passiontide” by the Church. The Church, our holy mother, invites us to join with our brothers and sisters throughout the world and down through the centuries, and to follow the Lord with particular attention and care during this time. As we approach the great “Three Days” – the three most holy days of our year: MaundyThursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve – I would urge you to spend time in prayer, asking the Lord to show you the ways that you have failed to live a life of self-giving love in union with him. Ask him to illuminate the recesses of your consciousness that remain dark and walled off from the wound of his love for you – the times when you have exploited others, the relationships in which you have sought your own good at the expense of the good of others, the moments of pride or hypocrisy, the hatreds you have secretly nursed, the forgiveness you cannot accept, or the injuries or injustices you’ve stored up against those who have perpetrated them against you. Offer it all to the Lord. In short, offer YOURSELF to the Lord. And use these next two weeks as a time really to seek his forgiveness and healing. The Lord himself offers us this time, through the ministry of his Church, to join him on the path of self-giving love, as he walks it to the bitter end, and then THROUGH that end, to a life of perfect fulfillment and glory that has no end.

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5.8f). He calls each of us to his cross, to the place of our deliverance, the place of eternal salvation. And to each of us he says “Follow me.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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