Living toward death; a poem by W.S. Merwin; and the lessons for Sunday, March 18, 2018

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with steadfast love you draw us to yourself, and in mercy you receive our prayers. Strengthen us to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, that through life and death we may live in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Truly, Truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24.

Technically, I suppose, that is not entirely correct. The seed remains “alive” even when it falls into the earth, however lifeless it might appear-or does it? In his recent book, Sex and the Origins of Death, Professor of Immunology William R. Clark makes the following observation concerning bacterial spores:

“Apparently, then, a spore is not dead-but why not? If it shows absolutely no evidence of life, can it truly be considered a living thing? What property does it retain that allows us to define it as alive? Reversibility of the deathlike state is an intuitively attractive way out of the dilemma, but what exactly does that mean? We know that gradually, over time, spores fail to respond to the conditions favorable to growth by reviving. Did such spores “die” during the spore period? If so, what was different about them before and after they died? What thin line did they cross? If we cannot answer such questions, we really cannot understand what death is. These questions are as difficult for biologists as they are for philosophers.” Clark, William R., Sex and the Origins of Death, (c. 1996 by Oxford University Press)  p. 142.

Evidently, the line between life and death is not as clear cut as we like to think. But in any event, until a seed hits the soil where it meets “the conditions favorable to growth,” it is, like the spore, for all intents and purposes “dead.” A seed can remain in a state of dormancy similar to death for centuries only to revive again when planted. Yet the likelihood of that outcome decreases the longer a seed remains “alone” without being planted. For the good of the seed, for the good of all who may benefit from its fruit, the seed must “fall into the ground.”

This is not a welcome word for a death denying culture like our own. It strikes me as odd that even institutions created to assist us in death avoid using this dreaded word. The funeral industry, hospice providers and even a lot of religious organizations pile up euphemisms thick and fast to cover up the stench of that stark reality. Yet that is precisely where we need to make clear that belief in Jesus’ resurrection and our own is not all about avoiding the unpleasant reality of death or somehow escaping its reach. In this the biblical authors part company with a lot of religious dogma positing the survival of the soul or some other part of us following death of the body. The Bible is clear about one thing: Nothing survives death. If there is anything for us beyond death, it is only because God makes of what is dead something new. That something new is as qualitatively different from what has died as the blooming plant is from the sown seed. If there is continuity between the two, it is only because the resurrected Christ is even now fashioning within us the “the pattern in the seed” someday to be seen “with new eyes.” “Behold the Host Arrayed in White,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 425 (c. 1978, Augsburg Fortress).

It seems to me that disciples of Jesus are required to live with a greater awareness and anticipation of death. That is not to say that they are to be morbidly preoccupied with death. Rather, they are mindful that life is a freely given yet limited and precious commodity. They understand, too, that life’s purpose and meaning outlasts it. Precisely because God promises to raise up the dead and weave them into the fabric of a new creation, it is critical to give God as much to work with as possible in whatever time one has. Jesus invites us to throw every minute of our lives into the things that matter eternally, reconciliation, peace, justice and compassion-the stuff of which God’s reign is made. For some, as for Jesus, that means a premature death. But disciples of Jesus know that living long is not nearly as important as living well.

None of this is to say that death is good or that it is merely an illusion or that it is just a “door into a better place” as a friend once inartfully put it. Death is an ordeal both for the dying and for those they leave behind. There is nothing good about it. That said, death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst thing that can happen is that you will “remain alone,” that you will never pour out your lifegiving baptismal potential into the world for which Christ died, that you will live your whole life without ever learning what it is for, that you will die long before you stop breathing. Death is a tiger. It will never be your friend, but if you run from it, it will take you down all the faster.  For people who make a habit of facing down the tiger, of dying daily to sin, dying daily to yesterday’s losses, dying daily to the cycle of tit for tat, the ever-elusive promise of material security and the lure of power, wealth and fame, the tiger loses its power to terrify and paralyze. The day of death turns out to be just another day.

Here is a poem by W.S. Merwin speaking to the awareness and anticipation of death in the midst of life.

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Source: The Second Four Books of Poems (c. 1992 by W.S. Merwin, pub. by Copper Canyon Press).  W.S. Merwin, born in 1927 in New York City, spent his formative years growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister and began writing hymns for his father when he was only a child. He graduated from Princeton University in 1948. In addition to writing his own poetry and prose, Merwin is also a prolific translator of poems. His awards include fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. You can read more about W.S. Merwin and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Israel understood God and her relationship to God not on the basis of theological assertions about God or philosophical ideas about God, but through a series of historical covenants with God. God’s heart, mind and will for Israel were discerned through the living out of those covenants in obedience to Torah, a body of law that shaped Israel’s worship, commerce, community life and her relationship with other nations. According to the Deuteronomist, the glory of Israel was the wisdom and understanding gained through her obedience to Torah. Deuteronomy 4:6. Jeremiah was on the same page with the Deuteronomist on this score. He was probably a young man when, under King Josiah, Judah undertook significant reforms, purging the land of idolatry, restoring the temple in Jerusalem that had fallen into disrepair and strengthening the institutions of worship. See II Kings 23.

While Jeremiah likely approved of these reforms, he learned through bitter experience that, in themselves, they were insufficient for restoring Israel’s heartfelt obedience to her God. “The heart” he observed, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9. In the hands of a perverse and godless people, even the Torah becomes an instrument of injustice. “How can you say, ‘We are wise and the [Torah] of the Lord is with us?’” Jeremiah asks. “[b]ehold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.” Jeremiah 8:8. For this reason, Jeremiah believed that a new covenant was required. Understand, however, that a new covenant is not synonymous with a new law. The Ten Commandments and the rest of the body of law given through Moses needs neither replacement nor supplementation. It is the heart of Israel, not the Torah that must be changed.

A covenant is not a legal contract, though it does stipulate terms for living within it. It is best to think of a covenant as a relationship. Jeremiah compares it to a marriage. Vs. 32. The core of every marriage is fidelity. Whatever rules and statutes govern that marriage, they are not the essence of the marriage. They exist to protect, strengthen and enhance the marriage. If there exists no bond of fidelity, there is nothing for the laws to protect. When God enacts a covenant, it never begins with rules. First comes the promise. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, it was the promise of a land, a people and a blessing. In the case of Sinai, the giving of the law was preceded by God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to protect Israel’s new gift of freedom and to keep her from becoming another Egypt. Thus, Jeremiah looked forward to some new saving act of God that, like the two aforementioned covenants, would melt Israel’s stubborn unbelief. Through this new saving event, God would once more give Torah to the people of Israel, not on tablets of stone, but engraved upon their hearts.

It is important to appreciate both the continuity and discontinuity between this anticipated “new” covenant and the “old” covenants of Sinai and the patriarchs/matriarchs. As in the past, this new covenant would be initiated by the free act of Israel’s God. Some saving intervention of God in the human story would prove to be as compelling as was the call to Abraham and the deliverance from Egypt. The only conceivable response to such gracious acts of salvation is thankfulness from which genuine obedience flows. Torah will no longer be a means of establishing obedience. Its role will be to channel that outpouring of newfound thankfulness inspired by what God will shortly do. Rather than being an objective authority imposed from outside, Torah will be internalized and written upon the heart. Vs. 33. This covenant is consistent with God’s merciful intent for Israel expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It will be “new” in the sense that Israel will have another wonderful experience of that merciful intent renewing her ancient faith and enriching her narrative.

A new covenant was sorely needed. The promised land, the temple, the line of David and many other hallmarks of the prior covenants would soon be lost with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent exile. What would it mean to be Israel without all of these things? Was such an existence even possible? Jeremiah’s answer is a resounding “yes.” God is far from finished with Israel. The exile, to be sure, was God’s just punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness. But it is not only that. God is laying the groundwork for a new salvific act through which God’s faithfulness will be manifested and Israel’s faith restored. This is a good word for individual believers and churches experiencing loss and facing an uncertain future. God never makes an end of things except to make a new beginning.

Psalm 119:9-16

For my general observations on the form and content of Psalm 119, see my Post for September 7, 2014.  This psalm is the longest of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 25Psalm 34Psalm 37Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the second section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Bath.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would have evaluated what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.

Our section of the psalm begins with a question: “How can a young person keep his/her way pure?” The answer comes in the very next sentence: “by guarding it according to thy word.” Vs. 9. This is precisely what the prophet Jeremiah told us must happen and it is significant that this psalm was composed long after the prophet’s time. We might see this psalm as something of a fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. “I have laid up thy word in my heart,” says the psalmist. Vs. 11. The people of Judah not only survived the Babylonian conquest and exile, but learned through that and subsequent experience to internalize Torah.

The psalmist understands, as did Jeremiah, that Torah cannot be learned. It must be taught and taught chiefly by the God who gives it. Thus, s/he prays, “teach me thy statutes!” vs. 12. Because the psalmist trusts God to teach, s/he is diligent in “declaring,” “meditating” and “fixing [his/her] eyes” on Torah. This is no burdensome and onerous task. To the contrary, the psalmist “delights” in Torah and vows not to “forget thy word.” Vss. 13-16. The psalm is a testimony both to the transformative power of Torah and the blessedness of the life by which it is shaped.

In order to make sense out of this psalm (the entire Bible for that matter), we need to see the covenant community that formed the prayer and which, in turn, is formed by it. The statutes about which the psalmist sings are those given by the God who promises an aged, barren, childless nomadic couple a land, a people and a blessing. They are given to slaves, a people that was no people, but who have now been liberated and called to freedom. They are laws given by the God who sets rulers over his people, not to reign as gods, but to be God’s representatives of justice for the widow and the orphan. Psalm 119 is the payer of individuals, families and communities struggling to live as the people of this marvelous God. Seen in that light, the study of Torah is an invitation to enter into the marvelous narrative of Israel’s history with her God, not the dry and onerous study of mind numbing rules we might otherwise imagine it to be.

Hebrews 5:5-10

To recap what I have written before, I do not view the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews as an assertion of Christianity’s superiority over Judaism as some commentators do. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the consummation of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to both Jews and Jewish disciples of Jesus who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For disciples of Jesus it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews, both those who accepted Jesus as messiah and those who did not. For the most part, the Jews dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah and the synagogue as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands” (John 2:19-22) and in the community of faith called church Christ’s bodily presence. I Corinthians 12:27. So the writer’s objective is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the mission of Jesus and his continuing presence with the church fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.

Our lesson for Sunday speaks of Jesus as the new “High Priest.” Vs. 5. “The essential concept underlying priesthood in the ancient world, among both Jews and Gentiles, was that of mediatorship between the divine and human, by virtue of the priest’s superior knowledge of, or power of communication with, the supernatural.” Shepherd, M.H., Jr., “Priests in the New Testament,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 889. Though likely in existence in some form from ancient times, the office of high priest came into prominence following the return from exile in Babylon and the reconstruction of the second temple around 520 B.C.E. In the writings of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the high priest, Joshua, appears to hold power comparable to Zerubbabel the Persian appointed Jewish governor of Judah. Haggai 1:1Haggai 1:12-14Haggai 2:2Zechariah 6:9-13Zechariah 3-4. “With the disappearance of the Davidic line, it was inevitable that the postexilic high priest should acquire much of the power and prestige which formerly belonged to the king.” Abba, R., “Priests and Levites,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 887. The priesthood was hereditary, being tied exclusively to the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. As the writer of Hebrews points out, “one does not take the honor [of priesthood] upon himself, but he is called by God just as Aaron was.” Hebrews 5:4. With the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the decimation of the priesthood and the termination of sacrificial worship, the question becomes: How does one properly worship the God of Israel?

As noted previously, the answer lay in Torah and the synagogue for most Jews. The Pharisaic tradition, which had championed this perspective all along, became the definitive shape of Judaism going forward. The priesthood had no further relevance. For disciples of Jesus, the priesthood was understood to have been assumed by Jesus whose offering of his life atoned for sin and created a new and better avenue of approach to God. Jesus was understood among his disciples as God’s true high priest from an entirely different lineage than that of Aaron, namely, the line of Melchizedek.  Melchizedek is an obscure figure who makes only a fleeting appearance in the scriptures. Genesis 14 tells the story of how a confederation of kingdoms defeated the infamous city states of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram’s (later Abraham) cousin Lot and his family got caught in the cross-fire and were kidnapped and enslaved by the victorious confederation. Abram formed his servants into an army and pursued the confederation forces, ambushed them during the night, scattered their troops and rescued Lot. The king of Sodom was naturally grateful to Abram as this victory benefited his kingdom. He came out to greet Abram and with him was Melchizedek, king of Salem (another name for Jerusalem). Melchizedek, identified as “priest of God Most High,” brought with him bread and wine. He also blessed Abram with the words:

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave [Melchizedek] one-tenth of all the spoils of his victory.” Genesis 14:19-20. The only other mention of Melchizedek is in Psalm 110, a coronation hymn, in which the newly crowned king of Judah is named “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4. It is this very mysteriousness of Melchizedek and his lack of genealogy or history that makes his priestly office such an appealing analogy to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ priestly authority is not grounded in the corrupt lineage of the Jerusalem establishment of his time, nor is it even rooted in any human genealogy. Jesus’ appointment and priestly office are grounded in God’s sovereign choice.

In my former life as an attorney, I knew a judge who, when confronted with a trial adjournment request for a case that had already been sitting on the docket for years would blurt out, “and when did the accident take place? Back when Christ was a corporal in the Marine Corps?” What interests me about this profane remark is its rather poor theology. It implies that Jesus started out at the lower echelons of human existence and worked his way up through the ranks to become God’s Son-a sort of spiritual Horatio Alger myth. Actually, one could get that impression from an over hasty reading of verses 7-10 in our lesson. It is important to note, however, that Jesus was at all times God’s Son. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Vs. 8. What he “became” was not God’s Son (which he already was) but “the source of eternal salvation.” Vs. 9. His “perfection” was the life he lived in the “flesh,” the only life that ever was genuinely human. And being human in the way God desires and in the way that God is human when God is incarnated in human flesh entails an obedience which, in a sinful world, leads inevitably to suffering.

The other psalm citation by the writer of Hebrews is found in Psalm 2. Like Psalm 110, this is also a coronation hymn likely used for the crowning of a Judean king in the Davidic line. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. Like the priesthood, so also the royal line of Judah came through God’s anointing. In the case of the psalm, the term “begotten” is clearly figurative. For the New Testament writers, the term took on a more profound meaning in the description of Jesus’ person and ministry. One might wonder why the writer chose a coronation hymn like this when his/her focus was clearly on Jesus’ priestly function. As Psalm 110:4 and the duel offices of Melchizedek illustrate, however, the royal and priestly functions were blurred from ancient times. The objective is to show that the priestly functions of the temple ministry and priesthood have passed to Jesus and his active presence in the life of the church. Like the lesson from Jeremiah dealing with the destruction of the first temple, so this reading from Hebrews helping disciples of Jesus to come to terms with the destruction of the second temple speaks words of comfort and hope to a church that has come to believe its best days are behind it.

John 12:20-33

Sunday’s lesson is taken from the closing chapter of Jesus’ ministry in John’s gospel. We are in the midst of John’s Palm Sunday narrative. Philip, whose name is Greek and who came from a predominantly Greek speaking region is approached by “Greeks” who wish to see Jesus. Scholars wishing to delve into the so called historical basis for this encounter suggest that these Greeks were actually Greek speaking Jews from the diaspora coming to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. However that might be, John wishes to emphasize their “Greekness” and identify them with gentiles. These are “the other sheep that are not of this fold” who must be brought in so as to heed Jesus’ voice. John 10:16.

This episode marks a significant turning point. Jesus has said repeatedly throughout the prior chapters that his “hour had not yet come.” John 2:4John 7:30John 8:20. But the coming of the Greeks signals that now “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Vs. 23. How is the glorification of the Son of Man to take place? Jesus leaves little doubt: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Vs. 24. Jesus’ death will be his glorification. We must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus’ death glorifies Jesus precisely because it is the natural, legally anticipated consequence of his life of perfect obedience to the Father. Jesus is what genuine humanity looks like. He is also what the heart of the Father looks like. For this incarnate life there can be only one end in a world that shuns the light and chooses darkness.

“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Vs. 25. These are difficult words for a culture that values enjoyment of life, that believes the pursuit of happiness to be a fundamental human right and that strives for comfort above all. But the truth from which we hide is that our comfort in this society comes at a terrible cost to the rest of humanity, to the earth’s biosphere and to our capacity for empathy and compassion. It seems to me that there is much to hate about the way we live. As noted last week, the term “eternal life” as used by John refers not chiefly to life’s duration but to its orientation. Life that is lived in relationship to Jesus is shaped by the love binding the Trinity as illustrated in Jesus’ prayer at John 17. Such love is directed toward the world to which the Son was sent to give life. John 3:16. We are compelled to ask how much of our living is “eternal,” that is, grounded in the love of the Father for the Son, love of God for the world and love for one another. If we cannot take a look at our lives in the light of truth and hate what we see, how can we ever arrive at life that is eternal? “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also.” Vs. 26. These words should dispel once and for all the notion that “Jesus bore the cross so that we would not have to.” In reality, bearing the cross is a privilege. It is our opportunity to escape from a selfish, consumer driven and destructive existence that we should have learned by now to hate. It is sheer grace for those who have eyes to see it.

John’s gospel does not have a Transfiguration story as do Matthew, Mark and Luke. Verses 27-33 serve many of the same literary purposes, however. The voice from heaven both glorifies Jesus and declares that his name will be further glorified. The voice is directed to the disciples and, in John’s gospel, to the Palm Sunday crowd as well. There are echoes also of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane in vs. 27 where Jesus resists the temptation to ask the Father to save him from the hour of suffering. As in the three other gospels, so also in the gospel of John, Jesus is a fully human person no more eager to suffer and die than anyone else.

“Now is the judgment of this world.” Vs. 31. This will in fact be a double judgment. The world will judge Jesus and Jesus’ condemnation and death will be God’s judgment on the world. The cross will bring to full light the world’s hostility toward the Father in all of its ugliness. More importantly, though, it will bring to light the Father’s love for his fallen world. The world will be exposed for what it is and God will be exposed for who God is. In this the “ruler of this world” is cast out. In the cross, the devil had his best shot at rupturing the love that holds the Trinity in unity and the love of the Triune God for creation. He took it and scored a bull’s eye. But the devil’s strongest punch could not take Jesus out. It could not induce Jesus to abandon his mission. It could not induce God to retaliate for the murder of his Son. The love of the Father for the Son remains intact as does the obedience of the Son to the Father. God’s love for the world is still as strong as ever despite the cross. The devil couldn’t crack the Trinity.

 

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