Passion Sunday, Fifth Sunday in Lent 2018

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A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018
The Epistle, Hebrews 9:11-15The Gospel, St. John 8:46-59
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett

A. Intro to Passiontide
We call the final two weeks of Lent “Passiontide.” We focus on the Passion or suffering of Jesus. We veil the statues and pictures in the church. As Jesus hid himself from his adversaries in the gospel, so the image of the life-giving crucifix is hidden from us until Good Friday. The holiness of the saints, which results from the Passion, is, likewise, taken from view. We do not say Gloria Patri after the Psalms and canticles during Passiontide. This makes our meditation on the Passion more austere and solemn.

The gospel tells us who Jesus is: “Before Abraham was, I am.” The epistle tells us what he came to do: “By his own blood he entered in once into the Holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” Together, they express the essence of Passiontide. It is an encounter with Jesus the Son of God that reveals our sins and leads us to repentance, forgiveness and new life through the cross.

B. The tension between grace and authority
The lesson highlights the tension between the attraction we feel to God’s grace and the contrary reticence and fear we feel about the authority of Jesus as God. We are drawn to the promise of mercy and forgiveness. But we are made uneasy by the truth that confession is required. “I am” is not a consumer choice.

Martin Thornton describes this as the tension between succor and demand. Succor: “Come to me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you” (Mt. 11:28). Demand: “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:33).

People avoid the demand by attacking the identity of Jesus. Some try to prove that Jesus isn’t who the Bible says he is. The twentieth century saw “the search for the historical Jesus,” who always turned out not to be the biblical one. Some people try to explain that Jesus didn’t really say or mean all the difficult things recorded in the Bible. It is revealing that people always try to explain away the challenging statements of Jesus. No one ever doubts that Jesus said all the things that make us feel good.

 

Some people object, “How can Jesus be Lord when there is so much suffering in the world?” This is overplayed. After all, the Bible portrays God’s people as a suffering community, gives us Job and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, among other things, and comes to fruition with the Passion of God’s Son. The doctrine of the Fall of Man remains the most plausible explanation of human suffering, and the cross remains the most plausible answer.

C. The reasons people deny Jesus is God
We attack the claim that “before Abraham was, I am” because it threatens our autonomy. If he is truly the Son of God, then we must do what he says to do. It is easier to deny his identity and authority than it is to repent. Most of our intellectual doubts are moral doubts in disguise. We are comfortable with our unfaithful patterns of living and we don’t want to change. So, we offer intellectual objections to avoid the challenge presented by the authority of the Son of God.

A promiscuous culture is threatened by Jesus’ call to sexual purity. It is easier to claim that Jesus is just one great religious voice among many than it is to repent and glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). A wealthy culture is threatened by the claim that Jesus is owner of everything. It is easier to complain about suffering and injustice in the world that it is to repent of our service to mammon and make sure what we do and make glorifies God and is good, and then give to help those in need.

D. The authentic struggle of the life of faith
If we are honest we will admit that we are in the process of becoming obedient to Son of God and his commandments. We have made progress is some areas and are not quite there yet in others. This is the reason we practice spiritual disciplines and observe Lent. We are growing into the people God made us to be in baptism. We “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” when that process will be completed.

However, if we are honest, we will admit that the issue is our weakness and not any ambiguity about who Jesus is and what he requires of us. It is honest when we confess our struggles and pray for God’s grace to help us change and grow. However, it is quite another thing when we try to justify our disobedience by claiming there is some lack of clarity about who Jesus is or what he wants us to do.

E. A good confession
We will only desire God will when we believe it is best for us. We are, generally, most discontented in the very areas of life where have we resisted God’s will the most. We know by experience that our own way isn’t working, but we are determined to stay our course of rebellion nonetheless. God lets us have what we want until we are ready to let him change us.

The central issue is trust. Do we really trust Jesus? Do we really believe that God is good and that what he commands us to do is for our good? Disobedience is distrust. Distrust takes us back to the old conversation in the garden with the serpent (Gen. 3). Did God really say not to do that? He only keeps that from you because he doesn’t want you to have some good thing. It was and is a lie. We will remain captive to our disordered patterns of behavior, and to our fallen state of guilt, shame, fear, and hiding from God, as long we continue to believe it.

We complete our Lenten disciplines by making a good confession. A good confession acknowledges the areas of life where we do not yet say with full conviction, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” In Lent, we ask Jesus to reveal to us what is really going on in our hearts and listen for the answer. In Passiontide, we turn what we have heard into a narrative of confession. The point of confession is not the confession per se. The point is that honesty about ourselves combined with a renewed trust in Jesus opens the door for us to experience the power of his resurrection in new ways.

The good news is that the whole purpose of the authority and sacrifice of Jesus is to lead us through the cross to Easter. As the epistle says, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your consciences from dead works to serve the living God?”