A. Intro to Passiontide
1. We call the final two weeks of Lent “Passiontide” because 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 hid from us until Good Friday. The holiness of the saints, which results from the passion is, likewise, taken from view. This makes our meditation on the Passion more austere and solemn. We also do not say Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father…) after the Psalms and canticles during Passiontide (I must confess that this is a hard habit to break in the daily offices; by the time I get acclimated to it, Easter is here and Gloria Patri returns!)
2. 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 Gospel and the rejection of Jesus as God.
1. Jesus begins our gospel by asking his enemies to state the grounds for their opposition. “If I’ve sinned, tell me what I’ve done, but if I speak the truth, why won’t you believe me?” Having no substantial response they resort to insults, calling Jesus, essentially, a demon-possessed bastard.
2. The questions Jesus poses are timeless. What sin do we accuse him of committing? And, if what he says is true, why won’t we believe him? Our modern rejections of Jesus are usually more subtle. Doubters have searched for the “historical Jesus,” which generally turns out not to be the biblical one. Some “scholars” try to explain that Jesus didn’t really say all the difficult things recorded in the Bible. It is revealing that people always try to explain away the challenging statements of Jesus, those that confront our unfaithful behavior and call us to repent and change. No one ever doubts that Jesus said all the things that make us feel good.
3. People point to suffering in the world or the hypocrisy of the church as reasons to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. I have always found it curious that suffering is used as a reason to reject the revelation that portrays God’s people as a suffering community, gives us the Book of Job and comes to fruition in the suffering of the Messiah. The doctrine of the fall of man remains the most plausible explanation of human suffering; and the cross remains the most plausible answer. As for the hypocrisy of God’s people, the very Son of God himself makes it clear that all unfaithfulness on the part of God’s own people will be judged severely in due course (See Matthew 23, Revelation chapters 2 &3).
C. The reasons people reject Jesus as God.
1. There is a constant attack on the claim that “before Abraham was, I am” because it threatens us. If someone appears before us, claims to be the Son of God and calls us to repent, believe in him and change, there are only two options in response. Either we reject the claim by ignoring it or refuting it; or we must repent, believe in him and change. Since human nature does not want to change, most people go for the first option.
2. Most of our intellectual doubts are really moral doubts in disguise. It is not that hard to believe there is a God who sent his Son to reveal his will to the people he created. But we are comfortable with our unfaithful patterns of living and change is hard. So we offer intellectual objections as a way to avoid the challenge presented by the Son of God.
3. For example, 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 acknowledge our error and begin to practice chastity and faithfulness. A wealthy culture is threatened by the claim that Jesus is Lord and owner of everything. It is easier to complain about the hypocrisy of the church or the injustice in the world than it is to repent, tithe, and practice generosity. It is always easier to maintain an intellectual doubt that gives us freedom to love on our own terms than it is to fully surrender to the Son of God.
D. Doubts within the church
1. We just recited the Nicene Creed, in which we affirmed that Jesus is “begotten of the Father before all worlds: God of God; Light of light; very God of very God”—in other words, “Before Abraham was, I am.” This should mean that we willingly submit to his call to glorify God in our bodies; that we willingly acknowledge that all we have belongs to him and live life with an open hand. This should mean that our priorities are, as the prayer book says, “to follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his church and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom” (BCP 291).
2. If we are honest we will say that while we do, in fact, confess that Jesus is the Son of God, we are in the process of becoming obedient to his divine will and commandments in the various areas of our lives. If we are honest, we will acknowledge that there are some areas in which we have made progress and other areas where we are not quite there. This is why we practice spiritual disciplines and observe Lent.
3. However, if we are honest, we must 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 a Christian says, “I want to want the will of God in that area of my life, but I’m not quite there yet.” However, it is quite another thing when Christians justify their disobedience by claiming there is some lack of clarity about who Jesus is or what he wants us to do.
E. The willingness to change
1. What we aim at and pray for is, increasingly, to want what God wants for us. We will only want what God wants for us when we believe that God’s will is best for us. The funny thing is that we are generally most unhappy in the areas of life where we resist God’s will the most. We know by experience that our own way isn’t working, but we seem determined to stay the course nonetheless. God simply waits for us and lets us have what we want until we are ready.
2. The central issue is whether we really trust Jesus and really want to be new people. Believing that God’s will is best for us means trusting God: believing that he is good and that what he commands us to do is for our good. When we resist God’s will, we are saying that we don’t really trust God. We don’t really believe that his will is best for us. We are back to the old conversation in the garden with the serpent. 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.
3. Passiontide is the time to begin to articulate our good Lenten confession. A good confession identifies the areas of our resistance: the areas of life where we do not yet fully will the will of God; the areas where we do not yet fully say, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” This confession is best developed through prayer in the presence of Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus comes to us in the power of his divine majesty and in the humility of his Incarnation. As the Son of God who exists before Abraham, he will not pull any punches in laying bare our sin. However, as the God/man he will die for us so that the sin he uncovers can be forgiven and washed away.
4. “Before Abraham was, I am.” This was and is a threat. But it is also full of hope. For if Jesus has power, as Lord of the universe, to command us, he also has power, as Savior of the world, to forgive us and wash away our sins—if we are willing. Therefore, let us not be afraid of Jesus the Son of God and the things he wants to do in our lives. Let us not avoid the truth or hide from it. Let us, rather, listen with humility and repent with sincerity; let us receive the grace of forgiveness and rise anew in joy with him on Easter. For if the blood of bulls and goats worked for the forgiveness of people in the Old Covenant, “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?”