A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6, 2014
The Epistle, Hebrews 9:11-15 – The Gospel, St. John 8:46-59
The Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The Epistle: Jesus is God.
1. I remember when I first began read the Bible in a serious way. I was drawn to Jesus and his teaching. But I also felt threatened. Jesus never said or did anything in a manner that suggested my opinion about it mattered. He wasn’t calling for a vote. He was making a claim and demanding a response—from me.
2. This stands in contrast with every other person I’d ever read about. When I read biographies of famous people, I’m often impressed by their accomplishments, wisdom or courage. But I always ended up thinking, “I don’t really agree with what he did there.” Or, “I don’t agree with her opinion on that.” Somehow the life and teaching of Jesus don’t provide this same wiggle room. Somehow, when Jesus acts and speaks, the question is not, “What do I think?” Somehow, the question is, “Will I be a follower or a rebel?”
3. This is the issue in today’s gospel. Certain people felt threatened by the teaching of Jesus. Because they were not willing to submit to him, they resorted to a personal attack—essentially calling him a demon possessed bastard. Jesus responded by making an even greater claim. “If anyone listens to what I say and does it, he will never die.” This highlights the distinction between Jesus and everyone else. We’ve all said something like, “If you do what I say things will go better for you.” But no one other than Jesus can say, “If you do what I say you will live forever.”
4. The climax of the argument is when Jesus identified himself with the name of God. “Before Abraham was, I am.” In other words, I am the God who called Abraham out of ancient Babylon. I am the God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai. I am the Torah in human form. This claim must be met with repentance, faith and full submission. Or else it must be strongly rejected. This is why the enemies of Jesus picked up stones to throw at him.
5. We accept this claim every week in the Creed. We say we believe that Jesus is “the only begotten Son of God; begotten of his Father before all worlds. God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” The danger of the Creed is this; it can lead us to think that faith is merely assent to a theological statement rather than a challenge to our whole way of life.
B. The Epistle: Jesus fulfills the Old Covenant
1. Where the gospel proclaims who Jesus is, the epistle summarizes what he did. “By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” The Old Covenant God made with Israel provided temporary sacrifices and a temporary, external covering for sin. Jesus fulfilled all the stipulations of that Covenant. His death is the eternal sacrifice for sin; and it makes us inwardly clean from all sin.
This is related to who Jesus is. If Jesus is not God then his death cannot have this cosmic and eternal impact on death. When a good teacher or heroic individual dies, we might say that the “spirit” of his life and work endure. But their teaching of accomplishments won’t allow us to escape death. A merely human death cannot abolish death forever.
2. This is why we look at the death of Jesus differently. Our mourning on Good Friday is not so much sadness over the death of Jesus. Our mourning is for our own sin that makes his death necessary. He will die for us and for our sins. He can only do this because he is the Son of God who became man for us and for our salvation. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves; all we can do is mourn our sins, repent and receive the gift he came to give us. But we must do that, or else we will remain stuck in the cycle of sin and death.
3. This is why Jesus is threatening. The life and teaching of the Son of God highlight the truth that we have rebelled against God. He reminds us that we are sinners; that the way we are living is not okay; that apart from him we do not have eternal life; and that he represents the only answer for our sin. We must put our faith and trust in him; we must do what he says, or else we will confirm our separation from God.
4. We now begin what we call Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent. The penitential tone of the season is intensified. Our lessons today set the table for what will begin to happen next Sunday when Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time. They tell us that Jesus is the Son of God whose death is the answer for our sin.
5. Like all of Lent, Passiontide is an opportunity to respond to Jesus with repentance and faith and experience grace in new ways. It is time to begin to bring our Lenten disciplines to fruition with a good confession. In what area of life are you still among the stone throwers rather than the disciples? Passiontide is opportunity to let the blood of Christ, “purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”