Tbe Fifth Sunday in Lent


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We beseech thee, almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy people…
Hebrews 9:11-15
John 8:46-59a

Imagine that a charismatic figure erupts onto the scene claiming to be the fourth person of the Christian Godhead, preaching that there is no after-life but that the Kingdom is now. We would say such things as: there are only three persons in the Trinity of which Jesus was the only-begotten Son; the sacrifice of Jesus was not only full but final in under-writing our eternal life; and, anyway, a woman could not fulfil this role. That gives us some idea of the magnitude of the claim that Jesus was making. He claimed, in the teeth of a fiercely monotheistic religion to be, using our kind of theological language: the second person of the Godhead; co-eternal with the Father; and an under-writer of eternal life. As we have already noted (Fourth Sunday in Advent), Judaism had no mechanism for recognising its long-awaited Messiah and there had been a series of obvious fakes (cf Acts 5:36-39) and so the reaction of the Jews is coherent, not scandalous. It was hard to be told that in sticking to their old ways they were “not of God.” Their understandable reaction was to accuse Jesus of the unspeakable offence of being a Samaritan (our word “traitor” is not strong enough) and being possessed by the devil (cf Third Sunday in Lent). Jesus replied that those who believed in him would not die, a preposterous claim to those Jews who did not believe in the after-life; and he then compounded the scandal by claiming to be greater than Abraham, summing up his claim by saying that the Jewish God was his father who honoured him, capping the argument with: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

After that bravura performance which almost led to Jesus’ premature death, Hebrews is somewhat laboured. It takes the theme of the Old and the New Covenant and depicts them in the graphic language of sacrifice: whereas the Jews had sought to cleanse themselves from sin through offering animal sacrifices, Jesus, the great High Priest, had offered himself as the sacrifice to cleanse ours sins. He is not—the metaphor lurches awkwardly—a tabernacle made with hands but made of the Spirit. Viewed on its own this is a radical enough claim but timing is important. Hebrews (in spite of its designation in the King James Bible) was not written by St. Paul but was much later, so the claim by then would not have been so radical, not least because by then the Jewish tradition of animal sacrifice had been discontinued (since 70 AD when the Temple was destroyed). In many ways Hebrews has the feeling of protesting too much.

During the past weeks we have been considering the issue of continuity and change and in the Gospel Jesus puts it at its most acute in claiming both association with the Father and superiority in himself, not just through the Father, over Abraham. Being alive to the radicalism, the impossibility, of these claims, is a fitting preparation for the reception of the Crucifixion and Resurrection which are no less radical and improbable. It is too easy for us to fall into a pious annual cycle without feeling the freshness and scandal of what Jesus said in this Gospel and then suffered. The “Church by Law established” is a difficult place in which to perceive and from which to proclaim this sense of utter newness. When people ask us who we are and why we are, the answers tend to be measured, even cautious, rather than being alive with affirmation; are we not in danger of behaving like Sir Humphrey as God’s civil service?

On one crucial point, it is important at the very least to query the meaning in Hebrews of: “... the blood of Christ,… offered himself without spot… to purge your conscience from dead works”. Taken literally, this makes us into God’s pawns, an understandable but excessive 16th Century Reformation reaction to the supposed emphasis of Aquinas on the efficacy of good works in the salvific process. As the Collect says, it is only by the goodness of God that we will be “preserved evermore” but that is not to say that we will either be preserved after a life of failing to heed our conscience or, much worse, of pretending that we do not have one. Much of this discussion is unnecessarily confrontational and rhetorical: there is no strand of Roman Catholic theology which proclaims human independence of the atonement and no Evangelical strain of theology which proclaims that the way we behave is indifferent. Most of us—not out of a sense of compromise but of necessary mutuality—would now see the importance of both.

This Sunday, observed in some Christian traditions as “Passion Sunday” or the beginning of “Passiontide”, is our last chance to consider these fundamental theological issues before we are swept up into the events that lead to Calvary. It is important that at this point we understand not precisely why Jesus did what he did nor how that affects who we are but that we understand the magnitude of the claim and the promise; if these are not as radical as Jesus says they are then the Crucifixion is preposterously excessive and the Resurrection is incomprehensible. If we do not take the Godhead of Jesus seriously, as the Jews failed to do, then we end up as they did, puzzled, angry and in denial.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. One morning, a young woman elbows the Vicar aside, climbs into the pulpit and proclaims herself to be the Fourth Person of the Godhead…
  2. Why should the Jews have at least taken Jesus’ claims seriously?
  3. Is the language of animal sacrifice useful in understanding salvation?
  4. Imagine a soteriology based entirely on faith or works
  5. Consider the many aspects of Abraham brought out in the Lenten Readings.

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