Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; John 12:20-33 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)
“I have flunked Lent. I flunk it every year.”
Fleming Rutledge writes these words in one of her many fine Holy Week sermons. But they’re my words, too, this week, and perhaps yours also. We’ve flunked Lent. We always do.
But this is not the bad news it may at first appear to be.
When we set out on Ash Wednesday every year to observe a holy Lent, we pray Psalm 51 together, asking for mercy and cleansing, for wisdom, for an erasing of the record that stands against us—a blotting out of our iniquities. We pray that God will “create in us a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within us.”
And then we often act as if we must accomplish these things ourselves. We embrace Lenten disciplines—a good thing—but we easily mistake them for what they are not: self-improvement programs meant to make us better (thinner, smarter, nicer) people. We come dangerously close to narcissism, shifting our gaze from Christ and our neighbor in need to ourselves and our trivial preoccupations.
And so this week, as Lent is rounding the homestretch, we return to Psalm 51—back to where we began. We re-assume the posture of the penitent one who knows she cannot do the work of transformation by her own power, who can only cry out from the depths: “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.”
In their own way, each of the appointed texts for the fifth Sunday in Lent reminds us that the work of transformation is God’s and not ours. In Jeremiah, Yahweh dreams of a time when the people of Israel will live by the law of love he inscribes on their hearts—when they will live and love intuitively, without striving, with effortless joy, deep in the heart of God.
In the gospel lesson, after Jesus struggles momentarily with his destiny (this is John’s gospel, after all; no prolonged agony here), he declares firmly that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself. God, in and through the cross and resurrection, will do the saving. Our task, to borrow a line from Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel, Gilead, is to “put ourselves in the way of the gift”—to be still long enough, to pay attention carefully enough so as to avail ourselves of the Spirit’s power to reform, conform, transform.
In another of her Holy Week sermons Rutledge relates this story:
“During the Persian Gulf War, one of the New Yorker writers was reminded of an incident described by George Orwell during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell wrote from the front lines that he saw a man from the opposing, Fascist forces jump out of the trench and run along the parapet in full view, presumably carrying a message to an officer. He had nothing on but a pair of ill-fitting trousers, which he held up with one hand as he ran. Orwell wrote, ‘I refrained from shooting him . . . I had come here to shoot at “fascists,” but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a “fascist,” he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself and you don’t feel like shooting him.'”
“When God looks at us,” Rutledge goes on to say, “he does not see titles, bank accounts, club memberships, vacation homes, net worth. He sees frail, vulnerable creatures trying to cover up our spiritual nakedness. When Jesus came down from heaven to live among us, he lived among us at that level. The Son of God gave up all his divine prerogatives and came into the world to be a fellow-creature with us in our deepest need. We were God’s enemies, deserving of death; but he looked on us trying to hold up our trousers with one hand and declared that we were not enemies but friends.”
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Leave it to John’s gospel to interpret Jesus’ death liturgically, sacramentally—to see that the gift of Christ’s body on the cross and the gift of Christ’s body in the Eucharist are the same gratuitous, divine self-giving that makes friendship with God possible. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). When the gift of bread, made from the wheat that falls to the earth, is lifted up at the Lord’s Table, it draws us together in friendship and love, in unity and hope. This is not our doing. We don’t make Eucharist—Eucharist makes us.
We’ve flunked Lent. But it turns out that in not making the grade, we are now free to see our failure for what it is: the freedom to give up the illusion that we are in control; to make visible our vulnerability as pilgrims on the Lenten journey toward friendship with God; and to learn what it means to live and love intuitively, without striving, with effortless joy, deep in the heart of God.