Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding Sermon, March 22, 2015
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
Today’s readings point our attention to the New Covenant with God. In today’s readings, we are called to think about the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
The Cathechism teaches us that the Old Covenant is most clearly stated in the 10 commandments. From the 10 commandments we learn about our duty to God and our duty to our neighbors. The Covenant is a statement of laws that we must follow. God has given us these laws—rules that govern our behavior. The rules come from God, and they are delivered to us by Moses—a human being. It’s up to us to live according to these laws. These laws are outside of us, and we have the choice about whether to follow or reject them. Sometimes we will fail to follow the laws, because we are human.
I can think of lots of laws that we observe absolutely, and then some that we observe a little less rigorously. How about speed limits? How about being on time for work? How about bedtimes? Thinking specifically about God’s Commandments—how about setting aside time for worship and prayer? How about rejoicing in other people’s gifts? How about not misleading others by our silence?
What is it that motivates us to obey laws that are outside of us? Sometimes, I think we are motivated by a fear of the consequences. If I don’t follow the rules, then something bad will happen to me. I might be punished. Even for God’s laws, I might follow them because I’m afraid of not being a good person in the eyes of God.
We hear in the book of Jeremiah that there will be a new covenant, instead of having laws that are outside of us, governing our behavior, the new covenant will be the law within them, “and I will write it on their hearts.” This passage points us to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.
Our cathechism explains that the New Covenant is the new relationship God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and through them, to all who believe in him. The key difference is that the Old Covenant was a set of laws given to God’s people, the New Covenant is a relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Q: What difference does this make? What does it mean for us that we are not bound to God by law, but are instead bound to God because of our relationship with God, Jesus Christ?
I’m going to dig into the readings to try and get to the answer.
We don’t know who wrote this treatise called Hebrews. Scholars believe that it was written around the time of Paul and likely by someone in the Pauline community. There are a couple of important themes in this treatise—one of them is the metaphor of the Priesthood of Melchizedek as a model for Jesus’s relationship with us.
The Priesthood of Melchizedek is explained in Hebrews Chapter 7, a passage we didn’t read today. But the Priesthood of Melchizedek is explained—he meets Abraham returning from defeating kings and blesses him. Abraham gives him a tithe, even though he is not a descendent from the right lineage. The Priesthood of Melchizedek points to a blessing that comes from God (not from ancestry) and a commitment to pay what is due because of that relationship, not because of the rules of succession. We can see that there is both obedience and a gift in the relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek. And it is obedience not dictated by ancestral rights—laws determined by lineage, but rather obedience that is a response to the blessing that Melchizedek gives.
So when the author of Hebrews points to that relationship, he’s talking about Jesus’ Priesthood with us—Christ brings us God’s blessings and we, in return offer our obedience to God in our relationship with Jesus.
The metaphor of the Priesthood of Melchizedek is also about Jesus’ relationship with God the Father. The passage tells us that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus assumes priesthood like Melchizedek did, not because he gets power from his human lineage (his human parents, Joseph and Mary), but rather because he’s is begotten as a priest by God. He is blessed by God the father, and he owes God the father his obedience.
And here, at this point in our Lenten journey, we are deep in the experience of Jesus’ obedience to God. We hear both in Hebrews and in the Gospel of John about Jesus’ crying out as he moves towards his death. When he was alive on earth, he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” And he died in obedience to God’s will.
In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus say, "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-- `Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Jesus is having an internal dialogue or a dialogue with the apostles—“I could call out and ask that I be saved from death, but I know that I must die for God’s name to be glorified.” When the voice, like thunder, comes down from heaven, Jesus points out that this voice is for God’s people—it’s important for God’s people to recognize that Jesus’ obedience, Jesus’ willingness to die is not for the sake of Jesus, it’s for our sake.
So we can see that there are these two elements—blessing from God, the promises of new and eternal life and obedience. What strikes me about this relationship between Jesus and God is that it is a relationship that overcomes fear. Instead of doing what is right because he’s afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t, instead, he is following God because he is chosen as God’s Son.
Jesus makes this huge leap and overcomes the fear of death—he submits to death so that he may be raised up with God into divine and everlasting life. And the New Covenant is this promise from Jesus, just as he is risen up, so we will be given eternal life.
“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself."
We can see in this set of readings that the New Covenant is different than the old in both the nature of the promise and in the way that it works in us. In the Old Covenant, God promises us salvation and gives us the law, the commandments, which we are to follow. Our obedience to those laws is about our response to God’s promises to us.
In the New Covenant, God promises us salvation, everlasting life, but instead of giving us laws, gives us Jesus Christ as our one mediator, our one priest according to the Order of Melchizedek. Jesus shows us what it is to overcome fear, even the fear of the death. Jesus shows us what it is to live in obedience to God. And he does this for us, out of love for us.
So in this relationship with Jesus Christ, we are given God’s gift of eternal life, and we respond out of love.
I think about the differences between things that we do because of a relationship and things that we do because of laws. I think about the difference between things that we do because they are our jobs, and things we do because we care for one another. Who hasn’t had the experience of working overtime at a job. Sometimes you feel like you’ve been taken advantage of, or not paid enough for all the hours you put in, or the extra work that you did. But if you are doing something for your family, or for a friend—you work many, many hours and feel at the end of the day that it was a day well spent, you aren’t feeling like you were taken advantage of.
What about things that we pay money for—sometimes there are things that we try and bargain about, can I pay less if I go to a different store, could I get more for my money if I do this or that. But then when it comes to giving a gift to your grandchild, or making a special dinner for someone you love, you splurge, you spend too much—the calculation is not about are you getting “good value”, but it is instead about about the gift and the feeling of pleasure that you get by giving the perfect thing to that person.
This shift is about overcoming fear. The external law suggests a fear about what might happen if we don’t do the right things, but it also suggests a fear about us not having enough for ourselves. The law written on our hearts, the relationship that we have is about living in the realm of plenty and generosity.
Our collect this morning reminds us, that in the New Covenant of life in Jesus Christ, “our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” There is in this relationship, obedience that is not imposed over us, but rather obedience that comes from within us, a grace bestowed upon us. A grace that overcomes all fears, and gives us blessings.