There is no new life without death

  • March 13, 2012

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B) March 25 (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33)

Human history is the story of broken promises. People break promises to one another; nations break covenants and treaties; and people let God down in very big ways. The result is shattered relationships and societies, and the most devastating of all, a sense of alienation and separation from God.

As Paul insisted in the letter to the Romans, all are guilty and all have fallen short of the glory of God. God is patient and forgiving, for humanity has been given countless chances to start over and get things right — but it doesn’t seem to happen. The scary, violent and unjust world that we now inhabit is what we have created. We have been taught to care for one another, to share and to love justice. There are many who do just that, and most people at least try, but there never seems to be enough effort and commitment to reach the critical mass necessary to transform and heal our world. In the prophecy from Jeremiah, God is promising a fresh start with a new twist. God is going to make it easier to be faithful and obedient and more difficult to plead ignorance or weakness. Simply put, God is going to come to us and take up residence in our hearts and souls. In its original historical context, the promise was made to Israel, but now it has been expanded to include all of humanity. Rather than knowing about God, people are offered the opportunity to know God personally.

The illusion that we know all about God is at the root of so much religious intolerance and violence. A deep personal encounter with God precludes any of these things. In fact, true knowledge of God is transformative. We can test the authenticity of religious claims by the presence or absence of compassion, justice, tolerance and inclusivity.

So why doesn’t it happen more often? As long as our religious faith is something outside of ourselves — a set of ideas or doctrines that we are attached to — then this transformed state will elude us. If we do not find God deep within ourselves we will never really find God anywhere else.

Even Jesus had to struggle with His commitment to do the will of the Father. The Letter to the Hebrews is quite insistent — Jesus did not want to die. Jesus was human as well as divine, and human beings cherish life. There was so much that He still wanted to do — His ministry had barely gotten started — and it was about to come to a violent and painful end.

Jesus faced down the fear and aversion to suffering and death and submitted to the will of the Father. To back out at that point would have been to discredit everything that He had taught and accomplished. It was this trust and obedience that was the sign of perfection, and it was because of this that He was empowered to become a source of saving grace for us.

The Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin portrayed a living and evolving universe. Whatever remains static withers and dies — death is necessary for new life. Jesus views death in much the same way: without death there can be no new life, no future. The grain of wheat that dies and falls to the ground is not gone or wasted but brings forth much fruit. In John, Jesus seems to shrug off His impending death — the tears and anguish present in the other Gospels is notably absent.

He seems to embrace the cross and it is even referred to as His exaltation or glorification. He gives us a sobering reminder that if we cling fearfully to our life above all else — in other words, always play it safe — in the end we will lose it anyway.

If we trust God enough to enter willingly and lovingly into the flowing river of the evolving universe and to accept the impermanence of life we will receive another form of life — one that is eternal. For John’s Jesus, His death has an ultimate meaning for His “lifting up” or exaltation will enable Him to draw all people to Himself. When we follow in Jesus’ footsteps as He invites us to do we will be part of the process of drawing all creation to God.