April 7, 2019/ Lent 5 /Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Isaiah 43:16-21/Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14 /Gospel: John 12:1-8
Living Into Our Future
This semester in confirmation we have been studying the life of Christ. We have been using Franco Zeffirelli’s great film, “Jesus of Nazareth,” as a resource. The gospel stories are brought to life as they are enacted by talented actors. (James Farrentino, Ann Bancroft, Rod Steiger, Laurence Olivier) Recently we watched a segment that focuses on the relationship between Jesus and Peter. Peter is intrigued by the teaching and the miracles of Jesus, but not yet committed to following Jesus. Then Peter is scandalized by the way Jesus reaches out to Matthew, the local tax collector, who is an irredeemable villain in Peter’s eyes. It is inconceivable to Peter that Jesus would want to befriend someone like Matthew.
As they are walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Peter says to his brother Andrew and to James and John: “I’m not like you. I’m not a follower of prophets and priests.” He proceeds to lean up against his fishing boat, which is pulled up on the beach. “I’m a fisherman,” Peter says, “with a family to support. This is my life; my nets, my boat. This is where I belong.” The scene captures a very human reality: the way in which our lives are defined by what we know. Our past experiences mold us and shape our expectations. It becomes difficult for us to imagine a life other than the life we know. Peter is threatened by the thought of changing, reluctant to alter his life and himself from what is known and familiar.
Most of us are like that, as the poet W. M. Auder observed: “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.” Peter is still living out of his past. Yet we know he will soon be living into an unimagined future.
We are inevitably shaped by our past experience. Our notion of reality is framed by our personal history. We define what is possible by what has happened before. And the truth is we need to pay attention to history. Without a past we have no identity. This is why losing your memory is so terribly disorienting. We are the sum of all our experiences. And we are formed not only by our personal experiences, but by our collective history. Tradition serves a valuable purpose in this regard. The church is a community of memory. Together we devote a lot of time and attention to recalling all that God has said and done. The Christian tradition gives our lives context, meaning and values.
And then God goes and says something surprising and unexpected; as in our First Reading; “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” Say what?!? All God’s mighty acts, all God’s blessings are no longer to be recalled? Really? Stop looking back, God says. Stop living out of the past. Why? The Lord says why: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Instead of drawing upon all the accumulated wisdom and insights of the past, God points his people to a new and different future. In this case, he is telling the Israelites who have spent several generations living in exile in Babylon that they are returning home. They have become resigned to their fate, yet God promises something new and unexpected. God is changing the script. Israel’s past and present experience will not determine their future.
This contrasts sharply with the wisdom expressed in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, wisdom formed by deep reflection on long experience: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9. We still tend to think that way; nothing new under the sun. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And so we are faced with a question; a question of vital importance for each of us. Do we define our lives by what we know, by what has been, by our accumulated experiences? Or are we defined by what is yet to come, by God’s promise for the future?
This is a question about the very nature of Christian faith. Is Christianity more about what God has done, or what God will do? Of course it’s not an either/or, it is a both/and. Yet, I believe it matters which way we are leaning. Are our lives defined and guided more by history and tradition, or by hope? Can we see beyond all that has been in our lives to what God promises is still in store for us? Certainly it can be difficult to see beyond what we have known and experienced. After spending 400 years in Egypt, the Hebrews had to think; this is how life is, and this is how it will always be. My parents were slaves. I’m a slave. My children and grandchildren will be slaves. Leaving Egypt for freedom in a new land was unimaginable.
So it was for Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died. Jesus did not arrive in time to save him, so Lazarus was dead and buried in a tomb. End of story. Their brother was gone for good. But then Jesus showed up and did something new, something completely unexpected. In our gospel today, Jesus is having dinner at the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. It’s just a week before the Last Supper. Lazarus is there with them, seated at the table, alive as you and me. Wouldn’t you love to know what was going through his mind?!? He was absolutely living into an unexpected future!
Now honoring our tradition does not mean doing everything the same way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. Our tradition actually teaches us that things as they are are not how they must always be. God is not limited by what has happened before. Faith has repeatedly dared to hope for the unprecedented: for freedom, redemption, salvation, eternal life. To be sure, Christianity is conservative in nature. We conserve the faith and tradition that has been passed down to us. We hold on to what is good and right and true. We preserve the biblical stories full of wisdom and grace. Christians are realistic about human limitations and imperfections. We are well acquainted with sin and grief. We don’t deny the realities of our history.
Yet Christianity is also radical. We believe that our past is not our destiny. We trust in a God who does new and unexpected things. We believe that forgiveness frees us from the weight of our broken past, and the cycle of sin and guilt and regret and despair. Christians dare to be wildly hopeful. We believe Christ has broken not only the grip of sin but also the chilling grip of mortality. We have the hope of eternal life. Our enduring home is with God. You and I are citizens of heaven.
God’s people are not only defined by their history. Psalm 126 speaks of the hope of joyful transformation. “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their heaven.” Likewise, St. Paul puts his focus not on what he has been, but on who he hopes to become: “This one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” That’s living into God’s future.
In this world, we heed the tradition to guide and support us. Yet because we are not of this world, because we are children of God, we have a freedom and a confidence and a peace that the world cannot give us. Our faith offers us more than moral guidelines, more than a commitment to justice and mercy, more than a community of fellow believers. Our faith dares to see beyond this life to a life still to come. In Paul’s words: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Cor. 2:9
Each week in the words of the Creed, we state our faith in what is to come, in God’s capacity to do new and marvelous things. Together we say: Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Imagine that! It seems improbable. It can’t be proved. Nothing in our past experience confirms it. Yet there it is; the words of our tradition point us to a blessed future. We are shaped by our past, but we can live into our promised future. We dare to believe that those who sowed with tears will ultimately reap with songs of joy. We look forward to a harvest of everlasting goodness and justice, peace and joy.
Thanks be to God.