March 18, 2018 – 5th Sunday of Lent
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Today is the last Sunday in Lent. The church calendar provides us with this season so that we might prepare for Holy Week. Next week, on Palm Sunday, we will remember Jesus’ last days, in prayer and scripture and hymns. Our church tradition honors the importance of recalling these events, taking them to heart, so that our understanding and love of Jesus might grow. We don’t “skip” from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to Easter morning. We are called to walk with Jesus, to stay with Jesus, as he endures those “in-between” days. We do this for love, just as we stay with the people here now whom we love when they are suffering. And from walking with Jesus as he suffered, we gain the immeasurable consolation of knowing that he knows our pain and the pain of our loved ones, that he is with suffering people, that he understands, and that we can call on him for help.
During Lent we have considered some of the ways that human beings stray from God’s ways. We have taken seriously the call to self-examination and repentance. We have acknowledged the fact that we all fall short of loving God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our strength. And we have also failed to love our neighbors and to love ourselves. When I spoke on Ash Wednesday, I quoted Psalm 32, verses 9 and 10. The Lord says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with my eye. Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.” The collect that we prayed at the beginning of our service acknowledges our need for God’s help: “Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command.” We need God’s grace to stop struggling against God. We need God’s help to stay near to God.
When Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, God established a covenant or treaty with the people, and the terms of the covenant were expressed in the Ten Commandments. The people were meant to live in accord with these commandments, but they failed. God, however, did not give up. More than six hundred years later, through the prophet Jeremiah God offered a vision of hope, the promise of a new covenant between God and human beings. The Lord said, “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel …: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Jeremiah offers a vision of a relationship with God in which God’s teaching is not outside of us, but within our hearts. This new covenant offers us the opportunity for deep union with God, “from the heart.”
Christians believe that this new covenant with God has been offered to us through Jesus. We believe that God became incarnate in Jesus, and that when we listen to Jesus’ teaching and see what Jesus did in his ministry, we see God’s way in word and deed. Next Sunday as we hear the events leading up to the crucifixion, we will see, in no uncertain terms, how some of Jesus’ contemporaries responded to him. Through Jesus a new covenant with God was offered to human beings. Some of his contemporaries accepted the offer and some rejected it. All through history and now, some accept the offer of covenant with God and some reject the offer.
The offer of covenant with God is open to us. Jesus calls us to love him and to follow him. The greater our love, the closer we will follow. The closer we follow, the greater will we love. The events of Holy Week teach us that to follow Jesus, to stay with Jesus, is costly.
In 1937 the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a book called “The Cost of Discipleship.” Its original German title meant “following,” or “the act of following.” It centers on the teaching of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount. Against the background of the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany, Bonhoeffer wrote about what he believed it meant to follow Christ. He would be imprisoned in a concentration camp and killed by the Nazis in 1945.
Bonhoeffer wrote about grace, and he contrasted what he called “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He wrote that “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” In contrast to cheap grace, “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a [person] to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”
The life of following Jesus is both straightforward and mysterious. Jesus invites us to love as he loved, with self-giving love. On the night before he died, Jesus gave his disciples this commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you. By this shall the world know that you are my disciples: That you have love for one another.” We often understand what loving others requires of us; the path is not always easy, but the way is clear. Do what you need to do to promote the well-being of others, to build them up in love. We do this at home, at work, among our friends, at church, in the community near and far. We understand what it means to follow this commandment of Jesus.
The life of following Jesus is also mysterious. He confronts us with teachings that are difficult. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). What kind of sense does this make? How does taking up a cross lead to life? As St. Paul wrote, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).
The drama of Holy Week and Easter points to this very mystery. A mystery too great for us to understand with our minds. A mystery that only makes sense when we give our hearts to God and follow our Lord to the cross. A mystery whose solution is revealed in an empty tomb and a risen Lord.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.