Friday, March 20, 2015

The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Passion Sunday

Hebrews 9:11-15 * John 8:46-59

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM.”

For once the enemies of our Lord were right about something, frankly, about something that many nominal Christians are wrong about. His enemies understood exactly what he meant by his words, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” And, we call this day Passion Sunday because we see the reason, ultimately, that his enemies wanted him dead, and the reason they were unrelenting in pursuit of his execution. They understood him rightly, and because they reacted in the only logical way they could, they picked up stones in order to kill him.
          In one of his most famous passages in all his works, C.S. Lewis addressed this very thing that today’s Gospel is about, in Mere Christianity:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a good moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." 1

Recall the words from the Gospel two weeks ago: “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” He called his followers to be ready to die rather than to deny him before men.  There was nothing innocuous about the commitment he called for, because that commitment was personal.
          Some men have called people to die for ideas and ideals, causes both good and bad. These causes were always bigger than any individual, whether leaders and thinkers were advocating something harmful, or something truly heroic and principled. But, Jesus called people to die as martyrs out of personal commitment to Him, faithfulness to Him as an individual. He allowed people to worship Him, even Jews who knew that there is only one God, and who were forbidden to worship any other god in the presence, that covers all of heaven and earth, of the One True God. What kind of man would assume the place of God, and use that sacred Name, I AM, as his own? What kind of man would claim the right to such loyalty as leads his followers to persecution and death? What kind of man, if he has any compassion in him, would knowingly demand total commitment, even unto death?
          A word I use sparingly is the word “loyalty.” That is because loyalty is not always virtuous. I remember a young man saying to me, many years ago, that Albert Speer had been loyal to Hitler. He said this in the context of having just heard, in a rather pathetic sermon by somebody, that loyalty is a virtue, and that it always pleases God. So, the young man was praising Speer for his loyalty to something very close to evil incarnate. Loyalty can be pleasing to God, or it can be a sin. Loyalty to Hitler, or to any evil cause, man or movement, is not virtuous, but abominable. That kind of loyalty is the worship of a false god. It is one way, in any age of history, to bear the mark of the Beast, to make a radical decision against Jesus Christ.
          But, Jesus dares to call his followers to complete loyalty to Himself, even to the point of dying rather than to deny Him. What kind of a man is He then? C.S. Lewis was right: He is either God or He is mad or worse. Jesus deserved at that moment to be stoned for blasphemy, unless He truly is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the Word made Flesh. Yes, His enemies understood Him.  He did, in fact, declare Himself equal to God. Either He is the One who gave the Law to Moses, or, by that Law, he must die.
          It would have been bad enough, by their standard, to say only the opening of today’s Gospel. “Which of you convinceth me of sin?” That is, which of you accuses or convicts me of sin? The same chapter begins with the story about the woman taken in adultery, brought to Jesus by enemies who wanted to trap him into either of two snares: denying the commandments in the Torah (though the commandment was to execute both the man and the woman who commit adultery- which presents quite a mystery in that story), or defying the Romans who allowed no one to execute anybody in their empire except through Roman law.  We all remember what Jesus said: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” All of these men, enemies of Jesus, had at least the honesty to drop their stones and leave.  Were they men of greater integrity than Jesus, who now turns around and says, in effect, “I am without sin- who can accuse me of anything?”
          Either He gave the Law to Moses, or He had broken it, and deserved to die. Listen to the writer to the Hebrews in today’s Epistle: “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Jesus, alone out of all mankind, could go to the cross and there make “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” While having his vision on the isle of Patmos, the Apostle John wept because no one in all heaven and earth was worthy to open the book and break its seven seals, that is until the man came forth who was both Lion of the tribe of Judah, and also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, indeed a lion who appeared as a lamb that had been slain. He was worthy, and He alone of all mankind. 
The writer to the Hebrews uses the temple, and its typology regarding the New Covenant that Christ would establish in His own blood, foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. The High Priest once a year, on Yom Kippor, brought the blood of the sin offering into the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled it on the mercy seat. That was the type. The priest who offered any sacrifice had to be a perfect physical specimen of a man, having no deformity or loss of limb or any member. The animal sacrificed for sin had to be a perfect specimen, without even spot or blemish. This is because both the priest and the animal to be offered had to be pictures of Jesus Christ, and their physical perfection had to be a picture of his spiritual perfection as the only human free from all stain of sin.
Our Gospel text is just right for leading us into Passiontide. In declaring His own sinlessness, Christ reveals that every priest and every sacrifice were only types and shadows of the Real priest and sacrifice, Himself, the only man worthy to take the book and open the seals thereof. Declaring His own freedom from sin and death, as contrasted to all the rest of us, sets the stage for the sorrows of the cross that were to follow. “They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him: For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever,” 2 says the Psalmist. Isaiah adds this: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all… he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” 3
Declaring oneself free from sin would be madness and delusion for you and me, but for Jesus it was another step closer to the cross. On that cross he would establish the New Covenant in his blood, the Covenant that alone frees us from sin and death, and that stretched back in time as well to those who before had hoped for the coming of Christ. He bore the sins of all the world, the perfect and sinless Son of God. After the victory of His death and passion, He rose the third day, and appeared to witnesses. He spent forty days with those witnesses before ascending into the presence of God the Father to make intercession for us by means of his own blood, the fulfillment of that image we see in the Biblical Yom Kippor, where the High Priest, alive after making atonement, took the blood of the sacrifice into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the mercy seat- the image of God’s throne.
When Jesus tells us He is without sin, He tells of his love for us; for on the cross he offered that ransom for each of us that no rich man can give for his brother. He said that He is the One, and He dared to declare as His own the Name I AM. So, He reminds us of his love as well, since this declaration also took Him closer to the cross. So, when He calls you to the radical commitment that may even cost you your life, as it does cost Christians in other lands who suffer persecution and martyrdom even to this day, know that he already died for you. Know, as I say often, that when you look up and see Him on the cross, and behold sorrow and love flow mingled down, the shedding of his blood and pouring out of his soul unto death, that you can and must take this love personally. Either reject him completely, if you can, or fall down and worship him as your Lord and your God.

1.                                       1. Page 56
2.                                        2.Psalm 49: 6-8
3.                                         3. from Isaiah 53

1 comment:

Vincent said...

Father Hart how do you suggest a Person becomes born again? Through faith or baptism? Where does regeneration take place?