Sunday, March 22, 2015

Covenant and the Cross

In our first reading from Jeremiah, we have the Lord talking about a covenant, about a covenant that he is going to make sometime down the road. He says, "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah." He goes on to say that it's not going to be like the old covenant, which they broke, but in this new covenant everyone is going to know it, understand it, and live by it, because it will be written on their hearts.

Now, there are covenants throughout the Bible, and covenants are crucial for understanding the Scriptures. So what is a covenant? It's different than a contract. A contract is an exchange of goods or services. If I pay you money to perform a service, we have a contract. But a covenant is different. Rather than an exchange of goods or services, a covenant is an exchange of persons. So marriage is a covenant, it's not a contract. The husband says, "I will give myself completely to you," and in exchange the wife says the same thing. A covenant involves people giving themselves to each other in love. So God has established covenants throughout the Old Testament, most notably with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. He gave himself to his people through these men, and in exchange he asked that his people give themselves to him.

But they didn't. Time and time again, the story of the Old Testament is God offering his blessing and us saying no. But God remains patient, so we see him here talking about a new covenant. It will not be like the old covenants, but will involve a more full gift of God than he had yet given. This covenant will involve the forgiveness of sins, which frankly is more than we deserve, and in exchange, our half of the covenant is to give ourselves fully to God, because God is giving himself fully to us in Jesus.

So with this background of covenants and exchange of persons in mind, we can understand deeper Jesus' words today. This reading is from near the end of John's gospel, in fact it comes just after Jesus' Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. So in Jerusalem, tensions are high. The authorities in Jerusalem want to kill him, and yet he has come to Jerusalem for Passover anyway.

So Jesus's words here seems to give us insight into what he is thinking: "I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Jesus admits that he is troubled, and he proposes being saved from this trial as a hypothetical option for how to relieve his troubled heart. But he immediately discounts that option. For him, it was never an option anyway, he simply puts it out there so we know all know it's there, but it will never be chosen. Instead, his true purpose is revealed in the next line: "Father, glorify your name."

One way to look at the whole purpose of Jesus's ministry and time on earth is that it was all to glorify the Father. Jesus loves his Father completely, and so he wants to glorify the Father. So this has a couple aspects. One, he wants to do the will of the Father. But he wants to do the Father's will so much that it becomes his will also. So with regard's to Jesus's time on earth, the will of the Son was to glorify the Father by redeeming humanity. Humanity is the pinnacle of God's creation, but we fell from our lofty stature by our own choice. So Jesus wants to redeem us, restore us to our former position, in order to glorify the Father who created us.

This redemption of humanity to restore us to our former position can only come about through the total self-gift of the Son, by handing himself over to sinners and being killed. Jesus knows this, and he has fully embraced it. What we are seeing today is Jesus trying to prepare those around him for what he knows is coming.

My friends, next week is Palm Sunday and then begins the holiest week of our entire year. When as a Church we celebrate these ancient events every single year, it's more than just marking a birthday or anniversary. It's more than just marking another trip around the sun since those things happened. Our liturgy, the official prayer of the Church, gives us real access to God, more so than any private prayer or devotion. So when we celebrate liturgically the events of our Lord's Passion, in some real way we relive the events of the Passion. So I want to encourage you to make the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil a real priority in your life. And I want to encourage you even if it's not convenient. I know we're all busy, but especially if it's inconvenient, these liturgies are important enough to rearrange your schedule for.

Jesus's total gift of self to initiate the new covenant requires from us a total gift of ourselves in return. Remember, a covenant is an exchange of persons, so when I say the words of consecration over the chalice I will say, "This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant." This covenant was won by the shedding of Jesus's own blood. We have to give ourselves completely to him in return. That's how we enter into this covenant. So this means that each of us has to really and truly examine our lives in these days leading up to Easter and we have to really and truly ask ourselves how well we have really entered into this new covenant by giving ourselves completely to Jesus. What angers and jealousies do I hold onto, unwilling to give them to Jesus? What bad habits do I hold onto, thinking that I deserve them? What opinions do I hold contrary to Jesus's Church? What unhealthy friendships do I let stay in my life, thinking that they're not that bad?

Just as Jesus surrendered everything on Good Friday in order to win it back on Easter Sunday, we have to surrender everything to God. We submit everything to him: our habits, our emotions, our friendships, our opinions, and what is bad he gets rid of, what is imperfect he perfects and gives back to us. In order to enter into this new and everlasting covenant, in order to share the life that Jesus offers us, we have to surrender everything to him. That's our role in the covenant between God and humanity. Surrender everything to God, and let him transform everything in your life.

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