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Fifth Sunday in Lent

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent 

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31–34; Hebrews 5:5–14 & John 12:20–33

The world we live in today has become increasingly reliant on technology, and while I’m sure we’d all agree that advances in technology have delivered some incredible benefits to the world, particularly in areas such as medicine, transport and manufacturing to name but a few, we’d probably also agree that certain things have been lost as a result of this reliance. One of those, is the ability to communicate effectively, especially in writing.

Writing is not only a basic aspect of one’s education, but it’s also a requirement of nearly every job, however small or large a part it may be. Today though, one of the most common complaints received from employers is that job candidates cannot write properly. One executive from a workforce management company has said, “With Gen X and Gen Y, because everything is shorthand and text, the ability to communicate effectively is challenged.”

I was aware of that myself when I worked in the corporate sector. I was shocked by the number of university qualified people applying for jobs with the companies I worked with, who could neither spell nor use correct grammar, let alone write a compelling business proposal to support an idea or initiative they might have had. We could argue that the skill of writing has been ‘dulled’ by the advancement of technology.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews makes a similar observation regarding the development of faith among early Christians. They claim that much of what they have to say to these early Christians is hard to explain, because the people’s understanding of their own faith has not developed from what it was when they first came to faith. Whereas these followers of Jesus should have grown in knowledge and understanding to the point where they could actually start to teach others about the Christian faith, instead they find themselves in need of a ‘refresher course’ in the basic aspects of the faith. 

I wonder if that might be true of ourselves today? Has our knowledge and understanding of our faith continued to grow? How might we understand the words of Jesus in today’s passage from the Gospel of John when he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”? 

Jesus has just proclaimed to his disciples that the time of his death has arrived – “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” – and he uses the image of a single grain of wheat to explain why he, a single individual, must die in order to bear multiple “fruit” in the form of a worldwide community of life and love.

When Jesus spoke of loving one’s life, he meant living with an attitude that put ‘self’ ahead of all else, whereas to ‘hate’ one’s life really meant being prepared to go as far as to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of something that extends beyond this mortal life to embrace the self-sacrificing life of God. 

British New Testament scholar Andrew Lincoln described it wonderfully when he wrote, “In this teaching on discipleship, to save, find or gain one’s life is to attempt to live one’s life as though one owned it, and it is an enterprise doomed to failure because life is a gift from God, who can also take it away. On the other hand, to lose one’s life is to renounce the attempt to secure life for oneself and, instead, to spend it in the service of God and others. Those who lose their lives in this way find that they receive those lives back from God.” 

I think it’s only human nature for us to want to be in total control of every aspect of our lives, but the reality is that we are so often at the mercy of forces outside of our control. In that sense, we would do well to put our trust in God and devote our time and energy to serving Him and our neighbour, knowing that He will not let our efforts go unrewarded.

Today’s gospel passage contains several other theological points as well, one of which is Jesus showing his humanity when, having proclaimed that the time of his death had arrived, he displays a moment of fear and doubt saying, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – Father save me from this hour?” He is aware of the pain and suffering he is to experience and, quite understandably, questions whether he should continue with the mission which God has sent him on, which is to die so that humanity might be saved, both from the harmful effects of sin, and ultimately from death.

It’s only a fleeting moment of doubt, because he answers his own question by saying, “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Jesus recognises, and acknowledges, that it is his mission, and his alone, to suffer and die so that humanity might have eternal life. He has complete, and total, clarity of purpose. 

Each of us has a purpose as well. For many, or most of us, discovering that purpose is a life’s work. The continued development of our faith – increasing in knowledge and understanding of our faith – will help us to discern what our purpose is.

When talking about the early Christians’ lack of understanding of their faith, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, “You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.(Hebrews 5:12b–14 NRSV)

Here the writer uses a nursery metaphor to make it clear to their readers that they have yet to become “grown-up” Christians, but instead still remain in a state of spiritual infancy. And the phrase, “to distinguish good from evil,” indicates that this is particularly true of their moral sensitivity. Grown-up Christians, then, are those who have learned through experience to make well-judged moral decisions for themselves instead of needing, like children, to be told what to do.

The progression from infant Christians to mature Christians, requires spiritual growth and, in my own experience, spiritual growth comes from devoting time to prayer, reading and studying Scripture, and participating in worship as part of a community of faith.

I would encourage everyone to seek to develop their faith, and their knowledge and understanding of that faith. To pray; to read Scripture, together with study bibles and other resources that help to interpret the true meaning of Scripture; to attend Bible Study where possible; and importantly, to ask questions, especially those questions that might arise through the sermons and/or Scripture readings as we spend time together each week in worship.

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