“I will make a renewed covenant 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 will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31: 31, 33)
For the last four weeks, Mother Sara and Father Rob have been exploring our relationship with God and with the world in which we live. What is it that we really believe in? How much allegiance do we give it?
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. (If you are like me, it feels like yesterday was Ash Wednesday.) The liturgy that day demands of us to choose which god and which covenant: a god who dances to our desires, or a God who, in the Gospel from last week “did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be made whole” (John 3:17).
Today, the lessons lay out the renewed covenant with the God of new life. It’s a pretty one-sided covenant. If I were God, I sure wouldn’t be making it. Jeremiah has spent thirty chapters laying out the case against Jacob’s children (and that doesn’t include dozens of chapters of all the other prophets that came before him!): they were unfaithful; they worshiped their king; they worshiped other gods; they worshiped their money; they even worshiped their worship. It’s pretty clear: God should just toss this lot and find some other humans who will behave themselves. Case closed. Dump the lot. They don’t deserve a relationship with God.
God is never going to win the master negotiator prize here. God doesn’t tear up the contract. God doesn’t add a bunch of conditions. In fact, the only thing God tears up are the conditions. The old version of the covenant could be summed up as “If you will be my people, I’ll be your God.” The executive summary of the renewed contract now reads: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” And the clause of “Store the ten commandments in a safe place” becomes “I’ll put my law within them and write it on their hearts.” God even tries to put me out of a job; instead of “Listen to those who would teach you the law” God says instead “They shall all know me, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
The old contract is still there. It’s essence was always relational, not transactional. Now that nature is front and center. We read Psalm 51 this morning—the great hymn of penitence.
How does it start?
Have mercy on me, O God, because you are full of loving kindness; In your great compassion, blot out my offenses.
This isn’t penitence (well it is, but...); it is the praise of a God who loves unconditionally, who turns rules of a transactional universe, of dog eat dog, on its head. I can’t hear this psalm without hearing the soprano obligato that is attributed to Gregorio Allegri (maybe you remember it from a Kings College, Cambridge recording). It climbs to the very heights of the voice’s range, and you can’t do that without joy and desire for God. This isn’t “I’m so bad”; it’s “God, enfold me in your unconditional love, love that leads to the cross.” Here is God’s love:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
I grew up in a tradition where God had to make somebody pay because people were so bad. If you violated God’s rules, you had to pay the price. Jesus somehow did an end-run around God and he died on the cross so that somehow, God could love us again. If we somehow accept Jesus (as our personal savior), God won’t batter us to death in hell. But that’s the transactional God of the Renaissance bookkeepers, not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews has a very different understanding.
He went off wandering about a bit in Jewish mystical teaching on what priesthood is and this very mysterious character, Melchizedek. Abraham, after winning a battle with a local warlord, met up with Melchizedek, who offered a sacrifice of bread and wine to God. Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe of the spoils of his victory (Gen. 14:18-20). Early interpretive writings saw Melchizedek as the origin of all true priesthood.
And what is a priest? A priest is someone who offers something to God. Alternatively, (and this is what I think Hebrews is all about), it is someone who gives something its proper name, so that it can be seen to be what God means it to be.
Jesus is not a victim for the author of Hebrews, he is the origin of all relationship with God, he is the priest-before-Melchizedek. He is the one who freely offers himself, not as an abuse victim, but as a conqueror, and as the one who completes the relationship of salvation. In his free response to God, naming and offering all humanity as being in relationship to God, His Father’s new covenant, just as Jeremiah describes it, is written in all our hearts. Through his free response, we are no longer an organization; we have become God’s people. And God’s people are not a people of exclusion, rather, they are the new “all”: “Jesus became the source of salvation for ever and ever for all who are in relationship with him.”
It would have been enough if he had stopped right there. But no. It’s not just being high priest. Jesus is the origin of a fellowship of high priests which includes you and me. He is the origin of this community of “priests in the same way as Melchizedek.” You and I, in response to God’s gracious covenant, are called to name everything “God’s”, to treat everything as something or someone which points to Jesus.
For that is what the first part of today’s Gospel is all about. The Greeks come to see Philip—a Greek name, by the way—and they beg him, they cajole him, they call him “Lord”, and inform him: “Our purpose is to see Jesus.” They want a connection with that new covenant, with that soprano solo of union with God. They want to be part of the priesthood which is part of God’s life. They want to be one with Jesus. And Jesus is glorified, no, Jesus is transfigured by this request. They see Jesus as Jesus truly is. They see the new covenant. They see Jesus, lifted up from the earth. They are joined with God.
The world around us is desperate to see Jesus. And here we are, with two chances this morning! The transfiguration wasn’t six weeks ago; it is today. Look around you. Would you see Jesus? You are seeing Jesus as you look at your fellow Christians! See Jesus in them. Terry Holmes, an important Episcopal theologian of the last century used to say that we should not shake hands at the peace, we should genuflect to each other. Bow to Christ’s presence around you.
The Greeks wanted to see Jesus. Melchizedek offered bread and wine; together, today, we offer that same bread and wine, and that wine and bread becomes what it has always wanted to be: the blood and body of Jesus. Come, see Jesus, here through his unfailing word. Come, see Jesus, lifted up and drawing all humanity into himself. Come, join the priesthood of all priesthoods. Come, taste and see that the Lord is good.