These are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 21 March 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 16 – 21, Philippians 3: 4 – 14, and John 12: 1 – 8.
First, let me reiterate something that I have said before. I am an evangelical; I was baptized an evangelical, I was confirmed as an evangelical, and I believe as an evangelical. But my belief in evangelism is different from what the common perception of evangelism is. I believe in the Gospel and while I believe that the Gospel message is one best taken individually I do not believe that the Gospel can be forced upon you.
Though I may be an evangelical, I cannot tell you how to think; I cannot tell you how to live; I cannot condemn or judge you because of your actions. What I can do is work to make this a better world by putting the words of the Gospel message into action.
The Gospel message is about bringing food to the hungry, medical care to the sick and dying, and hope and freedom to the oppressed. Now, if that is social justice, so be it. If I make this world a world in which the Gospel message is validated and effective, not merely words spoken on a Sunday morning and forgotten that afternoon, then I will have achieved the goal of an evangelical.
The Gospel message is more than just making disciples out of everyone that you encounter. It is about making sure that everyone has the opportunity to find God in whatever manner they so desire. Being an evangelical does not mean that I can change the words of the Bible or the history of this country so that people are given a worldview of exclusion, hatred, and ignorance. Jesus did not work that way; he operated in the openness of the countryside; He chided those who arrested Him in dark because they would not come after Him in the open and in the daylight.
Yet there are those who proclaim themselves to be evangelical in nature yet preach a gospel of hatred and exclusion, of moral certainty for others while they are free to be immoral. The preach a gospel of control over other’s thoughts and words and actions. And in the end, when the world around them has fallen down and they are left with nothing but their broken pride, they will hope and pray that God will not forget them as they struggle in their own personal Sheol. And they will have no understanding that God’s Grace is given to them as freely as it is to all who seek God, if they will but just acknowledge their sins. But their pride, their arrogance, their self-righteousness will keep them from doing so. And in the end, they will be the ones who receive the punishment that they have promised for others.
The problem is that too many people have a view of Christianity, evangelism, and God that is dominated by the views of these modern day Pharisees. We, as a society, have so transformed Christianity into our own religion that it bears little resemblance to the movement that spread from the Galilee two thousand years ago.
The other day I chanced to hear a discussion by an author about the nature of Buddhism in this country and why he became a Buddhist. I didn’t get to hear the whole conversation but, in essence, he became a Buddhist because he studied the topic and what he studied resonated in his soul. The author pointed out that, for most people in this country today, their knowledge of Buddhism is a conglomeration of facts and thoughts and that they actually know very little about the subject.
The same, I believe, can be said about Christianity today. The perception and view of Christianity today, even among Christians, is very much different from what it really is. And that is the problem for society today. When you do not understand the topic and you willingly let someone else tell you what to believe about that topic, you run the risk of getting a distorted view of the topic.
And I am fully aware that I run the risk of doing exactly that with what I write. But I encourage you and challenge you to study for yourself what I have studied; I encourage you and challenge you to find in your heart and mind the answers to the questions that touch your soul. Do not expect me to answer the questions for you because I, through study and reading, am having enough trouble finding know the answers to my questions. The whole essence of Christianity is found individually; I can show you the way but I can’t make you follow. If faith were found in a strict adherence to the law, then I could command you to find God. But faith is found in the heart and only you have the power to open up your heart.
Paul writes to the Philippians about his past and his present. He writes about growing up in the right family and being taught the law and understanding the law and living the law and enforcing the law. And he points out that everything he did as Saul was legal and acceptable.
But, you see, as Paul points out, when you come to Christ and you accept Christ, your view changes. Righteousness does not come from an adherence to the law; righteousness comes from what is in your heart.
When we read the passage from the Gospel today, we get an insight into not only the thoughts of Judas but John as well. We will come to know later that John is the Beloved Disciple, the one challenged to write down all he saw and all that was done by Christ. So we know that his anger or displeasure with Judas comes after the fact. In fact, John probably thought that Judas was correct in saying that the woman in the story (and this is, contrary to popular belief, not Mary Magdalene) should have sold the oil and given the money to poor. We know that John was as interested in the power that would come in Jesus’ new kingdom; it almost destroyed him as a disciple before he had the chance.
We know from later study that the poor were one of the most oppressed classes of society and that they remain so today. Anything that could be done to help them needed to be done and that is the same today as well. Jesus constantly told His disciples not to take from the people because that would only increase the burden on them.
Judas would, of course, use this instance as the rationale for betraying Jesus because Jesus was not going to enact the kingdom on earth that he, Judas, wanted to see. But Jesus looks beyond the moment and knows that there is a deeper symbolism in this woman’s actions; they are the actions of a woman preparing a loved one for burial.
To see the actions in that light, I believe, requires a new way of thinking. It is the thinking that Isaiah is proclaiming in the Old Testament reading for today. The whole purpose of Lent is not simply a symbolic sacrifice of something for forty days, knowing full well that you are going to take it back the moment that Lent is over. Lent is a time of transformation, of giving up the old ways and beginning a new life.
Repentance is more than just saying that you aren’t going to not do something; it is a statement that your life is going to change
If you hold on to the old ways, if you think in the same ways, then Lent is meaningless. If you are not willing to cast aside the old and see the world in a different light, then your journey through Lent is meaningless, without form or void.
So in these last days of Lent, as the time before Palm Sunday runs down and the opportunity is lost, recall the reason for Lent and take the opportunity to begin a new way of thinking.