Fifth Sunday of Lent
What is the new covenant that God has made in Christ and what does it mean for our life in Christ today? This question is an essential one raised by today’s Old Testament text. The ways in which Christians have answered this question through the centuries have often led to anti-Semitic attitudes and oppression of the Jews. The gist of the reasoning has been that the Jews screwed up and God had to start over from scratch and now the Christians are the people on whom the blessing of God rests (and, of course, the Jews are outsiders, heretics and the ones who had Jesus crucified, and thus worthy of having all manner of violence inflicted upon them).
Is this really the sort of God, covenant and people that Jeremiah is proclaiming here? I hope not, but let’s look a little deeper. Gerhard Lohfink, in his classic work Does God Need the Church?: Toward a Theology of the People of God sheds some light on this passage:
According to Jeremiah 31:31-34 the motif of forgiveness of sins is an indispensable part of the “new covenant.” That new covenant, after all, is nothing other than the Sinai covenant that Israel had broken and that God is renewing eschatologically, in a way that surpasses all that has gone before. In that case even the breach of the covenant must be forgiven. Therefore, Jeremiah concludes his proclamation of the new covenant with the statement: “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (v. 34). (250, emphasis added).
God, therefore in Lohfink’s reading does not want to dismiss Israel as the chosen people because of their sins, but rather extends grace to them and now through Jesus extends grace and blessings to all humanity, regardless of their ethnicity. As we prepare for Easter, let us consider for a moment, what the resurrection might mean in light of this reading of the new covenant? Our tendency is to find the primary meaning of the Jesus’ resurrection in the promise of our own individual resurrections, but Lohfink says, not so fast:
As true as it is that the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope for our own resurrection from death this is never the theme of the Easter texts in the gospels. Instead, the real theme is the raising the people of God, already stiffened in death in the real sense of (the prophet’s vision of the valley of dry bones in) Ezekiel 37:1-14 … (This text from Ezekiel) is not about the dead members of the people of God; it is about the entombed existence of the present, living generation. There is no hope that they can free themselves from their rigor mortis. The people of God can only come to life if God awakens it and breathes life into it through the Spirit of God. The Easter narratives in the gospels and the Pentecost narrative of Acts must be read against this background. All these New Testament texts point toward the reawakening and expansion of the people of God (206).
If we thus consider the texts of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 37 together, as Lohfink has done, we get a richer picture of what God is doing in Christ and what that means for Israel. Yes, Israel broke their covenant with God (Jer. 31: 32) and they did not repent, it was as if they were dead (Ezekiel 37), but God is ever faithful and full of grace did not desire to cast them out. Rather, God intended to resurrect the people of God in Jesus, and to open the gates to God’s people to Gentiles as well as Jews. The new covenant into which we are called is good news for both Jews and Gentiles – for Gentiles in our inclusion into God’s people and for Jews and Gentiles both that even in our deepest rejections of God, we are still loved and shown grace by God. This is the deep hope of Easter, that God keeps the promises made to Abraham: God is gathering a people and continues to do so today. We are not alone in our faith, God has gathered us into a community (made up of many local, communities that are manifestations of the larger people) where we learn together what it means to live in the way of God and to embody together the hope that we have found to a world where hope is in short supply.