Fifth Sunday in Lent
In the undergraduate Christian Ethics course I teach just about every semester, we are talking this week about a notion many of my students seem to regard as quaint, if not downright archaic, namely sin. Among the more important points I have tried to highlight is one well-worn in many strands of Christian tradition; sin is self-destructive, in that it separates us from our true ultimate end and therefore from the possibility of genuine flourishing as women and men made in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Insofar as it is self-destructive, moreover, sin is by and large its own punishment, for it entails forever restlessly seeking happiness in places it doesn’t exist, except as the palest simulacra, which are bound always to disappoint.
While at my age and in my experience this has at least begun to make perfect sense, my students hear it mostly as an (uninteresting) academic point. Perhaps it is because of their youth, because they see the world as a near-infinite series of adventures yet to be had and stuff yet to be acquired.
In all likelihood they have not yet felt sin’s weight; they have not yet experienced the profound disenchantment of discovering, for the tenth or hundredth or thousandth or ten thousandth time, that their desires’ latest port of call has given not contentment but death; not, as Will Barrett, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Second Coming explains, “the death of dying but the living death… not the death people die, but the death people live.”
Not that knowing all this has made me impervious to sin. Plato’s claim to the contrary notwithstanding, knowing right from wrong, good from evil, is not in itself all that useful. Truth be told, I seldom encounter a situation where I don’t know what I should do. I simply quite often find myself unwilling or unable to do it.
Part of my problem is what Aristotle called akrasia, which means, roughly, “weakness of will.” But the more substantive reality I wrestle with is a strange amalgamation of (still!) improperly ordered desire – what Augustine called concupiscence – and unbelief. I just can’t seem to get over wondering whether this time my ill-conceived attempt at contentment just might work out.
“Always,” said Flannery O’Connor, “you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is.” I know that opposite all too well; my becoming aware yet again of its failure to satisfy leads me repeatedly to pray one of this week’s texts, from Psalm 51, which I know intimately:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
My results to this point are mixed. God is unfailingly merciful. His steadfast love, for his people and for all Creation, makes him so, and I have every confidence that my transgressions are indeed forgiven. The “new and right spirit” for which the Psalmist and I pray, on the other hand, has not been altogether effective in keeping me from screwing up. The fault is mine, not God’s. The grace of repentance is there for the receiving, but I frequently choose not to cooperate. Something remains amiss, with me and with the world.
That something amiss is among the things Jeremiah addresses in his word to the exiles in Babylon. Separated from their land, their city and its temple destroyed, the exiles could only dolefully lament the place to which their disobedience had brought them. Into that desperate situation, the prophet projects a glimmer of hope: the LORD promises them a future in which the covenant with their ancestors will be made new, a future in which the gift of God’s law will be written on their hearts. “No longer,” proclaims God’s prophet, “shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.”
The immediate horizon of the text is quite obviously the restoration of God’s people to their land and the rebuilding of the city and Temple, events which unfolded not all that long after Jeremiah spoke these words. Yet, there is, as the history of Christian readings of the passage show, another, eschatological horizon, as well.
Authorial intent notwithstanding, Jeremiah speaks not only of the restoration of Jerusalem, but also of the healing of all Creation, the restoration of its original shalom. Among the characteristics of that restoration will be the end of human brokenness – of violence, injustice and oppression, exploitation, self-interestedness, self-loathing, and fear.
That end broke decisively into history in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth; it was made available to those united to Jesus through baptism with the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. And yet, if my experience is to any extent consistent with that of my readers, things remain more than a little off kilter.
The theological description for the partial absence we so frequently experience is “eschatological tension.” Christ is risen, and in that rising the new age of God’s reign has commenced. And yet, the old age, the age of our brokenness and that of the Creation, remains. During the overlapping of the old age with the new, even as we anticipate the consummation of God’s work, and even as we find ourselves slowly – and often in spite of ourselves – transformed by grace, our lives are filled – or at least mine is – with an abundance of frequently painful reminders that there is considerable brokenness yet to be healed.
Such reminders seem especially poignant during Lent, a season during which our focus is ostensibly on the embrace of the gift of holiness. In these closing days of this penitential season, even as we cry out yet again the words of the Psalm, begging God not to cast us away from godself, we would do well eagerly to anticipate the coming day of resurrection, the celebration of which is perhaps our surest reminder of a future in which we shall all definitively “know the Lord.” As for me, that day can’t come soon enough.