5th Sunday of Lent – New Covenant and the Spirit

5th Sunday of Lent (A – Scrutinies) – March 21, 2021

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-8; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45

The Fruit of Sin: Division

In life, there are all of those events that you are forced to go to, and then before they will just get on with whatever it is you’re there for, they make you do all of these icebreakers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t love being forced to have fun in a ridiculous way…but, you decide. One of these “games” was always just asking random questions—I mean, of course, why wouldn’t I want to tell a total stranger my favorite holiday and why. But one of the questions would always come up, so I just had a pat answer so we could all move on with life.

The question was: “What is one of your greatest fears?” And I would always say, “Losing a friend and it being my fault.” I started saying that when I was like twelve years old. I don’t even know what I meant when I started using it. But I would always say, “Losing a friend and it being my fault.” Not a friend dying, no. Like, breaking a friendship, destroying a relationship in my life, and its destruction being my fault.

At twelve, you don’t really have the wherewithal to really do that. But as I got older I found that it’s actually not that hard. We are undone by our own humanity, it seems. And sin and pride and resentment are real things. And relationships break. And barring a miracle, once you screw things up, turns out you can’t just pretend everything is ok.

This is the scene from the opening pages of Genesis. The Spirit of God hovers over the waters, bringing all of creation into existence, crowning this creation with God’s own image on earth, these humans. And humanity is in this wonderful, life-giving, loving relationship with God and with all of creation.

But then it all falls apart. Why? Because God is unfaithful? Because the world is flawed? No. It’s pride, sin. And when sin is a real thing, when sin grows, the fruit of sin grows too. Sin has a lot of different fruit, but the most common are broken relationships, violence, and death. Where there was once this great unity and vibrance, there begins to be only division and death.

This is not abstract. This is real. If it’s abstract, you’re either too young to know what this is like, or you might be a sociopath—one of the two. From almost the very beginning, humanity, we have been struggling with this. And from the beginning, God has been working to set things right, to renew all of His creation, a creation that’s falling apart because of Sin.

“New Covenant” As the Means of New Creation

And how is God going to set things right, how is He going to renew His creation, eradicate Sin and the fruits of Sin (broken relationships, violence, death)? Covenants. As I’ve mentioned before, as we journey through this Lenten season, we read about the great Covenants God has made with his people. And a covenant is just a committed relationship—think of marriage. It’s a relationship between two parties where there are promises and commitments. So, God’s plan is that by establishing a covenant with certain people (a smaller group of people) He would begin to establish this covenant with more and more people. In other words, by establishing a new relationship with certain people, he would renew His relationship with all people, with creation itself, as well as the relationships between all of creation itself. Through them, through this “covenant people,” He would bring about the renewal of all of creation. It’s a grassroots movement.

God begins with a family, then moves to a tribe, then a nation, then an international kingdom. He began with the family of Noah, continued with the tribe of Abraham, then the nation of Israel with Moses, and then the kingdom of David. But none of those seem to work. They’re all too external, and they are not getting at the root of the issue. You all know the story, things get worse and they get conquered by Babylon and sent into exile.

And so along come the prophets. And the message they begin to speak is about God making a new covenant. And not just another covenant, but a new and everlasting covenant. Think of Jeremiah: “See, days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant.…I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Ezekiel 34-37: The Great Covenantal Sequence

And that’s where we find ourselves today. This first reading is from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesies a great renewal of Israel, a new covenant, reversing all of the problems of the old covenants. Chapter 34 is the promise of new shepherds. New rescue from ancient enemies—chapter 35. Chapter 36 promises new blessings on the land and the rivers, the washing away of uncleanness, fruitful farms like a new garden of Eden. And then in chapter 37 the famous scene of the valley of dry bones being raised, and the prophet says, “Come from the four winds, O Breath, O Ruach, breathe upon these slain that they may live” (Ez 37:9). The Spirit doing the work of ultimate covenant renewal.

And all of these are ways of saying that the problems which had caused the literal exile of Israel, but behind that, as we saw, the exile of the human race from the garden—these problems are being dealt with. New covenant will be the means of new creation. That’s how biblical theology works. When God does what God has promised to do for Israel (all of this), this will be the means of blessing for the whole world, for all of creation. In today’s reading, Ezekiel says that God’s Spirit will come, just like in Genesis 1, but now to transform the human heart, to empower this people to do the work of renewing the world.

But this all seems to fall flat. Because when the Israelites do return from exile, nothing seems to happen. They rebuild the Temple, but (like Ezekiel saw), the Presence of God had left the Temple, it wasn’t there (c.f., Ezekiel 10:18-19). Ezekiel had prophesied that it would return, and when it returned great rivers of water would flow from the Temple, growing deeper and deeper, watering the whole earth, refreshing even the desert and the toxic salty water of the Dead Sea. But nothing seemed to be different. Sin abounded. Division abounded. Violence and death—doin great. What was Ezekiel referring to?

“The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Me”

When we are introduced to Jesus at the beginning of each of the four Gospels (that’s how you know it’s important), there is that famous scene where Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in the waters of the Jordan. And in that scene, the sky opens up and the Spirit of God descends on him, resting on him. In other words, it is saying that the Spirit of God is resting upon this Jesus guy, whose job is to begin this work of new creation, the work of reversing the fruits, the effects of Sin.

And he really begins to do this. We all know the stories of him “forgiving sins.” But he also reverses the division and the broken relationships and the violence caused by Sin. And in the extreme? He reverses even death itself. The ultimate division caused by Sin, death—not even death can separate us any longer. Through Jesus, through this man empowered by God’s very Spirit, there is a newness at work.

The Spirit At Work In Those Who Believe

But Jesus hasn’t established this new covenant just yet. Establishing a covenant—in biblical terms—involves blood. It takes blood. And so on the night before he died, Jesus took the chalice, filled with the fruit of the vine, and giving thanks, he gave it to the disciples saying, “Take this and drink. This is the blood of the new and eternal covenant.”

The very next day, having breathed his last, a soldier thrusts his spear into Jesus’ side, piercing his heart, and immediately there comes forth blood and water. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus said, but “he was talking about the temple of his body.” From Jesus’ side flows the blood of the new covenant, from the temple of his body flows forth water, just like Ezekiel prophesied. And on the third day, the Spirit of God raised Jesus from the dead, the first-born from the dead, the first-born of the new creation. And when he appeared to his followers he breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit.” And just like Jesus at his baptism, just as at his own resurrection, these followers are made new creatures, the “body of Christ.”

On one occasion “Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as, the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’ He said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive” (John 7:37-39). 

Do you see what all of this is driving at? Out of those who drink from Jesus, who drink his blood of the New Covenant, who drink from this Fountain of Living Water, who are filled with the breath of His Spirit—out of those who believe flow streams of living water, renewing the world, completing the work of New Creation. St. Paul says that out of these people flow the fruits, not of sin, but of the new garden: love and joy, patience and kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness and faithfulness. In other words, through this New Covenant people, through this New Temple prophesied by Ezekiel—the work of new creation is being accomplished.

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