First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm: Psalm 51
Second Reading: Hebrews 5:7-9
Gospel: John 12:20-33
While I have always been Catholic, it wasn’t until college that my faith became something that mattered to me. It became so important that I deferred graduate school in mathematics to do a year of service work and then decided to go to graduate school in theology instead. I felt called to this new path.
Looking back almost thirty years later, I still feel like it was a calling. What has changed is my awareness of how little I knew then. It was not just theological knowledge I lacked. I lacked an understanding of myself and my motives. When I started teaching, I lacked knowledge about being a good teacher and how to care for students. I wasn’t terrible, but I just had so many gaps.
This seems strange to me. I would think my weaknesses would prevent any such calling, but the reverse seems true. The calling was what made me aware of the weaknesses. The calling came first. Then, I saw my weaknesses. This week’s readings can be seen to follow a similar order. It points to a strange truth that God’s salvation enables us to see sin.
In the first reading from Jeremiah, God is making the promise of a new covenant. It is one that will be written upon people’s hearts. It is an intimate relationship between God and God’s people. There is sin in the reading, but it doesn’t come until the end. It is almost an afterthought. God’s focus was on the relationship, a people that would love the way God loved them, and, once established, yes, sure, sin will be forgiven and forgotten.
In the second reading from Hebrews, Jesus cries out and suffers, but he offers “prayers and supplication” to God, the “one who was able to save him from death.” It was “because of his reverence” that God heard the cries. Jesus cried out to God because Jesus already had a relationship with God. It is because of this relationship that the suffering is challenging. The love preceded the affliction.
From its beginning, the gospel of John speaks of the Word existing before all. It is a belief assumed through the gospel and can be seen in the readings. Jesus came into the world with a mission, a purpose. In this passage, the purpose is expressed as glorifying God’s name and drawing everyone together in God. In other places of the gospel of John, it is to bring eternal life and to make people friends of God. This is Jesus’ purpose. Only once this purpose is undertaken, only when God sends the Son out of a love for the world, does Jesus’ hour approach.
This seems to me the strange thing. We come to see our sins and failures, we come to see the evil and suffering in the world, only after we start to care. When we start to love, we see more clearly. We see what good needs to be done and our own limitations. Our awareness of sin seems to follow God’s love for us. Our calling comes before we are aware of our weaknesses.
What is even stranger is that our failures become less occasions for guilt and more occasions for growth. When I realized I lacked adequate theological knowledge, self-understanding, and pedagogical skills, I was moved to get better because I felt God had called me to a task. I was loved, and because I was loved, I wanted to love better. This last strangeness is what the psalmist sings about. It is a persistent plea for a clean heart, to overcome offense, and to be relieved of guilt. It is a plea that recognizes these things because it assumes a God who already cares for people. Salvation is not just to bring us to an awareness of our sin but to move us past it. God loves us so that we can grow in love, we can move beyond sin toward “a renewed spirit,” God’s presence, and the joy of salvation.