Sunday, April 10, 2011

Passion Sunday

Hebrews 9:11-15 / John 8:46-59

He that is of God, heareth the words of God. Therefore you hear them not, because you are not of God.

When I first studied the Old Testament at university, I was introduced to the problems which arise from the hermeneutical circle. Briefly, the hermeneutical circle is that circle of interpretation in which we understand any given part of a text only in reference to the whole, and at the same time only understand the whole in reference to the parts. Normally it is argued that this circle does not close us off from understanding a text because we can appeal to what we know about the historical, social, cultural, and other contexts in and out of which the text was produced. However, for the Old Testament this is especially problematic since nearly all that we know in any detail about the context out of which the Old Testament was produced we know from the Old Testament. So, we need already to have interpreted the text to provide us with a context to use to interpret the text! Whether or not one can enter into the circle, then, is far from clear.

The Jews who confront Jesus in today's Gospel encounter just such a circle. Jesus insists that he speaks the truth, and indeed challenges his accusers to produce evidence of sin on his part, to explain why they do not believe his words. Yet, Jesus himself provides the answer: Therefore you hear [my words] not, because you are not of God. The claim is simple, and all the same troubling. If one must be already of God to hear Jesus' words, then what is one to do to enter in? How can one move from being not of God, and so dishonor the Son, and in dishonoring the Son dishonor the Father as well?

The problem is all the more sharpened in that who Jesus is, and what he does, is neither of this world, nor derivable from it. His work of sanctification, his high priestly ministry of the good things to come, is accomplished by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is not of this creation. Likewise, the blood that saves is not the blood of goats or of calves, but it is His own blood. Said differently, the worship offered by Jesus to his heavenly Father is ultimately and in truth an affair of the eternal, the eternal oblation of the Son, the very constitution of his return of love to his Father from whom he has received all that he is, the Blood of Christ, Who, by the Holy Ghost, offered Himself unspotted unto God.

Of course, it is true that Christ's humanity was the instrument by which this was brought about in time, but not in a way so as to supplement divine activity, as though God stopped what he had been doing, or else added to what he had been doing, to work out our sanctification. Rather, the Incarnation and the Passion are the drawing up into God of what is eternally the very being of the Son, the Spirit, and the Father. Any attempt to understand Jesus in other terms, however holy, will inevitably fail. This is why the Jews, although the beneficiaries of the Torah and the chosen people of God, elect among the nations, nonetheless can only make sense of Jesus as a heretic or possessed, if not both — Do we not say well, that Thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil? Deriving their knowing from within the framework of the world, they fail to see the being of Jesus, reducing his claims to something of his own making: Whom dost Thou make Thyself? Indeed, the failure of any human terms not already drawn up into the mystery of God through the Incarnation of the Word can be seen in what would otherwise be an intolerable abuse of grammar on the part of Jesus: Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham was made, I am.

Jesus is God. We know and hold this to be true by confession and creed. Even so, we too can think of Jesus as one more person in the universe, even if one of unimaginable significance and unparalleled love. However, such a view will in the end lead to our taking offense at him. We will find that what he asks of us, even more what he asserts of himself, will be intolerable taken on any terms or in light of any justifications we might try to provide. In the end, we have no other way to know him than to receive his invitation and to be made anew through the waters of baptism, and being baptized, to avail ourselves of those means God himself has given us to hear his voice: the sacraments, the Scriptures, the life of and in the Church. Made new creatures, made sharers in the divine life which he lives, breathing not with earthly air but with the Holy Spirit, no longer of this creation but made living stones of the new creation — this is what it means to be of God and so to be able to hear the words of God.

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