Jesus Came to Make Dead People Live (But ‘Unless a Grain of Wheat’) | Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent – 18 March 2018

St. Mary Immaculate Parish – Plainfield, IL

Jesus did not come to make bad people good.
Jesus came to make dead people live.

Jesus came to make dead people live.

What is the path to life,
true and abiding life,
for Christ
and, thus, for the Christian?

The Cross.

It will always be the Cross.

The tone this week has certainly changed
from the one last week of joy.

This week, we encounter a new side of Jesus;
the side of Jesus that is at once
a human preparing himself for something major
and of the Son of God,
moving forward in complete obedience to the Father.

Listen again, please, to the first reading:

The days are coming, says the LORD, 

when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel 

and the house of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers…

…this is the covenant that I will make 

with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.

I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; 

I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives

how to know the LORD.

All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD.

Jeremiah says “the days are coming,”
and almost as if he is responding to Jeremiah,

Jesus says, “the hour has come.”

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,
for the Son of Man to be lifted up,
that he might draw all mankind to himself;
the hour has come for the Father’s will be done,
for the Father to be glorified in and by the Son.

The days are coming;
and, at last, the hour has come.

This is good news, of course, because it shows
that God does not go back on his promises.

The troubling part for many of us, I think,
is the stark realization of what this hour entails:

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat,
but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

It is the ultimate paradox of the Christian life:
whoever loves his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for the sake of Jesus Christ
will, somehow, preserve his life for eternity.

I am not in a position to explain this paradox;
but I am in a position to proclaim it as true.

All of the saints,
all of those people in your life whose holiness makes you crazy,
the people who seem to be utterly at peace,
those whose eyes betray weariness,
whose hands betray exhaustion,
and whose hearts betray joy,
they will tell you that the paradox is true.

Similarly,
those who have given up,
those who have no hope,
who have only chosen themselves,
those who have built walls
or who refuse to open the door
to the Lord who is knocking,
they, too, will tell you that the paradox is true
because, in the end, what they thought would save them
didn’t.

If I may be so bold:

I know I’m a good preacher.
I know I’m a good communicator,
and good with people.

I know that I can get up in front of a crowd and say something coherent,
inspiring, thoughtful.
And I used to think that I could ride those gifts
all the way through a life of ministry.

After my Christology oral exam in my first year studying theology,
the professor told me,
“Ryan, you are an excellent communicator.
But you don’t have anything of substance to say.
So, as a priest, what do you plan to communicate?”

That is maybe the harshest thing a teacher has ever said to me.
But it is also probably the nicest, most challenging thing anyone has ever said to me.

In 69 days, I will be ordained a priest.
My prayer, of course, is that I will be a good priest.

But I see now, largely because of the ministry I have been able to do here with all of you,
that I will not be a good priest merely because
I am very smart, or a good preacher.

I will be a good priest because I have suffered.
I have suffered little things
like being rebuked by a teacher who thought I was dumb;
like failing to communicate well sometimes with Fr. Pat and learning from that;
or like putting being funny over being holy and being corrected by a parishioner in public for acting like an idiot.

But I have suffered big things, too.

Having a panic attack and crying in front of the bishop;
having to have video conference calls with my parents to plan ordination stuff because they’re divorced and my dad lives far away;
or telling my best friend a deep secret and having him turn away.

I’m not telling you this so that you feel bad for me;
I’m telling you this so that you know
that it is okay to suffer.
These things have made me weak,
but, and this is evidence for the truth of this ultimate paradox,
I am stronger than ever.

As a priest, as a Christian, as your brother,
I can only speak to you out of my poverty
because out of my poverty
flows my strength.

Jesus, the Son of God,
became a human being;
he entered into my poverty.
He is standing at the door of the poorest places in you
and is knocking,
at the lowest and most shameful and most embarrassing parts of your life,
and is knocking.

Son though he was, Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered.
And when, through his suffering, he was made perfect,
he became the source of salvation for all.

We are perfected through suffering,
the hard things are, very often, the right things.

What are the places that you are trying to keep hidden from grace?
What are the areas that are filled with pain that you are keeping away from Jesus?

Jesus did not come to make bad people good.
Jesus came to make dead people live.

Jesus is coming, and is now here, to be with you most powerfully
precisely in the places of your life where death is taking over you.
Jesus is coming, and is now here, to be with you most powerfully
precisely in the places of your life where you long
for life to dominate again.

As Lent enters its final stages,
recall the promise of God from the first reading:

This is the covenant I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord.
I will place my law within them and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

I will place the law within them,
I will write it on their hearts.

I will come to the very depths of these people,
to the darkest, the most dead, places of their experience,
and I will bring life.

Suffering is hard, and freedom is inconvenient.
But we are not alone.
Every single one of us has at least a little suffering to do;
and we have every reason to be confident!
Because the way has already been trod,
the path has already been taken,
and as we will see in the dawn of Easter morning,
the path of suffering, of death, of obedience,
leads directly to life.

So what is our prayer?

If he is coming to write upon our hearts,
to live within the poverty and darkness of our hearts,
then let our prayer be the one from the psalmist today:

A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.

Jesus did not come to make bad people good.
Jesus came to make dead people live.