Saturday, March 21, 2015

Falling and Flourishing

John 12:20-33
Lent 5
March 22, 2015
William G. Carter

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor."

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

We continue on the road to the cross. That is what our journey for the season of Lent. It’s an unusual journey, as we heard a couple of weeks ago. The world regards it as foolish and weak. Last week we heard the word from Ephesians, that God works grace in the cross by saving us from our sin. We prayed for the faith to believe it, to trust it.

Today we have another unusual word, this time from the mouth of Jesus himself: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” And the writer makes sure we understand what he is saying, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

John understands the cross in light of the resurrection and ascension. Good Friday and Easter are one long weekend, and all of it marks the journey by which Jesus returns to heaven. Jesus comes down from the Father, speaking the truth and doing many signs. The cross is how he begins his return. He is “lifted up,” says John – lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up into heaven. This is the way that this Gospel writer talks. The cross is Jesus’ “glory, his “hour.” It will draw all people to Jesus.

What a curious thing to say. He does say “all people.” Not a selected few, but all people. Not only the obvious ones, the ones who trust and believe and say the right words, but “all people.”

John has no problem parsing people into different groups. Throughout his Gospel, he calls one of the groups “the Jews.” He often gives them a little kick of judgment, as a sign he didn’t like them.  Sadly that little kick became full scale anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, even though that was never the intended purpose.

When John speaks of “the Jews,” it is verbal shorthand for “the Jews within the Jews,” that is, those who refused to acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah. In his John’s day, near the end of the first century, the church had endured a painful split from Judaism. The evangelist acknowledges this by referring to Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews.” He doesn’t mean a universal statement of “all Jews everywhere,” but only those who opposed Jesus in his earthly ministry.

And yet he quotes Jesus as saying, “I will draw all people to myself.”

In the passage for today, he tells of an unusual moment when some Greeks are drawn to Jesus. It is Passover week, and Jesus has just dismounted his Palm Sunday donkey. Some strangers went to Philip, Philip went to Andrew, and the two of them went to Jesus. They said, “Some Greeks are looking for you.” We don’t know who they are. Were they Jews from out of town who spoke the Greek language? Were they Gentiles from the wider culture who wondered what the fuss was about? We don’t know.

We do know that by the time this story got written down, John’s church was full of all kinds of people who were drawn to the Christ. Tradition puts John in the Turkish city of Ephesus, a major center for Jews and Gentiles, Turks and Greeks, centurions and slaves, business owners and single parents, widows and refugees – and it’s a good bet a smattering of them all were in John’s church.

Perhaps he saw in the diversity of his congregation a sign of what God wants for the world: a church that draws all kinds of people. Imagine that! As Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will all people to myself.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus has said this kind of thing before. In chapter 10, the Good Shepherd says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). Again, he doesn’t declare who those outsiders are. Maybe they are Greeks, maybe they are Jews, maybe they are somebody else. The Gospel of John keeps this open, so must we. We cannot restrict what Jesus himself does not specify.

And please notice  it is Jesus who is lifted up. It is Jesus who is central. It is Jesus who draws all the people, and Jesus through whom all people will pass. “No one is going to come to the Father,” he says, “unless they pass through me” (14:6). He is the tunnel, he is the conduit. Or as he says in chapter ten, he is “the gate” (10:9) through which all the varied flocks will pass. They don’t pass through the Presbyterian church, or the Baptist church, or the Catholic church – they pass through Jesus.

In fact, lambs in another flock may have lived their entire lives as Buddhists. That may be all they know. Perhaps their only exposure to Christians is some of the hateful and divisive words they have heard some of the Christians who speak on the evening news. And when they pass through, Jesus is so great he is the One they are passing through. Because the Lord is greater than some of the people who claim to represent him.  

Or there might be in lambs in another flock, and these would be the people who burned out on the church. Maybe they tried it years ago and it didn’t work for them. Or they prayed and didn’t get what they wanted. Or they got stuck in a committee meeting and couldn’t get out. Or they grew up and discovered that nobody really wanted them, and everywhere they turned, the door was locked. Imagine them being drawn to Jesus, to the real Jesus – not the dashboard Jesus or a cartoon caricature, but to the One who says at the end of our chapter, “I came not to judge the world but to save the world” (12:47). Imagine a love that deep, a mercy that wide!

In the language of the Gospel of John, I believe this is what it means when he says, “I will draw all people to myself.” All will come to him. All will pass through him. That is what is inevitable for every one of us. Our hope is in the words of a favorite Christmas carol: “And our eyes at last shall see Him / through His own redeeming love / for that Child so dear and gentle / is our Lord in heaven above.”[1]

But here’s the thing. Those whose “eyes at last shall see Him,” shall see him only through the eyes of humility. It won’t be through their strength or their power or their correctness on matters spiritual or otherwise. They will see him in their moment of need and the disposition of their hearts. As the teen choir sings for us, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.” You can’t sing that from the altitude of arrogance. You can only truly sing it

If Jesus comes to draw all people to himself and save them, it is in the universality of our need. And we see this when we see our need for Someone in heaven greater than ourselves, Someone who knows what it is like to be us.

Perhaps that’s why, when Jesus speaks of glory, he speaks of emptying. That is the paradox of the Christian life. Tucked in the middle of this passage about the universal attraction of the cross, Jesus gives three brief teachings:  

  • The first is a law from nature: the grain of wheat that falls into the ground will flourish. Death is essential for the increase of life.
  • Second is a law of discipleship: dying to yourself is the pre-condition of having a full life.
  • Third, the law of nature and the law of discipleship are shaped by Jesus himself: his death is an act of self-giving service, and those who follow him will give their lives in service.  
To see Jesus involves setting ourselves aside. He has “emptied” himself by coming down from heaven in complete vulnerability.[2] So he has set the pattern for those who follow him, and for all who will sooner or later see him. The cross-shaped life is not about me and what I want. It is about emptying ourselves into the love of God and the love of our neighbors. It means setting aside all the vain things that charm us most, and serving like Christ, who gave up the throne in heaven to come down here and to give his life to the world.

This is a move worthy of our Lenten reflection. One of my friends has wrapped it up in a story:

In a hospital chaplain training program, a new student chaplain was requested to visit Marie, a patient with terminal cancer who had requested a visit. This seminarian’s first real encounter with death, he was overwhelmed with the smell of the hospital room. As he entered the room and saw Marie’s ashen color, he felt sick to his stomach. But then remembered from somewhere that it helps to sit down and put your head in your hands. He sat that way for four or five minutes, and the sickness did lessen..

But when he looked at the woman, instantly he felt so embarrassed that he just got up and left the room. Feeling that he had failed, he went to the meditation room to sort things out. He decided he would tell his supervisor the next day that was resigning from the program. It was too difficult. But the next morning before he had the chance, the supervisor found him. Marie had called again. Oh ho, he thought.

“Well, this time she wanted to say thanks. After she called yesterday, she wished she hadn’t. She was so sick that she didn’t feel like talking and surely didn’t want any minister preaching to her. She said, ‘The chaplain who came must have sensed that. He sat down, bowed his head, and prayed for maybe five minutes. And then he gave me the most loving glance and left. Of all my visits at this hospital, this is the most meaningful visit I ever received.’”

Somebody said, “But he wasn’t really praying, was he?” Well, yes. He was yearning for health, wholeness, some relief. And that’s just how she experienced his prayer.[3]

Jesus says, “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” Jesus says this about himself. He says it also as an invitation for us who would follow him, an invitation for us to flourish in our falling. And one thing more: he says it for anyone who wishes to see him . . . because sooner or later, everyone shall see him.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Cecil F. Alexander, “Once in Royal David’s City,” stanza 5
[2] Philippians 2:7
[3] Kent Ira Groff, Active Spirituality (Washington, D.C: The Alban Institute, 1993) 113-114.

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