A Sermon for 18 March 2018
A reading from the gospel of John 12:20-36. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “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. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
It was a wonderful Easter Egg Hunt yesterday! So fun to see all the little ones coming together enjoying the hunt and the surprises inside when they opened up each egg to pile up their stash in the parlor! A big thank you to all who helped make it happen. From buying the candy, to being the helping hands filling eggs at the potluck last week, to assisting in the actual event yesterday! Thank you for creating such fun! . . . It’s got me reminiscing about a few favorite games from childhood. Remember Simon Says? Rainy afternoons at Vacation Bible School, it was the go-to recreation activity in the church fellowship hall each summer. The Rec Leader would pick one person to be Simon. The rest of had to get in a line on the other side of the room. Simon excitedly shouted out commands the rest of us were to follow – but only if “Simon said.” You may remember that the trick was for Simon to try to get everyone to follow a command without saying “Simon says” first. If you fell for it, you were out. ‘Cuz Simon didn’t say to hop on one foot. And either you weren’t listening attentively enough, or you just were tired doing the last command Simon did tell you to do like jumping jacks, or hand stands, or whatever crazy thing Simon would have the group doing.
Follow the Leader was a different game. Instead of one person barking out commands the rest had to follow, Follow the Leader involved us all – usually behind one another in a line – doing the actual movement that the leader did. In Follow the Leader, if the leader jumped up and down, so did we. If the leader wiggled on the ground like a worm, so did we. If the leader turned around to shake the hand of the person behind them, so did we.
As Christians we think we grow out of such games as we age. But we don’t. As we consider Christianity through the centuries, we likely see two factions: those approaching faith as if it’s a game of Simon Says. As if it’s just about doing certain commands passed on from: God, the bible, the church, or maybe even the pastor. Granted, there are certain commands we follow as members of the Body of Christ. But thinking the life of faith is like Simon Says – carefully attuning to the commands of the Leader in order to do what is said, doesn’t seem to be what Jesus had in mind. Over and over again he’s telling people to follow. “Follow me.” As in the gospel reading for today, when Jesus’ words are recorded as thus: “Whoever serves me must follow, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:26). Elsewhere in John, it’s recorded that Jesus said: “I am the Way” (John 14:6) – the I Am statement of Jesus that was the focal point of our Sunday School class today. You can think of that Way as a physical thing like a pathway. As in Jesus is the Way: the One who gains our salvation. And it’s also possible to understand the statement as a process – a manner of doing something, like a way of putting together a puzzle. As in I am the Way – the Way to live in this world. The way to be in this life so that the typically-believed lines between heaven and here are blurred and the joys of abundant, eternal life begin now – every moment in which we are following the Way. Way as a process leaves us understanding our faith not just as a special destination for someday beyond our physical death. Way as a process is about faith that is a journey here-and-now and forever yet-to-be.
The gospel of John especially seems to be interested in understanding the life of faith as a Way to live in this world – becoming, as Jesus says in John 12:36, “children of Light.” As this gospel tells the story, Jesus has returned to Jerusalem for what will become his last Passover pilgrimage. A week before entering Jerusalem, he’s just outside the city in the little town of Bethany. He’s been there at least once before – though likely he’d often been to the home of his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. By the way, this is the same Lazarus he raised from the dead. . . . When Jesus went to see them six days before his last Passover in Jerusalem, the gospel writer records that Mary – perhaps Lazarus’s sister who many scholars today believe is the same Mary elsewhere named Mary Magdalene. Mary lovingly anoints her Lord with a pound of pure nard – a costly essential oil you can get on Amazon today for about $50 per ounce or $800 for a pound. Jesus says she’s getting him ready for burial. Which is code for us to know that Jesus knows the Way he’s living in this world is not at all popular. The gospel of John records that the next day he enters into Jerusalem to crowds waving palm branches as they shout out “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the LORD!” (John 12:13) – but we’ll get to those details next week when we gather for a similar palm parade as the week we call Holy begins. In Jerusalem, the religious leaders are in a whirl again because the crowd sees something in Jesus they refuse to.
Some Greeks who are in town too for Passover request a visit with Jesus. It is at this moment, Jesus declares, the hour has come. The time is fulfilled. It’s important to realize, about the Way, that this is NOT the first time Jesus is preparing to die. All along his path, he has been dying – dying to his own personal way in order to live the Way of God he came to embody. In The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bourgeault – an Episcopal priest whose scholarship I’ve made reference to in these past few weeks – because I find Bourgeault’s reading of scripture a fresh way for us to make sense of Jesus. Bourgeault writes of the three key elements of Jesus’ Way. She names them kenosis or self-emptying, abundance or seeing the “dance of Divine generosity that is always flowing toward us” (p. 104), and singleness – which has nothing to do with being unmarried but singleness in the terms of seeing “the world through a single lens of wholeness” (p. 106). Not this or that, but one unified whole. . . . Knowing Jesus, we can see how he did in fact inhabit this world daily through such self-emptying, abundant, singleness in seeing it all as one interconnected whole. Bourgeault reminds us that we see Jesus’ Way already from the temptations in the wilderness. She writes: “In each case Satan asks Jesus to take (feed yourself by turning stones into bread; display yourself by drawing on your divine powers; advance yourself by letting me set you up as ruler of the entire world).” Bourgeault writes: “Jesus responds simply by letting go of the bait being dangled, content to rest in his emptiness” (p. 103). He lives among us in a way that continuously is letting go. Allowing. Content to remain empty of himself that God might fill him up.
As recorded in the gospel of John, when the Greeks come to visit him Passover week; Jesus reminds of the truth of the grain – which is a beautiful way for Jesus to point to the wisdom all around us in this world. “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “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” (John 12:24). Every farmer knows the truth of the seed. The necessary dying. The descent into the darkness that has to come for new life to grow – for resurrection to take place. Jesus has been living this Way everyday – some might even say he’s been doing it in preparation for the big death, the moment he breaths his last in trust that he again will be lifted up. Bourgeault beautifully writes: that in his crucifixion, Jesus was wagering “his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to life.” She continues: He was proving “that the spiritual identity forged through kenotic self-surrender survives the grave and can never be taken away.” It reminds us “that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive” (The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Cynthia Bourgeault, p. 186).
It is the Way Jesus – who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – calls us all to follow. The Way he invites to be, that we too might Live – truly Live. Emptying ourselves so that we approach life less as a clenched fist and more as an opened hand. Trusting in the abundant generosity of God that perpetually flows. Seeing everything as one, unified whole – each of us interconnected with it all. Thus we follow our Leader every step of the Way, as children of the Light. Living his Way. Dying his Way. Living again forevermore. May it be so.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)