Both to Serve and Adore
Trinitarian Congregational Church Fifth Sunday in Lent
Anthony S. Kill March 18, 2018
Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-32
As with so many of the Bible passages, today’s Gospel lesson raises more questions than it answers. Since I’ve been learning the Gospel lessons by heart these past few years, I’ve started to notice the details a whole lot more, because I’ve got to memorize those details if I’m going to tell the story accurately.
So today’s passage from John starts out with: “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.”
And it got me to wondering, why did the Greeks say they “want to see Jesus” I don’t think that’s like wanting to “see” Justin Timberlake or Taylor Swift, or wanting to “see” some celebrity or pop star. I suspect it’s more like wanting to see your congressperson, or even maybe wanting to see your doctor. They wanted to meet with Jesus, to talk with him, to ask their questions and hear his answers. They wanted to learn how to be a follower in this Way of Jesus, and how to find entry into this “Kingdom of God” that he kept talking about. And I also got to wondering, “Why did the Greeks approach Philip? And why did Philip go to Andrew instead of to Jesus directly? And why does John tell the story this way? Is there a reason?”
And it turns out, there is. John, like the other Gospel writers, is a very careful storyteller, and chooses every word and every element very purposefully. This story about the Greeks coming to see Jesus is in Chapter 12 of John’s Gospel, at the very end of Jesus public ministry. (Chapter 13 is begins with the Last Supper.)
But we first met Andrew and Philip way back in Chapter 1 of John, They were the first disciples to bring others to meet Jesus Andrew brought his brother Simon, known as Peter, and Philip brought his friend Nathaniel.
In fact, some of the same words were used there. When Andrew first meets Jesus, he asks, “Teacher, where are you staying?” and Jesus says “Come and see” And Andrew comes, and sees, and stays with Jesus. So in John Chapter 1, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Andrew and Philip are the first to bring other Jews to Jesus. And all through his public life, Jesus has been telling his disciples that he came, not just for those in the Jewish faith, but for the alien, the outsider, the gentile. “I have other sheep” he said “who do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.” Now, at the end, the Greeks come, the gentiles, the non-Jews, and just as Andrew and Philip brought the first Jewish followers to Jesus, now they bring the first Gentile followers, and the Way is opened to the whole world, and Jesus knows that it is time to begin the final chapter of his earthly mission. That’s what Jesus’ “answer” to Philip and Andrew is about: when he hears that the Greeks are there to see him, he knows that it is accomplished; his final hour approaches.
And that’s when Jesus speaks of the seed that must fall to the earth and die, in order to bear much fruit.
Sometimes, people interpret those texts about the taking up the cross, or the texts about those who would save their life losing it, but those who lose their lives for Jesus sake finding it, as a very negative, self-sacrificing, or even masochistic message, as though we have to give up our happiness, our self care, our love of life itself in order to be Christian. But for Jesus, the message is just the opposite. He uses the image of the seed that falls into the ground and dies in order bear much fruit to remind us of the true Way of the Kingdom of God.
That losing, that letting go and giving up and giving away, is the way to gain true happiness and find the great treasure and enter fullness of life.
In John, following Jesus is the path of abundant or eternal life. Also in John, the word “hate” means “reject”; it usually refers to what the world does to Jesus and by extension, to his disciples. So when Jesus says, “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” he is encouraging others to follow his lead in hating (or rejecting) this world’s definition of life as a small and isolated existence. Jesus will not — and his followers should not — grasp and hold the seed and thereby fail to bear much fruit.
Of course, living this way implies living each minute of each hour of each day immersed in the awareness of living or seeking this abundant life – living the abundant life, the extravagant life of grace, no matter what it means dying to.
Being a faithful, committed Christian is not a Sunday morning proposition. It is a 24/7 proposition. Some of you out there remember the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show? Gracie Allen played the scatterbrained wife who always had a unique perspective on reality. Once, Gracie called in a repairman to fix her electric clock. The repairman fiddled with it for a bit and then said, “There’s nothing wrong with the clock, lady. you just didn’t have it plugged in.” Gracie replied, “Oh I know. I don’t want to waste electricity, so I only plug it in when I want to know what time it is.” Our Christian commitment is not something we plug in when we need it, or when it’s convenient, or when we can afford it, or when it doesn’t make us uncomfortable. Church is not something we do on Sunday morning, or on the evening of choir practice or a Committee meeting, or on the last day of the month when we write our pledge check. Our faith is our identity when we wake each morning and thank God for our breathing, when we pass each friend or stranger and remember that they are beloved children of God, when we see or read the sad news of poverty and tragedy and injustice and weep for God’s people, because we know that we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers, and what we do or don’t do for the least of these, we do and don’t do to the living Christ.
One more dimension to the image of the seed that dies to bear much fruit: Jesus is also reminding his disciples – and that includes us disciples that the Christian community doesn’t exist for itself alone, the church doesn’t exist for itself alone, Trinitarian Congregational Church doesn’t exist for itself alone. Just as Christ was eager to reach out beyond the fold, and to “draw all people to himself” you too must be eager and active in spreading the good news of what you have here, inviting others to ‘come and see’, to find the treasure, to share the love and joy that you have found.
And you can’t just pursue that goal by inviting people in, hoping they’ll come to the church to check you out and find what hidden treasures you have here. The movement of Christianity beyond Jerusalem, beyond the people of Israel, happened because the apostles quickly realized that they had to start speaking other languages and traveling into unfamiliar territory, pagan territory, even hostile territory beyond Israel, to Corinth and Ephesus and even Athens and Rome to spread their good news.
We all realize that in this day and age, the traditional ways of being church no longer work so well. The families and individuals in our communities have many other priorities, many other distractions, and many other demands on their time and attention. Often they no longer come to a church, or look for a church to be part of their lives. But they may still have the same deep spiritual needs – needs for meaning, needs for community, needs for healing and forgiveness, needs for a sense of purpose and direction.
So perhaps we Christians, like those early disciples need to learn some different languages, or use different words and move out into the highways and byways, into unfamiliar territory, unchurched territory (even seemingly hostile territory?) to bring the message of Jesus, the good news of the Gospel, to a searching world, a searching people.
I don’t have the answers as to how exactly you can do that here, at Trinitarian. But it is a quest and a question that many of you are already exploring, as you consider making a public statement about becoming a more inclusive, more explicitly welcoming congregation. It is a quest and a question that you will continue to explore with your new pastor, in the next phase of your congregation’s life and ministry together.
It is an exciting time to be a Christian church, but it is also kind of a scary time, a risky time, and a time to be more risk-taking as we see mainline churches declining in numbers and resources. I’m sure many of you have heard the familiar adage that the Chinese characters for the word “crisis” is a combination of the words for “danger” and “opportunity” I think that aptly describes the historical moment that the church and the churches find themselves in. Some old familiar ways will have to change. Some habits will have to die, for new ways to emerge. Some churches won’t be able to change or won’t choose to, and some will close. Several have already closed. But others will try, and stretch, and strive and even thrive.
One of the truths that we will all have to hold onto and pray our way into in this time of trial and transition and transformation for the churches are the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel: “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.”