Sunday, March 18, 2018

See Jesus Or Follow Him?

March 18, 2018 – Lent 5B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Do you want to see Jesus or to follow him?

That’s the question John is asking us as we read this gospel lesson this morning: do we wish to see Jesus or follow him? For the third week in a row, our story takes place during the Passover festival. The people of Israel have come into Jerusalem to celebrate the feast that defines their identity. This is the time each year when they celebrate the liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Inevitably, a religious and nationalistic fervor spills out into the streets.

But this week’s lesson, unlike the two before it, takes place during the last Passover of Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus’ movement is nearing its climax, and he has brought it with him into the capital city for a showdown with the religious and political authorities of his day. This story takes place immediately after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we will celebrate more fully next Sunday. The people who saw him ride into town could not have missed the messianic implications of his demonstration. A man on a colt, riding into Jerusalem, while people shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” was a pretty unmistakable sign. The parade of people who followed this controversial rabbi into the city were prepared to watch him confront the powers-that-be who stood in the way of God’s people’s freedom.

Among those who had been caught up in the frenzy were some Greeks—some Gentiles who really didn’t belong in this setting. We don’t know why, but, for some reason, they wanted to learn more about the movement that Jesus was leading. Maybe they had their own axe to grind with Pilate and the Roman authorities. Maybe they were impressed by Jesus’ emphasis on non-violence and were captivated by a leader who would enter the city not on military horseback but on a peasant’s donkey. Maybe they were spell-bound by the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery and suspected that Jesus might be the present-day embodiment of God’s deliverance. Whatever the reason, these Greeks approached Philip, probably because he had a Greek name and came from a predominantly Gentile part of Palestine, and asked him if they could see Jesus. But Philip wasn’t sure whether these Gentiles would be given an audience by his rabbi, whose ministry so far had included only Jews and Samaritans. So Philip found Andrew, and together they mustered up enough nerve to go and tell Jesus about them.

To their relief, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” With those words, Jesus let them know that their suspicions had been correct. This Passover festival indeed would be the moment when Jesus would reveal his full glory. Finally, his apocalyptic reign over both the nation of Israel and the other nations of the world would be enacted. Philip and Andrew must have looked at each other with real excitement…until Jesus explained how that reign would take shape.

“Unless a grain a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” That wasn’t the parable they were expecting to hear. That didn’t sound like a victory over the enemies of God. It sounded like Jesus was predicting his own death—as if he were saying that the only way his movement would reach its full potential was if he died. That didn’t sound like good news. And Jesus wasn’t finished. “Those who love their life lose it,” he continued, “and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Was Jesus saying that they had to die, too? Or was this some sort of metaphor—another parable? Was Jesus really teaching them that the only way they could share in his glory was by giving up their life? But, before they could ask him for clarification, Jesus made it painfully obvious: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” In other words, if you are going to be my disciple, you must follow me wherever I go—even unto death.

I don’t think it’s an accident that we never hear from those Greeks again. And it’s no surprise that, by the end of Good Friday, all of the disciples have run away, too. It’s fun to see Jesus. It’s exciting to stand on the side of the road and watch him come into the holy city and cheer him on. It’s energizing and life-giving to linger in his presence. But seeing Jesus and following him are two very different things. Seeing him is easy, but following him means death. Seeing him means victory for a day, but following him means a lifetime of loss. And, today, that choice is ours: will we stand off to the side, gratified even for a chance to see Jesus, or will we follow him on a path that leads even to death—both his and ours?

For some, that means a physical death. Followers of Jesus in places like North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen are arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and executed just like Jesus. Christians in those places hear Jesus’ invitation to lose their lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel, and they embrace it with startling totality. But what about the rest of us? Are Christians in the Christianized world excused from martyrdom because we happened to have been born in a culture where following Jesus is widely accepted? Or are we still called to die with him?

Each of us must choose what kind of glory we will seek: ours or God’s, the world’s or the kingdom’s? Jesus said, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Are there any more threatening words in the gospel? We try to explain them away by appealing to a Semiticism or metaphorical hyperbole. We want enough exegetical wiggle room to allow us to conclude that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. But is there anything metaphorical about the suffering and death of Jesus? Is there anything hyperbolic about the persecution and execution of Jesus’ early followers or those who are martyred still today?

If you are going to follow Jesus, you, too, must die with him and, in so doing, die a death as costly as that of any martyr. You must die to yourself and to your own will so that you might be born again in obedience to God. You must die to wealth and power in order that you might be born again free from their tyranny and bondage. You must die to your family and friends and all the support structures of this life so that you might be born again completely dependent on God’s grace. Following Jesus is costlier than we can imagine. It will cost us everything. But dying is the only way that we can be born again into everlasting life.

We don’t know what happened to those Greeks who wished to see Jesus. Maybe they stuck around, or maybe they slipped away when no one was looking. What we do know is that following Jesus isn’t easy. Yet millions and millions of disciples have been willing to risk everything they have—even their own lives—in order to do so. And why? “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” The path that leads to our true joy, to our greatest meaning, and to our most abundant life is found only when we walk behind Jesus. What are we here to do? Are we here to see Jesus or to follow him?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Pivotal Theophany

I skimmed through all of John this morning to confirm (I think) that Sunday's gospel lesson (John 12:20-33) is the only time that the Father "speaks" during John's gospel account. When Jesus said, "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." a voice from heaven responded, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." In the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we hear the father's voice at Jesus' baptism and again at the transfiguration. Those events aren't directly recorded in John, and, despite a reference to John the Baptist seeing the Spirit descending upon Jesus, there is no reference to the Father's voice. This is it. This is the only time the Father speaks in John.

If you consider John's entire narrative, that makes sense. For John, Jesus is the theophany. What Jesus says is what the Father says. Several times, he makes that point when speaking to his opponents: "I and the Father are one" and "My teaching is not mine but his who sent me." For John, Jesus himself is the testament of God to the world. His miracles are not recalled as "miracles" but as "signs" that point back to God. The synoptic accounts, however, give us those defining moments of baptism and transfiguration when the Father breaks through the silence and discloses Jesus' true identity. John's single verbal theophany, therefore, is worth noting not only because of its singularity but also because it is so different from the theophanies of the synoptic tradition.

The only time the Father speaks in John, he says, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." This is a turning point for John's account. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds are gathering. People are excited. They are also confused. At this point, the stage seems set for Jesus to take over the throne of his ancestor David. He has brought his movement to the holy city during the Passover festival. Everyone is thinking about freedom. This is the perfect time for Jesus to overthrow the Roman oppression. Will his movement reach its climax? Yes, it will. But it won't be the culmination that the people are looking for. Instead, he will be betrayed, arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. And the crowd will be left to wonder, "What happened?" And God the Father is offering the answer: "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."

As a Christian, the hardest thing for me to internalize is the counter-cultural, counter-instinctive nature of God's glory. God's glory is not revealed in splendor or power but in humility and weakness. That's not just an accident of history. That's not just political spin by the followers of Jesus after his movement stumbled (failed?) during this Passover showdown. It is the very nature of God's glory. And God the Father speaks to be sure that we hear it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Life to Love or Hate

On Monday, I admitted in this blog that I find Sunday's gospel lesson (John 12:20-33) a little disjointed. There are the Greeks who wish to see Jesus. There's Jesus' parabolic semi-response about a grain of wheat falling into the ground. There's Jesus' instruction that serving him means following him. There's the statement about glory and the thunderous answer from heaven. And there's the prediction about Jesus' raised-from-the-earth-on-a-cross death. But the part that really sticks out--the part that almost begs for a sermon by itself--is what Jesus says about this life:

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This came up in staff meeting as one of my colleagues admitted that this was a troubling verse--not because of its "hate your life" implications but because of its head-spinning nature. His comments surprised me. What's the "it" that one loses or gains? If you hate your life, are you stuck with it? What's better: to love your life for a little while before losing it or to hate your life and be stuck with it forever. I've never struggled with the meaning of this sentence--just its execution--but those questions left me wondering whether people really know what Jesus meant.

What did Jesus mean? What does it really mean to hate one's life? I think the emphasis has to fall on "in this world" before the sentence can make sense. This isn't just about hating life itself. Life is good. Life is a gift. But it is about living so fully in the next life that we forsake this life. Hate is a funny word. In the Greek (miseo), it can imply "detest," but it can also mean "love less" as in the choice one makes. The decision of where we will place our priority is what really matters. Do we choose this life or the next?

Do you want to be rich in this life or the next? Do you want to be happy in this life or the next? Do you want to experience peace and comfort in this world or in the next? You can't have both. That's the challenge. That's the real falsehood we have to overcome. We are accustomed to having our cake and eating it and a second slice of it, too. But, for Jesus, it must be this world or the next. And those of us who think we can have both have decided "this world" without realizing it.

At this point in John's gospel, Jesus' movement is reaching its climax. He has paraded into Jerusalem as a direct challenge to Roman authority. The conflict he has with the religious authorities of his day has reached the breaking point. The great cosmic collision between the powerless and the powerful is unfolding. And, in that moment, Jesus asks innocently yet decisively: where do you want your status to be--in this life or the next? 

This is the great conflict of Jesus' day, and it is the great conflict of ours as well. As we make our way closer to Jerusalem, we face that choice. Will we live for God and God's kingdom or the kingdom of our own making? You can't have both. This is the time to choose.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Finding Home in God

How do you know when you're home? Not just in your house, but how do you know when you're really home? Some say it's the one place where they have to let you in. Some say it's the place where they take you just as you are. For me, it's the place where I know I truly belong.

In John 5:1-18, Jesus stumbled upon a man who is lost in a spiritual and physical wilderness. He had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. He had been lying on a mat on the ground by the pool waiting for healing, but that healing, although tantalizingly close, was forever beyond his grasp. The waters, it seems, had healing properties. Tradition held that when the water was stirred up--perhaps by the arrival of an angel--whoever was first in the pool was healed of whatever disease or disability she or he had. The man literally could see the healing he desperately desired, but he could not get to it. For all it mattered to him, he might as well be out in the desert places. So distant was that hope that it had become invisible. When Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, all he do was reiterate the problem: "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."

There's a tension between wilderness and home with which this text is impregnated. A Jewish reader of this story would have noticed a connection between the thirty-eight years that the man had been an invalid and the thirty-eight years that Israel wandered in the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land. With that insight, the five porticoes remind the reader of the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. The conflict between the religious authorities and the man and Jesus over the Sabbath healing, therefore, becomes not only a controversy of the day but a commentary on the relationship between God's people and the Law. It is Jesus' acknowledgment that God's people belong at home with God and that the forces of evil that pervert that relationship by leaving God's people stranded in the desert must be rebuked.

What does it mean to come out of the wilderness and find one's self at home? What does it mean to leave behind one's wanderings in a spiritual desert and find a true sense of belonging in God? Until Jesus came, the Law was God's greatest gift to God's people. It was the gift of a relationship, of a belonging. It defined the people of Israel as a nation that belongs to God. It was a celebration of that belonging. Yet, for some, that belonging was only an illusion. Those who were marked as deficient physically, spiritually, morally, or economically were ostracized and left out in the wilderness. Jesus did not come to reverse or replace the sense of belonging between God and God's people. Jesus came to restore that sense of belonging.

Today, are the followers of Jesus more interested in drawing a circle around those whom they think belong to God, differentiating between those who are in and those who are out, or restoring the truth that God's desire is for all people to belong to God? How have we, Jesus' disciples, lost sight of Jesus' mission and replaced it with our own idolatrous agenda? This Lent, as we approach the holy city, where Jesus "stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace," will we repent of the separations that we have enforced between us and them? We have been given the privilege of knowing and trusting that we belong to God. That truth has been granted in our birth and reinforced by our position in life. We have a home in God. But that home doesn't belong to us. It isn't ours to protect. It is the place where even strangers belong. It's time for us to leave the front door and the back door unlocked.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Glorification of Jesus

I have several colleagues who bemoan the loss of Palm Sunday's exclusive focus on Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I'm getting a head start and addressing that issue a week early because I believe that this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 12:20-33) gives the preacher a lectionary-anachronistic way to focus on what is represented by Jesus' entry into the holy city at the Passover festival. No, I don't think that will be satisfying to those who think we should save the story of the passion until Good Friday, but there's another reason to focus on Jesus' entry into Jerusalem this week, and it has to do with making sense of John 12.

This week, as I first read through the lessons, I find the gospel lesson uninviting. It's a strange combination of some Greeks who want to see Jesus, a parable-like self-reference to Jesus' own death, and the voice from heaven confirming Jesus' glorification. It feels disjointed. There's no clear narrative. It doesn't seem to have a lot of preaching material. But then I looked at the rest of John 12 and saw why the theme of glorification is so important to this text.

At the beginning of John 12, Mary anoints Jesus with the pound of costly nard, a lavish gesture befitting a king. A few verses later, Jesus enters Jerusalem to shouts of "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel!" In classic Johannine fashion, the disciples are said to "not understand these things at first, but, when Jesus was glorified, they remembered..." It is that tension that swirls around Jesus' glorification that pervades this Sunday's reading. Is he to be hailed as an earthly king? Or will his kingship be crowned in another way?

The unnamed Greeks come to Philip and ask to see Jesus. They had come to Jerusalem for the festivities and, perhaps, had witnessed Jesus' counter-demonstration. They were interested in learning more about Jesus and the political counter-imperial movement that he represented. But Jesus' response shows us that, although he stands in direct opposition to the rulers of his day, he is not interested in taking their place by assuming earthly power: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone..."

Lest anyone think that his death is a sign of failure, Jesus engages in a rhetorical display that confirms his cross-ready mentality: "And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour?' But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." At that moment, the Father's voice proclaims, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." Some thought it thundered. Others thought an angel had spoken. John and the readers understand that God himself is confirming the nature of glory that befits God's son.

On Palm Sunday, we go from the "Hosanna!" of the Liturgy of the Palms to the "Crucify him!" of the Passion Narrative by the end of the service. This week, we feel that same juxtaposition, but we have to expand our context a little bit to get there. Even if you're not ready to give up on celebrating the triumphal entry next week, take a moment to ground John 12 in its larger context. This passage about glory is too rich to pass up.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Endurance is Underrated

I have four children who are ten-years-old or younger. It goes without saying, therefore, that there is a lot of complaining in our house. When we ask a child to empty the dishwasher or set the table or fold laundry. When one child takes a toy away from another or refuses to share with a sibling. When we have asparagus or spinach or mushrooms with supper. Lots of whining. I hope and pray that they will all grow out of it, but, at this point, I'll settle for an hour of contentment.

Maybe it's because I can't get a kid to start and finish a chore without complaining, but, to me, endurance seems vastly underrated.

Today, in the life of the church, we celebrate the witness of Perpetua and her companions, who were martyred in the third century for refusing to participate in sacrifices to the emperor's divinity. Legend has it that Perpetua's father begged her to recant, but she refused, saying simply, "I am a Christian." According to Lesser Feasts & Fasts, they were thrown into the arena to be killed by an assortment of wild animals, including a bear, a boar, and a "savage cow" (whatever that is). When the animals did not finish the job, a soldier went to strike Perpetua in the neck with a sword, but he missed, and Perpetua herself had to guide the sword to its proper place. Some say that the evil represented by the executioner would not have been able to kill her had she not submitted to death voluntarily. Throughout it all, Perpetua and her companions encouraged one another to face death nobly and not to give into the temptation to renounce their faith.

The gospel lesson for today is Matthew 24:9-14, in which Jesus warns his disciples that they will be "tortured" and "put to death" and "hated by all nations because of [his] name."  That may have been true of the original disciples and other early Christians like Perpetua and her companions. But what about us? None of us will be subjected to a "savage cow." None of us is likely to be executed because of our faith. What do Jesus' words mean to this generation?

In the face of those challenges, Jesus encouraged his disciples, saying, "But the one who endures to the end will be saved." I take that not as a warning but a word of hope. Yes, sufferings will come, but, if you endure, you will be saved. There is light on the other side of darkness. On the other side of suffering is God's salvation. Maybe that was Jesus' most important word to those early Christians, and maybe it's the most important thing we can hear him say.

We may not face the sword, but we do face hardships, and I find myself drawn toward those who bear the challenges of life with hope and a spirit of perseverance and not constant complaining. There are those among us who whine at every disappointment. I don't like being around them much. But those who have endured incredible difficulty physically, emotionally, financially, and relationally and who bear those burdens with grace and light are those I want to be with in life's journey. They help me see what it means to have hope in the face of adversity. They are the ones who have received Jesus' encouragement. They are the ones who remind us how to have faith. They are the Perpetuas all around us, whose witness encourage us through life's challenges.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Really Strange Theology

Passages like the Old Testament reading for this coming Sunday (Numbers 21:4-9) are the reason that many Christians wrongly believe that the God of the Hebrew scriptures is different from the God of the New Testament. They are also some of my favorites. There are so many layers of questions to ask. What does it say about God that he would send poisonous serpents to bite and kill the Israelites who grumbled yet again in the wilderness about their mediocre food rations? What does it say about God that he would command that a bronze serpent be made and placed on a pole so that, in an act of near idol worship, those who were bit by the snakes might be saved? What does it say about the people of Israel that a story like this, which takes place after the prohibition against idols was issued in Exodus as part of the ten commandments and which gets revised into its current form long, long after that prohibition had become primary in Israel's theology, gets preserved in scripture?

I love the Bible. I love its complexity. I love that it doesn't make sense. I love that, centuries later, when Jesus is speaking to a learned leader in the Jewish community in John 3, he cites this bizarre story from numbers as an interpretive lens for his own death. That suggests to me that rabbinical scholars in Jesus' day were still wrestling with this strange story. What does it mean? How do we make sense of it? What is it supposed to teach us?

We can't solve all of the questions that this passage presents. A preacher who attempts to tidy this up into a neat little homelitcal passage will do his or her congregation a great disservice. It's messy, and it's supposed to be. What does the preacher do with Numbers 21 except, perhaps, ignore it? Maybe there's a sermon about gazing upon the magnitude of one's sin--whether staring at the serpent on the pole or beholding the crucified Son of Man--as the key to understanding salvation. Or perhaps one might preach about the clarity of hindsight--that it sometimes feels like God sends poisonous serpents to punish us when we deserve it, but, in fact, he's the one who makes even an illogical path for our salvation. I don't know. I'm not preaching this week, and I'm starting out grateful for that.

In the end, stories like Numbers 21 are a problem and an opportunity. Stories about God punishing his people are hard to digest. But they are also a chance for us to remind the world that our sacred stories are written as self-contained packages to be consumed like a sitcom or an episode of West Wing. Even after centuries of study, we might not understand exactly what happened or why it occurred. And still they are given to us as objects for wrestling and scrutiny and, eventually, our formation. That's a different way of dealing with a narrative than the ways to which we have grown accustomed. We live in a culture of "fake news" and political spin. There aren't many voices out there that invite people to struggle with a story until its deep meaning becomes clear while also acknowledging that it may never be fully clear. That sounds like the kind of story I want to encounter. That's the kind of community in which I want to take part. I bet many in the unchurched community would, too.