Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Drawing All People


In the moment, it's hard--perhaps impossible--to see how big something will become. Do you think the revolutionaries would have expected us to still be discussing the Boston Tea Party as the spark that set a blaze that led to freedom from British rule? Do you think Rosa Parks knew how big her refusal to give up her seat would become? Do you think Philip and Andrew had any idea that we would still be telling their story 2,000 years later? More often than not, we do our small part and discover later on how much it meant to others. How could we know anything else?

Back in Jesus' day, when the Passover was celebrated, everyone who was able packed up and went to Jerusalem for the feast. Along with Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) and Sukkot (the Feast of Booths), Passover is one of three pilgrimage festivals. It was a celebration that back then did not belong in the home but in the streets of the Holy City and in the courts of the Temple. It was chaotic and energetic and joyful and a little dangerous. People from all over would stream to Jerusalem for the festival that remembered Israel's freedom from Egyptian bondage. Those among the crowds would have felt the surge of nationalism, rebellion, and revolution that this particular holiday represented in Israel's history.

Imagine, then, what it felt like for some Greeks--some Gentile converts to Judaism who had come to the festival--to ask Philip if they could get an audience with Jesus (John 12:20-36). Do you remember that scene from Forrest Gump when Jenny brings Forrest to the "Black Panther party?" I can't say for sure, of course, but, when I hear that Philip went and asked Andrew and together they went and told Jesus, I get the sense that there was more than a little uncertainty whether it would be appropriate for some non-Jews to come and talk with Jesus during the Passover feast. What did the disciples think about their master at this point? They had accompanied him during the triumphal entry into the Holy City, during which the crowd had hailed him as the new King of Israel (John 12:13). They had seen the crowds stirred up to a feverish pitch at the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth, whose following had grown to gargantuan proportions and whose reputation was like that of no other political and religious leader, might come and seize the throne of Israel, wresting it away from Roman occupation. Was this really the time for Jesus to give an interview with some Greeks?

Actually, it wasn't. But not for the reasons the disciples may have thought. When approached by Philip and Andrew, Jesus replied enigmatically, "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." Even though the Passover was only days away and Jesus' sacrificial death was imminent, Jesus' closest followers still couldn't see the direction this trip to Jerusalem would take. They had in their minds the prophecies about the line of David being restored and the king coming to rule in everlasting majesty. But Jesus was focused on passages like Isaiah 49:1-7: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." And Jesus knew that the only way that his movement could transcend the political, cultural, and religious boundaries of ancient Israel was to give up his life--to be lifted up upon the cross so that the whole world might be drawn to the Son of Man.

We need Jesus' death to shatter the boundaries between the peoples of the world. We need the cross to unite us as the one, faithful, beloved people of God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--the God of Israel--is the creator of all that is. He is the only God. Therefore, if we are to have any hope at all, God's work of salvation, which began with his people, must expand to include us--the other nations of the world. Our story of salvation is God's story, and, as such, it must be told as a part of the story of Israel's salvation. Jesus' movement was a Jewish movement. His message of salvation was told to his people. But it was too small a thing for God to use him only to "raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel." Jesus' movement would become even bigger than that. But to do so he must shatter not only the powers of the Roman Empire but also the tyranny of evil and sin and death that reigns over the whole world. In the cross, we have hope because, in the cross, we, too, are set free.

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