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?