Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
Lent 5 B – Sunday, March 18, 2012
A Celtic Cross near the Monastery Church
There are many things we could disagree about when reading the Gospels, but one thing I think everyone could agree on is that there are no extraneous details... The Evangelists didn't waste words. Every little detail we come across in the reading from John's Gospel this morning has / is of great importance.
Take for example the very first line: “Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the feast.” It seems insignificant enough – some Greeks. We don't learn much about them, just that they go to worship. This festival of Passover is a Jewish festival and we might assume John means Greek speaking Jews – since they were plentiful. But there is a different word for Greek speaking Jews, so these were not Jews, they were Gentiles. And that is the importance of what John is telling us.
Gentiles are coming to worship with Jesus – or put the other way, this Jesus movement is not just for Jews any more. John underscores the message: Andrew and Phillip are the disciples who interact with these Gentiles... Andrew and Phillip were the first disciples called directly by Jesus – and the call was “Come and see.” Now we have an approximate echo from this band of Greeks – “we would like to see Jesus...”
The early church will debate the proper place of non-Jews in the movement, but John seems to be telling us now, before Jesus' crucifixion, that all are invited. And still today, we struggle with the radical inclusiveness of Jesus.
There is an urgency in John's narrative. Jesus time on Earth is growing short, so he does not linger on this story. Instead we move right along with Jesus teaching about his impending death.
Unless a seed dies and falls to the ground, it remains a single seed. But if it dies and, presumably, sprouts into a new plant, it produces much fruit. How the many layers of this simple story resonate with death and resurrection. But the most fascinating thing, to me, is how different the resurrection is. The “single” seed becomes “much fruit.” It is not resurrected as another solitary seed. I think this is not just telling us about proliferation, but about community. In John's nomenclature, fruit is what we are. But the image is perhaps a cornucopia, rather than a still life with a piece of fruit...
But we zip along – those who love their life in this world will loose it, but those who hate their life in this world will gain eternal life. This leaves me with various unanswerable questions. First among them – did Jesus hate his life in this world?
It is a big question for me. Jesus does not seem to hate life in this world. I can surely understand that he sometimes was annoyed, sometimes frustrated, sometimes angry, but I can't read the Gospels without having the impression of a warm and loving person, full of celebration – after all, we must celebrate while the bridegroom is with us.
I don't think Jesus is calling us to hate life, but rather to reject the things of this life... things that our society, our culture, our experience teach us we ought to love. These are the idols we put in the place of God. We can not serve two masters.
For example: I love Tudor church music. Anybody who questions the inspired genius of Thomas Tallis is going to have a fight with me. Hearing, or better still, singing those exquisite English and Latin anthems that sprang from his pen surely gives me a glimpse of heaven. But it is not heaven, only a glimpse.
The drive to perform an anthem perfectly quickly becomes a powerful way to push God right out of a worship service. If I love the things of this world, it leaves little space for me to love God and God's kingdom.
Of course, on the list of hazardous worldly affections, Tudor Church Music is at the benign end. Further along that continuum there is money, power, greed, comfort, and on and on. When I am falling in love with money... when I am falling in love with power... I may not be able to stop myself, but at least at some level I know I am in trouble. The beguiling beauty of Tudor Church Music, or whatever your pleasure may be, blinds me to the power of the attachment.
Jesus offers no qualifiers – he doesn't say those who love the “wicked” things... or those who love the things of this world “too much...” We must be prepared to walk away from the lust for beauty as much as from the lust for power.
In Lent, especially this far into Lent, we are perhaps most aware of our need to strip away various lusts that interfere with our love of God, but Jesus puts no time boundaries on this call... Come Easter, come the resurrection, I will still need to be learning to hate the things of this life.
Jesus continues in a more sorrowful tone – “my soul is troubled...” Jesus is clearly thinking of his pending crucifixion. If it were me, the pain and agony of this torturous form of execution is probably what would trouble my soul, but Jesus is clearly not troubled by what is about to take place. “Should I say save me?” No, Jesus' life and soon his death are for the glory of God.
Jesus has, just moments before, instructed us on not being attached to this life, so it it would be strange indeed if he were to pray “God spare me.” I believe Jesus loved, and loves, very deeply. God is love, so how could it be otherwise. Jesus' execution will cause unfathomable pain for those he loves. No doubt this is why his soul is troubled. But in Jesus there is no sentimentality. And loss is part of love.
This section of John's Gospel is pushing one powerful question before us: What does Jesus death mean to us? Jesus is making his disciples and the crowd face this question – and here we are.
What do the events of Holy Week, which is so nearly upon us, mean for us?
Jesus says “when I am lifted from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
Jesus' crucifixion is often viewed through the lens of sacrifice – either a sacrifice of ransom: Jesus dies to pay the price for our sins; or atonement: Jesus suffers the punishment for our sins in our place. Great theologians over the millennia have explored these ideas – and I must say I am no theologian. I also have to say both these ideas of sacrifice, ransom or atonement, make me very uncomfortable – in part because of what these ideas say about God, but also, to be honest, because both ask me to consider the depth of my sin.
But here is Jesus in John's Gospel reflecting on the significance of his death and resurrection and sacrifice is not part of the reflection. As the seed dies and is buried so that it can resurrect into abundant fruit, so Jesus dies and is buried so that he can resurrect into abundant fruit. And when he does that, he will gather us all, sinful though we be, to himself. This is God's love triumphing over death.
Ultimately in this short Gospel passage Jesus is telling us how we will be reconciled with God. Jesus gathers us to himself. It is a reconciliation formed entirely of God's loving grace.
Does that mean my work as a follower of Jesus is done? I can sit back and receive grace?
Well I can't earn grace, so in that regard there is no work for me to do. But Jesus calls us to serve and to follow. And in that regard there is always much work to do.
John Wesley spent a great deal of time reflecting on what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. He described it in terms of sanctified living. And his understanding of sanctified living is not that it brings us to grace, but that it is our joyful response to having already received grace.
We are already the recipients of God's endless and unconditional love. How can we do anything but let that love overflow in our own lives – through love of God, love of neighbor, love of stranger, love of all creation, and, yes, love of our selves.