A sermon, based on John 12.20-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018
Some Greeks, probably Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora, dwelling in lands outside of Palestine, come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Hearing word of a wonder-working rabbi, they tell Philip, identified as one of his disciples, they want to see Jesus. Philip tells Andrew. They tell Jesus, who launches into a dramatic soliloquy about his death. This seminal moment, affirming that Jesus’ ministry has spread beyond Israel to the world, confirms that the time has come to fulfill his destiny.
We aren’t told whether the Greeks saw Jesus. Yet I think that it is more…most important that we do.
Suppose some folk, knowing we are Christians, came to us, saying, “We want to see Jesus.” What would we do?
Would we, as Philip sought Andrew, seek out fellow Christians, saying, “They want to see Jesus. What do we do now?”
Or call someone like me, a priest, a professionally religious person, saying, “Can we send them to you?”
Or invite them to join us in Bible study or pray with them?
Or share with them our life’s stories, including our personal testimony of who Jesus is and what he means to us?
Or remain silent, not knowing what to say?
Or apologize, “We’re sorry. We can’t help you. We’ve never seen Jesus”?
True. We haven’t seen Jesus, at least, not as he is portrayed in the Bible. We weren’t at the Bethlehem manger at his birth. Or at the Jerusalem temple watching as the precocious twelve-year old Jesus astounded the teachers of the Law with his questions and answers.(1) Or at the River Jordan at his baptism or waiting at the edge of the wilderness when he emerged following his forty-day-and-night fast and temptation by the devil. We didn’t see him point to us, saying, “Follow me”, as he launched his public ministry. Or see him firsthand teaching, preaching, healing. Or stand at the foot of the cross of his self-sacrificial dying. No. We haven’t seen Jesus.
However, when I became a regular, daily Bible reader, now, nearly fifty years ago, I recall reflecting on the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus equates feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners with serving him.(2) It was clear to me then and now that I could see Jesus in the faces of my sisters and brothers in need.
When I became a serious student of theology and began to interpret the gospels as narratives of Jesus’ life of love and justice in a world, then and now, filled with hatred and inequity, it was clear. I could see Jesus in others, especially those who stand up and speak up for the sake of those in need.
Yet it is not only in the faces of the needy and those who serve them that I see Jesus. For Jesus is the paradigm of genuine divinity and authentic humanity. Jesus is both God and us. Jesus is the way God is and the way we are created to be. Therefore, all humanity reflects his image. If we want to see Jesus, then look into any face, every face, our faces.
When we look, if we have trouble seeing Jesus, then I offer this recommendation. Let us hear Jesus: “Unless a grain falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it bears fruit. Those who love life lose it. Those who hate life keep it…”
And then, following his lead, let us experience death!
I’m not talking about that final moment when we draw our last breath, which will come. I’m talking about the ever-present moment of now and the dying that can happen only when we choose. The self-denying, cross-bearing dying of not loving so much, too much our life as we know it, design it, form it, shape it that we refuse to risk it.
And here in Lent, this season of self-examination and repentance (truly, a model for our everyday existence), I share some ways of dying-to-self that I have learned over the years to practice in that ever-present moment of now:
Compelling, forcing myself to think a new, often uncomfortable thought beyond the boundaries of my settled and assured worldview, which, even at its broadest points, because I do not and cannot think all things, is always narrow…
Viewing an issue from another, even opposite perspective, striving to understand, to accept how it is possible that someone, anyone could see it that way…
Confronting my prejudices, my ingrown negative presuppositions about others based on gender, race, class, and culture, and then, convicted anew of my sin of bigotry, seeing and accepting others as individuals…
Revisiting an old, broken relationship with a word of confession or forgiveness, seeking reconciliation.
The possibilities of not loving our lives too much, yea, of dying to ourselves are as endless as our imaginations working within the specific contexts of our histories and memories and daily circumstances. And if…when we engage in self-denying, cross-bearing, life-losing dying-to-self, there we will see Jesus!
(1) Luke 2.41-47
(2) Matthew 25.35-36, 40
Illustration: We would see Jesus, James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot depicts the city of Jerusalem with pilgrims from throughout the world coming to commemorate the Passover. Jesus, robed in white, with his disciples gathered around him, looks on as the Greeks, standing at the base of the stairs, speak to Philip. Andrew, pointing at Jesus, stands behind Philip.