A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Lent 5B on March 18, 2018 on John 12:20-33.
It was a bright, clear early spring morning in Nashville, and a happy five-year-old donned in a bright kelly-green shirt came marching into my classroom. “Ms. Kello,” he said with serious excitement, “There is an island. It had snakes. St. Patrick came. Now there’s no more snakes.” And he promptly turned to go unpack his backpack and prepare for the morning, glad as if he had just fully imparted to me all knowledge of Irish folklore, the nature of sainthood, and the dangers of snakes, but this left me saying, “Wait….what??” It turns out that on the way to school that St. Patrick’s Day, he had a conversation with his father about what St. Patrick’s Day is about, and I was just getting parts of the conversation, the parts that seem to matter and the ones that stuck; I was left several questions.
So much happens in our gospel passage today. Word has spread about Jesus, and likely by the time of John’s writing there have been some effective missionary works and at the preparation of the Passover feast, John reports that there were Greeks. These Greeks wanted to see and talk with Jesus, but could not initiate on their own, so Andrew and Philip told Jesus and instead of Jesus jumping at the chance to talk and meet with them, Jesus goes into a long monologue. The time has come for Jesus’ crucifixion. Like a grain of wheat, he must die so that the church will grow and flourish and be fruitful. Those who serve God, must follow Christ; they must lose their life to save it. While other versions of the gospel have Jesus asking God to let this cup pass, John’s Jesus certainly wouldn’t ask for the cup to pass from him, because John’s Jesus fully understands and has accepted the ways in which this must play out. Jesus invokes God to speak and to glorify God’s name, and God does so and promises to do it again. To some it sounded like thunder, for others it seemed obvious that an angel had spoken to him. Jesus affirms that the voice spoke from heaven was for the crowd, not for him. Jesus then predicts his death and that he will draw all people to himself through that event.
And while at this point in their lives and discipleship, I’m sure that Andrew and Philip were used to the particularities of following Jesus, but I can definitely imagine them saying, “Wait….what?” Perhaps John leaves out Jesus responding to the Greeks who wish to see him. Maybe Andrew and Philip wait patiently while Jesus begins his proclamation. Maybe both are true.
Throughout John’s gospel, it is clear that John is writing with a purpose and an intention; the gospel according to John is the odd one, it’s different than the other gospels, and is generally thought to have been the last gospel written and spread throughout the world. John always writes with an eye toward the crucifixion and resurrection.
The gospel according to John is always oriented toward the resurrection, but the ultimate, guiding and most important thing for John was love; love is always present in every bit of John’s gospel because love is intrinsic to Jesus’s work, life, death, and resurrection. While we can talk ambiguously about love, it is love that must guide us, ultimately even to the point of death; we do not know where this path leads, but we do know what must guide our steps. Those of us who follow Jesus wade into a life marked by death; to be a disciple of Christ is not to live a life marked by ease and comfort.
Because John is so oriented toward the resurrection, it is important to remember when we only hear portions of his gospel on Sunday mornings that the pre-Easter Jesus doesn’t make sense without the post-Easter church. John thought the world and all that was in it was so worth loving that God sent God’s son to die upon the cross to draw up all humanity unto him. For John, when those of us who follow Christ live a life so saturated with love of God and of Christ, that in comparison, our own lives matter very little. Not because we aren’t worthy or because Christ wants us to hate ourselves, but because the whole thrust of our lives once we are marked as Christ’s own forever in baptism is that we must be ruled and guided by the love of the cross.
The pre-Easter Jesus doesn’t make sense without the post-Easter church; the things that Jesus says before he goes to the cross only make sense in the light of the cross and resurrection. The ways in which the church flourishes after Christ’s death and resurrection help us to make sense of what John reports Jesus saying here that the one who dies will bear much fruit.
While the ways in which Jesus speaks before Easter doesn’t make sense without the way in which the church flourishes after, the inverse is true as well – the post-Easter Church does not make sense without the pre-Easter Jesus. Who we are as the church today doesn’t make sense without the Jesus that speaks to the people before his crucifixion. The life that Jesus led paved the way to the cross and the grain of wheat did not fall and die for no reason – the things that Jesus did in his life so angered the society around him that he was driven to the cross. It is not, as the old hymn suggests, the wrath of God that nailed Jesus to the cross, but the wrath of man. Jesus preached about repentance and redemption; he preached about inclusion and belonging. Jesus called his disciples to live a life that went beyond the status quo.
The life lived by Jesus is just as important as the death that he died. During this holy, Lenten season, we walk in the way of Jesus with him toward the cross. Jesus invites us to follow him and to be where he is. Following the way of the cross does, in fact, lead toward death, this is one thing of which we can be certain. Because in a life of faith, we die to our selfishness, to our self-centeredness; it requires that we die to the belief that others are unworthy of our time or of God’s abundant love and grace. It requires us to be willing to walk with Jesus to the death upon the cross. Because while following the way of Jesus does not lead to the emptiness of death, it does require us to walk through it. In John’s gospel, when death is mentioned it goes hand in hand with the truth of the resurrection. Christ does not rise until Christ is crucified.
I had the opportunity this weekend to go to an Episcopal conference on evangelism, Evangelism Matters. I’ve mentioned before that evangelism is still a word for me that is being redeemed; I’m on board the concept, but I want to know what people mean when they talk about evangelism. At one of the sessions, the Rev. Marcus Halley, a priest serving in Minnesota, talked about how particularly at this time of year it is a reminder that what seems dead is actually quite active, because dormant is not the same thing as dead. There trees that may still be bare even as others around them bloom, but they are working hard to begin to bear fruit. As the post-Easter church, we are dying into a vibrant and loving life of faith.
When we seek to be the church that rises out of the death of the cross and the resurrection that followed it, we must remember that while we are the post-Easter church, we follow the path laid down by the pre-Easter Jesus. We do not get to fast-forward these 40 days through Lent; we do not get to rush through Holy Week to the glory coming on Easter morning. Just as it is a long journey to the cross, it is a long journey to follow in the way of the cross and to live a life as faithful disciples. We must remember as we die to ourselves as we walk the path of the cross that God is cultivating within our lives and in our death the fruit of a faithful community. May each of us, every day, in every prayer, and in every interaction that we have with others die to ourselves as we take up the cross of Christ.