Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Way Of The Cross Leads Home

Thanks to Dr. Bruce Epperly, the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, and the Rev. Ryan Kemp-Pappan, whose writings inspired much that follows.

Housekeeping note: I added three verses to the end of the Gospel Lectionary reading, because the reaction of Jesus' Jewish hearers shows that their expectations were for an earthly kingdom, mere replacement of empire.

Here is the audio of the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Hebrews 5:5-10
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

John 12:20-36
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’
After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jerusalem is jam-packed for the Passover when the news gets out that Jesus, the man who raised Lazarus from the dead, is headed into town. A crowd hurries out of the city and lines the road, and, sure enough, before long, Jesus appears, headed into town, riding a donkey.

Now, we’ll likely talk about his entry into Jerusalem next week for Palm Sunday, but I wanted to mention that as background for where our Gospel reading picks up this morning. It seems that, more than anything else Jesus has done – the healings, the feeding of thousands, the words he’s preached to multitudes of people all over the Judean province – it is the raising of Lazarus from the dead which has captured the people’s attention, sparked their imagination, and gotten them talking. Perhaps this really is the Messiah, the Promised One of God!

Jesus may or may not have gotten off of the donkey by the time the Greeks approached Philip. Either way, it’s kind of an odd interlude, isn’t it? Jesus is right there, after all, everyone can see him. Kinda hard to miss a guy who’s getting palm branches waved at him and cloaks thrown in his path, you know. I always wondered why, when these Greeks said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” Philip didn’t just throw his thumb over his shoulder toward the crowd and say, “He’s right there, bud. Can’t miss him, the guy on a donkey.”

Dr. Bruce Epperly points out that “seeing” Jesus can mean more than one thing, though. If they wanted to merely have an audience with Jesus, well, that was one thing. Walk up and say “hi,” right? Or, if you want to be creative, wait ‘til after dark and come calling like Nicodemus did.

But “seeing” also carries a deeper connotation. Perhaps what the Greeks are saying is not that they’d like his autograph, maybe a picture for their FaceBook page, but that they really want to see Jesus – they want to get to know who he is, they want to come to understand him.

If this is the case, what Jesus says in reply makes a lot more sense. Right now, in the entire city of Jerusalem, exactly one person knows how this week is going to end. At the same time Jesus is entering the city gates, in some corner of the barracks where the Roman legions are stationed, there’s a cross and a bag of nails. This crowd, so full of Hosannahs, so ready to hail Jesus as their King? They’ll be turning on Jesus like a cornered raccoon before long. Those disciples? Most of them will be running for the hills. That’s how the week ends for Jesus.

There is precious little information in our reading today about these Greeks who came to see Jesus. Some commentators suggest they were what’s called “Hellenized Jews;” that is, Jewish people who had adopted Greek dress, thought, and mannerisms. And while that’s possible, it is just as possible that these were Greeks who were interested in, but not committed to, Judaism. Perhaps they were in Jerusalem that week to see what Passover was all about. Perhaps they were attached to the court of Herod in some way, or worked in some capacity with the Roman governor.

I imagine that these were likely men with some measure of power, some sense of privilege. If they’d been just a few guys with funny accents, why would Philip not have just taken them to Jesus? Why go get Andrew? It’s as if a certain level of protocol is called for, and being followed.

What’s more, I imagine that their interest in Judaism in general, and Jesus in particular, was filtered through their specifically Greco-Roman understanding of religion. They may have understood that the Jewish people were expecting a Messiah, and saw that the Jewish people in the crowd that day fully expected Jesus to be that Messiah. In “seeing” Jesus, perhaps what they intended to do was, after getting to know who he was and what he was about, acknowledge him as a living god, add him to their pantheon, and go about their business.

Make no mistake, the Greeks, as well as the Romans, were carefully, superstitiously religious, for the most part. The list of gods was almost endless. There was a god for nearly every facet of life: a god who supervised the opening of doors (and another who supervised the closing of doors), gods who protected crossroads, gods responsible for success in battle and at harvest time, and on and on. When Rome conquered a new territory, as often as not they’d adopt the gods those people worshiped, just to make sure they weren’t missing anything. And ever since Julius Caesar, the Romans had been in the habit of declaring their dead emperors gods, as well.

The aim of all this god-collecting was to protect the wealth, power, and privilege of the Greco-Roman way of life. It was, in many ways, a contractual agreement: we make the proper prayers and offerings and sacrifices to you, you keep us safe from invasion, successful in battle, bountiful in harvest, and profitable in business.

And as far as those Jewish crowds surrounding Jesus? If he was the Messiah, they fully expected him to claim the throne of David, destroy the enemies of Israel, and usher in an eternal, peaceful reign that would make Judea the seat of wealth, power, and privilege for eternity.

But Jesus did not come to protect the status quo. Nor did Jesus come to replace one earthly empire with another. Wealth and privilege were, at best, an illusion. Political and military might were, at best, temporary. Where Jesus was headed, these things were not simply irrelevant; they were at enmity with his primary purpose.

Centuries ago, the prophet Jeremiah had spoken the words of a God who had seen his beloved children of Israel weeping for their lost homeland as they languished in Babylon. Perhaps it is true that they’d never really tried to uphold their end of the covenant they’d made with God at Mount Sinai. They had strayed from God, worshiping false idols, ignoring the Law, coming back to God only long enough to be saved from some invading force or another, then falling right back in to the same old habits. But in the same way that a parent still loves a rebellious child, these people were precious to God. So God promised a new way of life – a new covenant, one not made of laws on tablets, but encompassing the heart and mind and spirit, composed not of rules and regulations, but of relationship: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people… they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Jesus was the seed from which this new covenant would burst forth, but seeds do not germinate on thrones of power or pedestals of worship, do they? In fact, for a seed to do its work, it ceases to exist as a seed. The seed dies, and becomes something wholly different.

The seed dies. The path to that garden of relationship in Jesus Christ runs straight through the cross. That is true for Jesus as he speaks to the crowd that day, and it is true for each person in that crowd, and it is true for you and me today.

Like the Greeks, we too often see Christianity as a means to our own ends of social acceptability, prosperity, comfort, and safety. But the Gospel is not about ways to make our life, our marriage, our career, our bank account, our children or anything else work out in a way pleasing to ourselves.

Like the Jewish people in that crowd, we too often use God to justify our racial, political, and national biases and identities. But the Gospel calls us to look beyond these artificial barriers, compels us to build communities where one’s green card or voting record or what football team they root for is irrelevant in the light of the deep and abiding love of God in Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” The Gospel is the call to follow Jesus to the cross and beyond.

Where we may idolize fame, the Gospel is the call to follow Jesus in serving the poor and needy.

Where we place a premium on popularity, the Gospel is the call to follow Jesus in reaching out to the despised and rejected.

Where we place a premium on privilege and power, the Gospel is the call to follow Jesus in standing up for those who are oppressed and ill-served by the world.

Where we may see our good health, full pantries, and gated communities as evidence of God’s favor, the Gospel is the call to follow Jesus in fighting against illness and evil wherever they may be found.

Where we all too often find reassurance and comfort in the things we own, that which we can hold in our hands, the Gospel calls us to forsake the god in our hands, so that the God whose law is written on our hearts can awaken us to a new passion, finding our identity not in where we were born or what we do for a living, but in being a servant of Christ, who said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

And sometimes following Jesus to the cross means we will suffer for our commitments, that we too will be rejected and scorned as much as those with whom we take our stand.

Christ calls us to follow him. It is not an easy nor painless path, and we cannot ever count on smooth sailing. The promise of the gospel is that where God calls us to go, Jesus has already been, and as we go, Jesus is going with us.

It is the Way of the Cross. And like the hymn says, the Way of the Cross does indeed lead home.

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