There is so much here, in today’s passage from John’s gospel. It is long. It is extraordinarily complex. It makes me want to create a chart, or draw a diagram to help me to understand. There is so much here, far too much for us to fully unpack in a few minutes on a Sunday morning. Another preacher wrote this week, “John's gospel is so full of nuance and inter-textual references that it is difficult to digest 13 verses at once. This text needs a table filled with friends and a pot of coffee.”[i]
So here we are. And you are my table filled with friends; we can grab the coffee later.
Let’s start here: “We wish to see Jesus.”
I want to share a very brief litany with you. I want to ask you to hold these names in prayer while we sit around this table together. These are some of the names that were in the news this week: Sean Bell.[ii] Lydia Parker.[iii] Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his sons Gabriel (age 4) and Arieh (age 5).[iv] Bei Bei Shuai.[v] Archbishop Oscar Romero.[vi] Shaima Alawadi.[vii] Trayvon Martin.[viii]
Each name tells the story of someone whose life has been afflicted, or traumatized, or brutally ended. Each person—man, woman, adult, child—has somehow been lost—to violence, to hatred, to “the system,” to an unjust law or the immoral and fear-filled use of force. Each one might well have been moved to say—from the jail cell, in the dying breath, in the midst of the uncontrollable spasms, “God, you who are my Heavenly Parent, save me from this hour.”
We wish to see Jesus.
When the world as we know it becomes harsh and uncompromising, dark and intimidating, downright terrifying, each of us has the impulse to search, to hope, to long for some sign, some wisdom, some thing, some one to help us make sense of it all. We want to understand. We want to transcend.
We wish to see Jesus.
That is the hope expressed this morning by a group of outsiders—the Greeks, who have come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. They are not Jews, but they are known as God-fearers, so they are given tolerance. They are offered a cautious acceptance. They can come and hang out on the fringes of the festival, because they are foreigners, they are “not us.”
And, in the aftermath of Palm Sunday (this happens sometimes—we get the story all out of order), they come to some of Jesus’ disciples and say, “We wish to see Jesus.” We are not told why. We might wonder. What have they heard about Jesus? What things have they been told? What are they hoping for, what are they longing for?
And one thing leads to another (and one person leads to another) and they finally see Jesus, and—oh, here we are with talkative Jesus again. And what he says is so startling to us. Imagine you went to see your congressman, and when you had finally been escorted into his office, he said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But imagine now that you had not grown up in Endicott or in the United States, but in some country where, for instance, women did not have equal rights to men. Or people of color did not have equal rights to those of primarily European descent. And this was the very first time you had access to the possibility of a better life, a fairer world, a voice in it all. And you heard those same words: All are created equal. Imagine how that might feel.
Jesus says this to the outsiders, and to his disciples, and to us:
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” [John 12:23].
This is a pivotal moment in John’s gospel. This is the moment when Jesus finishes one kind of work, and begins another. Until this moment, Jesus has been teaching and giving signs—what we might call miracles—signs pointing to who he is and what he is about. His greatest and last sign was the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead. And now, he has finished with those signs, and begins to walk the path towards the cross. Which he calls, somewhat perversely, “glory.” When Jesus says that he will be glorified, he means that he will be crucified.
We wish to see Jesus, the Greeks say. We wish to see Jesus, Bei Bei Shuai and the parents of Trayvon Martin say. And Jesus’ response is this: you wish to see me? I am the one who will die.
And Jesus continues with a metaphor that reminds us that God is a gardener: “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” [John 12:24]. God, it seems, is all about the fruit, just as everyone who ever put on his or her gardening gloves and pulled out weeds on an unseasonably warm March day. We want those beautiful cosmos, those friendly sunflowers, those succulent tomatoes, those aromatic herbs. And so we are willing to put in a little time, or a lot of time. A little elbow grease, or some major twisting and pulling of muscles. We pay it forward, the effort, so that in the end, we will have those glorious fruits of our labors, of our gardening.
God is like that. Only, it’s not mildly pulled muscles God is willing to pay forward, it is all of God’s power and might. This is the cost, this is the planting that comes along with incarnation. You wish to see Jesus, who is the reality of God in our midst? You wish to see God, who makes the stranger welcome, even the one in the hoodie? Here is God: the one who is so committed to humanity, so head-over-divine-heels in love with us that it translates into a willingness to be fully human: to live, to suffer, and to die. Because we live and suffer and die. You wish to see Jesus? Jesus is the one who is, without reserve, of the earth, just like we are. A poet wrote,
To be of the Earth is to know
the restlessness of being a seed
the darkness of being planted
the struggle toward the light
the pain of growth into the light
the joy of bursting and bearing fruit
the love of being food for someone
the scattering of your seeds
the decay of the seasons
the mystery of death
and the miracle of birth[ix]
Jesus continues: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” [John 12:25].
When I read that sentence this week my first impulse was to say, Houston, we have a problem. Because—I love my life. I love my family. I love my loving relationships. I love my work. I have not a single complaint about any of it.
But the problem with all that is that it is very much focused on self. The key is “in this world,” and I am not an island but a member of a larger body, the body of Christ, and our body is in pain. Shaima Alawadi. Sean Bell. Lydia Parker. Oscar Romero. Our body is rotting in prison, and being denied its rights, and bleeding and dying; and while that is true… I cannot truly say that I love my life in this world, because I do not love our life in this world. I am not cut off from the pain of the rest of the body.
We wish to see Jesus. Not “I.” “We.” And Jesus’ words are sobering: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also…” [John 12:26a].
At the end of our passage, we hear the voice of God promising to glorify Jesus again, only it sounds like thunder or angels. And we see Jesus being lifted up and drawing all people to himself, only it looks like a brutally beaten man dying on a cross. It’s a most ingenious paradox. How does God come to earth? As a fragile, fearless human being, who stands up to the authorities until they hang him from a tree. How is God-made-flesh glorified? But submitting the Divine self to the deepest degradations of human experience. What wondrous love is this, O my soul? This is love that is all in, no holding back, with us, in every conceivable way to the bitter end. God is in the young man gunned down because he thought he’d go out for a snack. God is in the California woman beaten to death because her native country was Iraq. God is in the archbishop who accepted that he would die a martyr because of his insistence that the poor had rights and dignity, and who died as he held the bread of life in his hands.
But God is a gardener. And so God intends for there to be fruit, from all of these plantings. And the fruits are already budding. Already, in the cities and in the countryside, in the parks and in the mountains, God’s people are longing, and yearning, and now working for a better life, for a fairer world—not just for themselves, but for those who can no longer participate in that work. We bear the fruits of this work when we become a voice for the voiceless poor. We bear the fruits of God’s labors when we give a party whose sole purpose is to open our pockets and wallets on behalf of disaster victims and building stronger communities and feeding the hungry. We bear the fruits of God’s labors when we live out Jesus’ ethic of uncompromising welcome.
We wish to see Jesus. And when we are willing to give over our lives to bringing forth the fruits God has planted, we can look around at one another and at God’s renewed world and do just that. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] D. Mark Davis, “Losing one’s psyche; Hearing a voice; Getting a sign,” at Left Behind and Loving It: Living As if God’s Steadfast Love Really Does Endure Forever (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/03/losing-ones-psyche-hearing-voice.html), March 20, 2012.
[ii] An unarmed man who was shot 50 times by New York City police officers as he left his bachelor party.
[iii] One of several dozen young women afflicted with a neurological syndrome in Le Roy, NY.
[iv] Three of those killed at a Jewish school in France on March 19, 2012.
[v] A woman who was severely depressed upon learning that the father of the child she was carrying (she was eight months pregnant) was married to another woman. She attempted suicide but survived; her baby did not. She has been in jail for one year, charged with murder.
[vi] Assassinated in El Salvador 32-years ago yesterday, while saying Mass.
[vii] A 32-year-old Iraqi immigrant who died Saturday March 24 from injuries sustained during a beating in her home in El Cajon, San Diego County. Alawadi had been on life support ever since her 17-year-old daughter had discovered her unconscious body Wednesday. The stranger who beat her left a note, “Go back to your country.”
[viii] An unarmed 17-year-old teenager who was pursued and shot to death when he went out for a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.
[ix] John Soos; with thanks to my friend Yvonne Lucia.