We would see Jesus: A Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 2021

            
5 Lent—March 21, 2021

Where are you spiritually today? Are you, like so many others, in a place of darkness and despair—the pandemic continuing, a return to life as we knew it a year ago apparently as far away as ever? Is your despair or hopelessness related to news this week, the continued suffering on our borders as people seek a better life? Or are you, as so many of us are, devastated by the senseless and racist killing of Asian-American women in Atlanta suburbs, a heinous crime perpetrated by yet another good white boy who “just had a bad day.” Are you wondering about the future of our country, our neighborhood, our congregation?

Or are you in a very different place? It’s spring after all, and in spite of the snow we had earlier this week, it feels and looks a bit like spring today. We are emerging from the pandemic, perhaps you’ve been vaccinated and are eager to reconnect face to face, with no masks intervening, with family and friends you’ve not seen in person in months or over a year.

We’re in something of a holding pattern. We know that it’s likely the pandemic will lose its grips as more people get vaccinated and we approach herd immunity. It’s likely that everything we’ve put on hold for over a year, whether it’s school, or a vacation, or a meal inside at a favorite restaurant, is not too far away. We even expect that one Sunday, in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to gather for public worship here in Grace Church. 

It may be, in fact, that there’s so much going on in our lives and in the world around us, so much to worry and wonder about, jobs, school, our personal, family, community’s, nation’s future, that little time is left for us to think about or focus on our own spiritual growth or that of our families. We may even be catching this service at a free moment in our lives a day or two from now, when there is a moment of unexpected or unplanned peace and quiet in our lives. In the unfamiliar world we are negotiating right now, the sure foundations of faith in God and a relationship with Jesus may seem more elusive than ever.

Still there’s that longing in us, the desire to connect with something deeper, a yearning for God that may be often unexpressed or even unnoticed but still beckons to us, even as we feel guilt that we aren’t able to make the time, find the energy, or, as I talked about it in my sermon on the first Sunday in Lent, to observe a “Holy Lent.”

To us, to the world we live in, to the spiritual chaos some of us may be experiencing, today’s gospel reading speaks with comfort and hope. 

The disparate way we encounter the Gospel of John in the Sunday eucharistic lectionary prevents us from comprehending its overall structure and discerning its deeper themes. We read from John each year during Lent, often during the season after Epiphany, on the Sundays of Easter, and this year, Mark’s year, we will hear a series of readings from John 6—the discourse on the Bread of Life. Our reading today comes from chapter 12 which is a transitional chapter. So far in the gospel, we have been introduced to Jesus’ public ministry of healing and conflict with the religious elite of Palestinian Judaism. He also has a series of encounters with individuals like Nicodemus to which we alluded last week, and the Samaritan woman. Beginning with chapter 13, there’s a very different focus. The scenes are first of the last supper and then of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, and finally, of course, his resurrection and appearances to the disciples.

So what we have before us today is the end, perhaps the climax of Jesus’ public ministry. It occurs just after Jesus’ triumphal entry, in the runup to the Passover, which is the festival mentioned in the beginning of today’s gospel. Some Greeks come to Jesus’ disciples Philip and Andrew, and ask “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This is one of those details from John that I find endlessly fascinating. Philip and Andrew both appear in chapter 1, as disciples called by Jesus. Their names are both Greek in origin, as well. While Jesus told Andrew when Andrew asked him where he was staying, “Come and see,” now it is others, Greeks, who want to see Jesus.

Just as in chapter 3 and the encounter with Nicodemus, it’s not quite clear from this text that the Greeks actually do see Jesus or are present for Jesus’ words. Now there’s a great deal that could be said about Jesus’ statements here, a great deal about what they tell us about the gospel’s overarching themes and how it relates to the other three gospels, but I don’t have time for any of that. Instead, I would like to focus the rest of our time on a single verse: “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” 

This is the heart of John’s gospel, the heart of Jesus’ ministry and person. In the cross, we see Jesus, in the cross, on the cross, Jesus draws us and the whole world to himself. In the cross, on the cross, we see God’s love for us.

Did the Greeks see Jesus? In the gospel of John, “seeing” is a prelude to faith, at most, it is an inadequate, partial faith. It is a first step, an entrance and first exposure to the abundant life that is offered through relationship with and in Jesus Christ.

I see myself, I see us and hear us in the Greeks’ plea, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Separated from each other and from the body of Christ, encountering one another only virtually, seeing, experiencing Christ through the mediation of technology with all of its noise and frustration, we would see Jesus. We long to see Jesus. We struggle to make sense of the devastation of the pandemic, the deaths of 530,000 Americans. We struggle to make sense of the deep divisions in our nation and community, the violence that erupts from and deepens those divisions. We struggle to make sense of the pain experienced by people of color, by African-Americans, Asian-Americans, the deep racism that pervades our society. The heart of our nation is breaking; the heart of American Christianity is breaking.

We would see Jesus. Jesus, lifted high on the cross, the victim of imperial violence and oppression, the victor over hate and oppression. We would see Jesus, but our eyes are blinded by tears, and by our own insensitivity to our participation in the oppressive and violent systems in which we live and from which we profit.

We would see Jesus but our own blindness and self-interest clouds our vision. Nonetheless, Jesus, lifted high on the cross, draws all people to himself. His outstretched arms beckon to us, invite us in, welcome us

May we see Jesus and may his love heal our hearts and our vision, that we can see our fellow human beings with love, lament and repent our sins, and create the beloved community to which we are called and in which all can flourish.

God loves the Cosmos: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2021

            

For God so loved the world…

A familiar verse, etched in many of our memories since childhood, John 3:16 etched on jewelry, on billboards, on signs held up at sporting events. One of those ubiquitous Christian symbols that can be off-putting and life-giving, a marker of identity and difference, life and death, judgment and welcome. A verse deployed to threaten and cajole, to convert, and yes, to offer salvation. 

I wonder sometimes what the effect had been if the verses hadn’t been divided in the way they were. That is to say, instead of ending where it does with “may have eternal life” but had included the next sentence: “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Instead of condemnation and judgment, the offer of salvation and life.

But we have what we have and the weight of tradition, of centuries of Christian devotion and evangelism, leave us little room to think differently or imaginatively about this verse. But let me try.

First off, context. One of the challenges of our tradition of dividing scripture into verses as well as chapters (they’re a fairly late development, only becoming universal in the seventeenth century), is that it is easy to extract a single sentence, or phrase, or verse, from its literary context and use it as a mantra or to prove a doctrinal point. John 3:16 is part of a larger literary unit, and even our gospel reading which encompasses 14-21, is pulled out of a larger narrative, that of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

It’s one of those encounters in the Gospel of John that is jam-packed with theological significance. Carefully constructed, rich with symbolism,  the encounter uses images of light and darkness to highlight some of the key themes of the gospel. Nicodemus is said to be a Pharisee, a leader of the “Jews.” He comes to Jesus by night, calls him “Rabbi” (teacher or master) and asks about the source of his authority. 

In fact, it’s not at all clear when the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus ends, whether we are to assume that Nicodemus is still present, or even if Jesus himself is speaking these verses from 14-21. In fact, it may be, I interpret this not as Jesus himself speaking, but as the gospel writer trying to say some important things about who Jesus is, why God sent him, and what relationship with Jesus means for his followers.

I want to highlight a couple of themes here. First of all “lifted up.” Having heard the story of Moses, the Israelites, and the serpent in the wilderness, hearing the gospel, we are in on the reference made here to Moses and the Serpent, and are inclined to think of “lifted up” in those terms, a serpent of bronze erected on a pole so the Israelites could look at it, and Jesus, crucified for all to see.

But lifted up means more than that in the Gospel of John, or more accurately, “lifted up” includes in it ascension as well as crucifixion—a single act of God, encapsulated in another favorite Johannine word “glorification.” We can see an allusion to “lifted up” as ascension as well as crucifixion in v. 13, which immediately precedes our gospel reading: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” I’ll have more to say about all this next week when we look at another significant section of John’s gospel, John 12.

For now, I would like to turn our attention to another word—“world” or in Greek, “Cosmos” universe. Its occurrence here will catch the attention of a careful reader of John because it takes us back to John 1, In the beginning was the word. A few verses into that hymnic prologue, we read, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Throughout John’s gospel, “world” or “cosmos” is understood negatively, even if, as in chapter 1, the world was created by God. The world stands in opposition to Jesus Christ in John’s gospel, yet here we see that “God so loved the world.”

Now two things. First of all, “the world” the “cosmos”—not just human beings. We might think about God loving the world in much more inclusive, expansive terms than we typically do. For those of us who care about the environment, worry about climate change, the fact that God loves the world challenges us to rethink our own understanding of the world in which we live and our relationship to it. 

Secondly, we would do well to translate this phrase a little differently. Instead of, “For God so loved the world”—it has a slightly different emphasis: “This is how God loves the world.” To put it another way: we see the extent and nature of God’s love for the world in that God sent God’s only son so that all who believed in him would have eternal life.

The significance is this. Instead of putting the emphasis on human response: believing, and the effects of that response, eternal life, it might be better to emphasize the extent and nature of God’s love. God loves the world so much that God sent God’s only son….

Judgment here comes not from God but from the human beings who reject God in Christ. To use the gospel’s imagery, “the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.” That offers a different perspective on things. Instead of fearing a just and righteous God, we need to fear our own desires and choices—to preserve the dark and hidden corners of our lives and to live in the dark and hidden corners of the world.

We experience sin and brokenness, in ourselves and in the world around us. Sometimes that sin so burdens us that we can see nothing else, or know nothing else. 

But God loves the world, God loves us. God offers us, in relationship with Jesus Christ, a different way, a different possibility for living. Sometimes, that is hard to know and to experience. Look up to the cross, look to Christ, lifted up, and see God’s love, not God’s punishment, see and experience healing and hope. See the possibility and promise of new life in him!

Preaching Christ Crucified: A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 2021

This past week, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and beginning to plan for our Holy Week and Easter services. We had a. productive meeting of interested people on Wednesday that generated lots of creative ideas as we imagined together how we might adapt our worship to the realities of social distancing and live-streaming. On Friday, I had a conversation with clergy friends from other denominations who were also asking those same questions and developing solutions based on their own worship styles and traditions. 

As part of that planning, I took a look at the lectionary for the coming weeks. It’s surprising to me that after all these years of preaching, I still need to remind myself of where the lectionary is going. Oh, I know the big ones of course, and some of the ways the lectionary parcels out gospel texts in some parts of the year. For example, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the Gospel of John makes an appearance in Lent in all three years of the lectionary cycle, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you what those texts are from year to year.

Today, and for the remainder of the Sundays in Lent leading up to Palm Sunday, we are in John’s gospel. Today’s reading is not an obvious one for Lent. It’s John’s version of the cleansing of the temple, and in this context it is as confusing as it is problematic. Confusing, because we will hear or refer to Mark’s version of the cleansing of the temple in a few weeks, which in that gospel occurs in Holy Week, immediately following the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, puts the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. 

It’s an important event in either case and it’s one that’s easily and often misinterpreted. We can see some of that already here in John’s version, where the complex diversity of first-century Palestinian Judaism is reduced to a single entity “the Jews” as will happen throughout the gospel, and especially in John’s depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. The temple was a political as well as religious institution, one of the central nodes in how Roman imperial power was distributed locally. 

Second Temple Judaism, as it’s often called, retained the focus on the temple and on temple sacrifice. Pious Jews were obligated to visit the temple for major festivals and to offer certain sacrifices. That’s why the animals were there. It was much easier to purchase sheep or cattle there than to bring them from home. And the moneychangers were there because the temple had special currency, that didn’t bear the image of the emperor, so one would have to exchange for that currency before purchasing or making financial offerings.

Jesus’ actions here are often deployed in contemporary debates about the appropriate role of Christians in the public sphere. They are cited when Christians protest in the streets or make symbolic actions against institutions that are perceived to be oppressive. They are often even used to defend violent actions taken in the name of Christ.

Instead of trying to explicate the complexities of this story and of Jesus’ interactions with the temple establishment (remember, according to the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spent much of his time in the last week of his life teaching and debating in the temple), I would like to shift our focus elsewhere. 

One way of thinking about our lectionary readings this Lent is to see them as an exploration of the meaning of the cross, both in the New Testament and for us as 21stcentury followers of Jesus. Last week, we heard Jesus saying “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” In the next two weeks, we will hear two key passages from John’s gospel where the meaning of the cross takes central stage. On Palm Sunday, as we read Mark’s version of the passion narrative, we will confront his austere, enigmatic interpretation of the cross, with its themes of abandonment, weakness, and despair. Today, in the reading from I Corinthians, we hear elements of Paul’s understanding of the cross’s meaning, and his words speak powerfully to us and may help us reflect on the cleansing of the temple as well.

In his letters to the church at Corinth, Paul is engaged in an effort to defend his ministry against detractors and to articulate clearly and forcefully his understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ, the cross, and Christian community against opponents who seem to be trying to undermine everything for which he has worked.

He sounds his central theme in the verses from the beginning of I Corinthians we heard: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul here is alluding to a central paradox of the Christian faith, the paradox of the cross. In this horrific death by torture, a vivid demonstration of Roman power and ruthlessness, we see Jesus crushed and killed. There could be no starker display of his human weakness. Yet for Paul, on the cross we see the power and wisdom of God. 

Elsewhere, in II Corinthians when Paul is talking about his own personal physical weakness and infirmity, he says that in response to his prayer, Christ said to him, “power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, the cross is a demonstration of Christ’s power, of God’s power. Yet, that power, an allusion to the vindication of Christ through the resurrection, that power never erases the fact of the cross. The cross still stands, Jesus’ suffering remains. 

It’s a message that’s often overlooked and ignored by Christian triumphalism. We internalize and spiritualize the cross to rid it of its revolutionary message. We ignore the pain and suffering of the cross to focus on the joy of resurrection. When Christianity becomes enmeshed in power politics, in empire, nationalism, and white supremacy, the symbol of the cross often becomes a weapon wielded against the weak, the stranger and the alien, unbelievers, adherents of other religions.

One of our great challenges as Christians in this historical moment is to preach Christ crucified, folly and stumbling block, or literally, scandal. Our challenge is to see and to proclaim the cross as power made perfect in weakness, not to wield it as a weapon against others. In this day, when much of Christianity seems to have become another means by which people assert their own individual rights in a zero-sum game that results in the infringement of the rights of others, preaching Christ crucified, taking up our crosses, is a truly revolutionary message and way of being in the world. The Tuesday night group reading Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree are discovering a new way of thinking about the cross as it is shaped by the African American experience in the United States. I hope all of us in this season of Lent will meditate on Christ crucified and reflect on how the cross might reshape our lives in Christ’s image.