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The streets in Jesus’ city: A Sermon on John 12:20-33 (Lent 5)
March 26, 2012, 10:28 am
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I am a child of the 1980s era tv show Sesame Street. Sesame Street was a fictitious city street, complete with row houses, small shops, an alleyway, and garbage cans out front. On this bustling street lived neighbors of every race and age, alongside some diverse muppet (puppet) characters. This edgy utopia attempted to form a generation who would believe that all these different people could share in a caring community. 


Interspersed with stories from the street were “interactive” segments designed to teach children basic colors, shapes, numbers, and letters. One of these segments was a matching game. The theme song still rings in my head: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong.” 


It’s this refrain that I find myself humming as I enter the Gospel of John this week. The scene has just closed on the Pharisees grumbling that they can do nothing to stop the crowds from coming to Jesus, remarking, “The world has gone after him.” Then the focus shifts to a group of Greeks who request to see Jesus. 


Who are these Greeks? How do they belong? When the disciples Philip and Andrew deliver the request from the Greeks to Jesus, rather than going out to meet these Greeks, Jesus launches into a speech that interprets his impending death. The introduction and presence of these Greeks simply doesn’t seem to belong. 


To answer that first question as to their identity, these Greeks are among the many who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. At this time, there are Gentile, or Greek, people who have heard of the God of the Jews and seek to worship this one God. Because they are not Jewish, they are not allowed to fully participate in the Temple-based worship, but they are welcomed and acknowledged as faithful “God-fearers,” people who recognize and worship the one, true God. 


Jesus’ response is not to directly meet with them, but to speak to the whole crowd. Jesus declares, “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.” (12:23-24). 


The hour Jesus speaks of is the hour of his abandonment and death, which will be followed by his resurrection. Jesus is the grain of wheat, the single seed, whose dead body will be sealed in the earthen tomb. Jesus’ death will bear fruit that continues to ripen today. His death has accomplished the destruction of the power of death and sin. It has restored relationships and formed new communities. 


In front of the crowd, Jesus continues to speak in a way that opens to us a vision of his relationship with the Father. Jesus knows that his mission is to continue in his path towards death. When his audible response to this knowledge is, “Father, glorify your name,” the Father responds so that all might hear and witness that Jesus truly is in conversation with the Father. It doesn’t seem that the crowd hears the content of the Father’s message, but they are convinced that the voice of God has responded to Jesus’ prayer. This would only happen to one who has a relationship with God. From our vantage point, receiving the Gospel of John, we can see how Jesus has always been aware of his coming from God, his being God, which enables him to know that he is carrying out the divine mission, the work of God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is clear on his identification with God, and his continued communication with God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share in the work to bring creation back to wholeness. Here in his speech, we witness that Jesus, the Son, shares in community with the Father and the Holy Spirit. 


The Gospel reading ends with Jesus concluding his speech, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (32). The narrator concludes, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (33). The Gospel writer and we know the kind of death Jesus will die. Jesus will be raised up on a cross, the Roman instrument of death for those criminals it sought to use to make a public message of its power. The language of being lifted up also calls to mind what will happen to Jesus three days after his death: God will raise him from the dead. After Jesus appears to his followers for some final teaching, Jesus will be raised from earth, to reign at the right hand of God. 


Jesus draws all people to himself. In his death, he has planted and nourished the seed that bears the fruit of community. The community formed through his death is united with Jesus, and through him, gains the relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit that Jesus has.


The Greeks, who seemed to not belong, who were different from the others, and so were never fully a part of the faithful community, through Jesus’ death, fully belong to the community that Jesus forms. They are a sign of the promise and prophecy, spoken by believers and skeptics alike, that “the world has gone after him.” These Greeks are the first of the nations who will come to God through Jesus. 


People of every time and place are united through Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus’ death is the seed that brings us into community with each other. Together, we are the fruit of his death. Jesus’ body forms a new group into which all are welcomed. You belong. In this group, you will never be shunned, you will never lose your place, you will never be reluctantly included. Jesus himself welcomes you and celebrates your inclusion! Jesus is the one who has made it possible for you to be included. No one else has the power to push you out. You belong to Jesus, we belong together. 


Jesus has drawn all people to himself. Diversity in this community is expected. The Pharisees remarked with scorn that everyone was drawn to Jesus. Today we celebrate the gift of all nations being drawn up into relationship with Jesus and each other. But even as we celebrate that welcome in the abstract, we know that being in community with people who are different than us isn’t always comfortable. Our lives in this world have taught us to be fearful of differences. Recent news has opened to us again the reality that we react with suspicions and stereotypes. We really feel most comfortable in communities where everyone is like us. When people are different, we often pressure them to change so that they fit into the community as the established envision it. Jesus embodies a radical welcome that creates a community of diversity and includes people most communities leave out. 


The New Testament is full of letters that deal with the problems that arise from Jesus’ radical welcome. People find it difficult to live with those who are different from them. For the immediate generation following Jesus, the difficulty was between Greeks and Jews, who were bound together in community through Jesus, but who had formerly kept their distance from each other. There were problems as people of different classes were put together through Jesus. Rich and poor are used to treating each other in a certain way. Men and women, slave and free, all the divisions we create to separate ourselves: Jesus breaks down the dividing walls. Jesus makes community among people who would never choose to live together. 


Life together, united with Jesus, united with a diverse community from all nations, is only possible when we take to heart Jesus’ words, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (25). We need to be able to hear these words as a call to give up self-centeredness and self-righteousness. We can never enter into the joy of community while we are focused on ourselves. As long as we believe we need to protect our priority, prove our superiority, we will lose the gift of life in community through Jesus. 


There is no room to say, “I’m better” when all who are welcomed are sinners, welcomed only through Jesus’ faithfulness. Our pride needs to be put to death in order for us to experience life in the new community Jesus forms. We will lose that part of our selves, as we are given the gift of welcome and realize it is a gift not only for us, but for everyone. 


Community is fragile and difficult to maintain. The power of God alone makes it possible. This congregation is only a sample of the community Jesus forms. Yet even among this small group, there can be rifts, arguments, and a breaking apart of the community God intends. When these things happen, has God’s power failed us? No. These difficulties remind us that we still in the process of being drawn together. God is at work among us. At those times of tension, we can receive and share the gifts of forgiveness and love that Jesus has given us. Jesus’ death has done what was necessary to make community possible. We are fruit that is ripening into what it is intended to be, but we are not fully there yet. 


There is a new dawn coming, when the light will shine on fruit that is grown into its fullness. When the community of Jesus will be fully united with God. When unity among diverse peoples will be fully realized. When the streets of the city will house people of every race, and all will belong in the neighborhood Jesus has founded. 


Why am I Here? : A sermon on Romans 4:13-8 and Mark 8:31-38 (Lent 4)
March 26, 2012, 10:26 am
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The recent beautifully warm weather brings me back to nights spent under the stars. Having spent three summers working for outdoor ministries, I’ve been lucky to have a number of them. There were Friday nights at Luther Park Bible Camp, when a group of us counselors would gather on the sitting dock, and watch the moon’s reflection dancing in the water. Sometimes we would sing. Sometimes we would chat and laugh. Sometimes we would sit in silence and think. The universe was so large, and our lives pregnant with possibilities. Dreams had the potential to ripen into lives well lived. It was a time in my life that I was blessed with a community to walk alongside as we wondered, “What is the meaning of life?”,  “Why am I here” and “How will I matter?” 


My answer then had likely been formed by some half-heard idea, a phrase that became stuck in my head. I thought the purpose of life was “to give God glory.” I’m not really sure that I knew exactly what that meant. What that would look like or how I would go about doing it. But it sounded like the right type of language for a Bible camp. 


Our two New Testament readings this morning help to give shape to some thoughts on the purpose of our lives. One way in which these writing do this is by contrasting two different ways of life: the way of life of those without God, and the way of life of those whom God has claimed. 


The letter writer speaks to the Ephesians a vision of their lives. Once they lived in a way that brought death. This is the way of the world: to live lives seeking only pleasure for the self. Formerly, they believed the purpose of life was what many might still today believe the purpose of life to be: be happy, get rich, enjoy as much as you can, and care first about # 1- yourself. 


Even though this would sound like the path to a good life, the author of Ephesians calls it the path of death. This is not living life to its fullest. The path to true life comes from God. It is opened to us all through the death of Christ. In that one death, Jesus’ death, we are united to God, and in Jesus’ resurrection to life, we are raised to new life. 


But don’t let the mention of being “raised up… and seated in heavenly places” make you think this is all only about the afterlife. What God has done in Jesus for you has already occurred and you are living in its effects right now. The Ephesians aren’t being told that their old way of life wasn’t good for anything only to be told that life in Christ isn’t good for anything but waiting around to die and go to heaven. In some mystical way, even while they and we are standing here on this earth, living our daily lives, God’s grace and power has already placed us with Jesus “in the heavenly places.” 



The Gospel of John records Jesus speaking of those who love darkness because it hides their evil deeds, and those who love light because their deeds have been done in God, and so they have no reason to hide them. Jesus is talking here to Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee, who has come under cover of darkness to find out more about Jesus. His fear about what others will say about him, if they knew of his interest in Jesus, might be a major reason he has come when his identity might be hidden, rather than ask his questions in front of the large crowds that daily surround Jesus. So, in these words about light and darkness, Jesus may be pushing Nicodemus to discover his own rationale and the lack of trust that have led to his actions. 


John lets this scene stand as a mirror for us. Are we people who love darkness, or light? Is the self we make public the same self we hold inside? Are the kind words we speak and the smiles we share radiating out from a stance of love, or are they empty gestures of obligation, things we do to appear like good people? Is the going along with the crowd of darkness, doing things our hearts that long for light warn us against, being true to who we are called to be?


Our lives can follow one of two major paths: a life lived fully, generously, and openly in the joy of God’s grace, or a life that is hidden in the selfish ways of the world. 


These writings also give guidance in our discernment of how we are to live: how we might “give glory to God” as I once considered the call to live a purposeful life. 


In Ephesians we hear: “For we are what (God) has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:10). God has made each of us for a purpose! Our way of life is to be rooted in Jesus, doing good works. Consider how you might reflect the work of Jesus. Jesus points the way to God. Jesus heals the sick. Jesus declares forgiveness. Jesus welcomes the outsider. Jesus gives life. Where are the opportunities for you to do this work in your own life? When were the times in this past week that you have done this work, but didn’t even notice or celebrate it? 


You were living as God created you to live when you welcomed a child or a neighbor in worship; when you sent a note of comfort and support; when you gathered to sew a quilt; when you shared a smile with a stranger; when you invited the kids who’s always picked last to be the first on your team; when you gave someone a second chance, or maybe a third, or a fourth… 

These are examples of the acts of a life lived in the light of the love of God. We are given the joyful responsibility to live in ways that reflect God’s love. 


Finally, and most importantly, these writings claim that it is all God’s work alone, and not our own, that roots our lives in God’s great story of salvation. Our lives have meaning outside of our own personal existence because they are drawn up into the work of the Creator and Redeemer of all creation. You are connected to something bigger than yourself. You are not alone. Your existence is more than these days of life on earth. Even as these days have meaning and purpose in God, because you have been united with Jesus, you will continue to have life and joy after your death. 


Ephesians reminds us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9). John declares, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). These are two of the most beautiful verses in the Bible, declaring that God gives you healing life out of God’s love for you. As you seek to live a life of meaning, remember that it can never be a life that earns God’s love or salvation. That has already been given to you. Nothing you can do can make you worthy of this love and life, and nothing you can do will make God take it away from you: this love is freely given. 


Yet there are people who struggle their whole lives, trying to work out their own salvation. Somehow they have heard that they have to do something, prove something, in some way be faithful enough to make God accept them. This is an anxiety that does not rest in God’s promises. There are also those people who do not know and do not trust in God’s promises, and so cannot see the gift of love God has given. In both cases, life is not lived in the joy that it is meant to be lived in. God desires you to live lives of joy, confident in the gift of love, forgiveness, and life that God has given each of you in Jesus. 


There are two examples that help me to think about this contrast between living a life that rejoices in God’s grace and living a life that is blind to the grace that has already been given. 


The first is the image of floating on water. Imagine yourself in a warm swimming pool or lake on a quiet morning. You lay back and let the tension of your body relax as you trust the power of the water to support your weight. If you trust the water to do what it has the capacity to do, you will find yourself upheld, softly and slightly rising and sinking with your breath. If you do not trust, if you do not relax into the comforting warmth, but instead try to do something to keep yourself above water, you’ll find yourself fighting against it, no longer embracing its support, but seeing it as an enemy seeking to take away your life. 


The second image comes from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The old earth has ended and a new Creation without the pain of the old has been brought into being. The entrance to the new Creation is through a small stable. Many creatures enter through, and although they are transported to a new and glorious Creation, where all the best parts of the old World are somehow made even better, some do not see the new Creation around them. All they see is what they expect: the inside of a stinky animal stall. 



God’s presence with you may not always be visible. It may be as clear as clean water. Yet God is there, with you, to give you abundant and joyful life. Open your eyes to the life God gives to you right now. God has already given you salvation, a healed, forgiven, whole life, the days past and days to come, this day, to enjoy as you rejoice in all God has created and all God has promised. 


Each of us will find ourselves uniquely able to live lives of good works, united with Jesus, and reveling in the joy God’s grace makes possible. Part of the joy of life is discovering how our lives align with God’s purposes at the various chapters of our lives. 


I remember one presentation during my freshman orientation week at St. Olaf. Maybe it was the dean of students who came out and spoke to us about what it meant to become Oles. We received little cards that listed the values of the college, and I know I let most of the speech wash over my head. But part of the mission statement has stuck with me. That is that we would be prepared to live “lives of worth and service.” I believe this is part of the call which extends from God to all of us. God has created you for a life that has worth because of its connection with God’s purposes for all of creation. We live out that purpose through our service, our acts that flow out of God’s love for us. 


College and camp were major times of discernment in my life, when options were widened, as I sought to discover the purpose of my life. I think that we each have special times in which we are most open to a time of discernment: when the need to discover purpose comes forward most strongly. This might be brought about my an abrupt change: an illness or death, a move, a loss of a job or ability. Or it might come from a sinking realization that each day has become more and more filled, but less and less fulfilling. Rejoice in the opportunity to discover yourself in God’s vision for creation. Let this community be a place in which we encourage each other to recognize the tug from God that aligns us with opportunities to live as we have been created to live. God is with you, gifting you with grace, inviting you to join in God’s great work to love the world.