Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: church, city, community, congregation, crucifixion, God, Jesus, neighbor, Sesame street, trayvon
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.
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