Lent 5B ~ April 9, 2000
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
It seems that spring has finally "sprung." The hills are green ... the poppies, lupine and ice plant bloom in riotous color ... the morning fog gives way to warm afternoons - and the crack of the bat is heard, once again, in Dodger Stadium. It's baseball season again - after a long winter's nap! Thanks be to God! So I guess it's not so surprising that it was a baseball image I brought to my sermon preparations this week.
I feel a little like the "clean up hitter" - following a string of great "previous at bats" as I follow the wonderful sermons of this Lenten Season at St. Peter's. And yet, here we are at the Fifth Sunday in Lent; approaching the end of our Lenten journey. The season that began with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday will culminate next Sunday - Palm Sunday - as we retell the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and its grim conclusion on the hill called Golgotha. Nora Gallagher, the author of our Lenten Book Study book writes of these days as "the hinge between Lent and Easter ... between the guilt and shame, the inertia and fear that bind us to the past and leave us in despair and the love that lures us toward hope."
"The love that lures us toward hope." I love that line: for it speaks to me of the love of God so great that it triumphs over death ... a love that continues to "lure us toward hope" these 20 centuries after the death of the One who came to show us how to "walk in love, as Christ loved us". Was it that love ... that hope ... that lured those we hear about in today's Gospel of John? The "Greeks" who approached Philip in Jerusalem with the plea, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus"?
A brief historical … contextual … note: when John says "some Greeks", he doesn't mean folks who normally hang out in Athens. To the 1st century hearers of the Gospel "Greeks" meant "non-Jews" - foreigners - Gentiles. No wonder Philip had to go check with Andrew first ... did you notice that in the text? "They came to Philip. who went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus." As one of the commentaries I consulted noted: "...evidently being dubious how they might be received." No automatic welcome for these guys: these Greeks who wanted to see Jesus.
But see him they do ... and what does Jesus say to them? Crossing all sorts of boundaries - breaking a whole list of Old Testament rules - Jesus teaches them the same way he has been teaching his disciples all along: "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also ... Now is the judgement 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." Then John, the gospeler adds, "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die."
In those few sentences is the essence of the Gospel - the Good News Jesus came to give the world ... and the world couldn't hear:
Follow me ... do as I do ... I have come to show you the way to live in love and community with God and each other.
NOW the Kingdom of God is in your midst ... and it is for ALL people .
Yes, he said all this to indicate the kind of death he was to die; for the inevitability of the crucifixion must have hung heavy in his heart these last days. But if we settle for John's explanation at face value, we miss the power of this text for us today. I believe Jesus said all this to the Greeks who sought him out in Jerusalem ... lured by love and hope -- not ONLY to indicate the kind of death he was to die, but toindicate the kind of life we are to live.
"When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself." And how will he do that? I'm jumping ahead in the story a bit, but come Pentecost we will hear again of the coming of the Holy Spirit ... the birth of the Church called to be the Body of Christ in the world ... to take up the ministry of Jesus on earth.
[St. Teresa's Prayer]
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good
Yours are the arms with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, you are his eyes, you are his body
Christ has no body now on earth, but yours.
So if the church is indeed the Body of Christ here on earth, how good a job are we doing with those who come to us as they did to Philip saying, "Please, we want to see Jesus?" Let me tell you about my friend ... a woman I've known since the 7th grade who lives in Toronto with her husband and three children. After many years without a faith community, she told me recently that she started going back to church. "Only it's not exactly church," she said. "It's at a church but I don't go on Sunday yet ... I go Wednesday night and meet with other women. We pray and sing and support each other. And they read from the Bible, but it's so wonderful ... they don't beat you up with Jesus, so it hardly feels like church."
"They don't beat you up with Jesus" … what an indictment ... yet in the church she grew up in Jesus -- the Jesus who yearns to draw all people to himself -- became for her a stumbling block, a barrier to faith in the hands of those who use the Bible, as Canon Harry said last week, "as a Book of Rules rather than a Manual of Love." My friend never knew that there was a choice between the Jesus of Judgement and the Christ of Faith ... I pray that this community she's found will be a gateway for her -- that she can finally "see Jesus" - just as those Greeks did in Jerusalem. Can see for herself that "draw all people" means her, too!
But before we get too smug or complacent, pointing fingers of condemnation at other denominations we need to look closer to home. Not long ago, Bishops in our own Anglican communion met and, in a decision that I believe grieved the heart of God, declared a whole category of people "incompatible with Scripture."
Which part of Scripture? The part where Jesus says "I will draw all people to myself" and calls us to go and do likewise? The part where Peter has a vision and declares "Now I see that nothing God has made is unclean" -- and proceeds to baptize Cornelius and his household? The parts -- too numerous to recount here -- where Jesus again and again called his people beyond the letter of the Law to its Spirit -- the Spirit of love that lures us toward hope?
No, all that was dismissed in favor of a few selectively literalized verses, as the Church -- represented by the Bishops gathered at Lambeth -- succumbed to the very temptations the rector outlined in his sermon on the 1st Sunday in Lent. The first was the temptation to quit while we're ahead: we've survived integration and Women's liberation -- enough is enough! The second temptation was compromise: OK, so you said "draw all people to you" ... couldn't we compromise and leave out those "incompatible" ones? But it's the third temptation -- to deny who we are - that presents perhaps our greatest challenge … and our greatest opportunity.
We are a Church that has the potential to offer a voice of hope to those who come saying "Please, we want to see Jesus" -- who are looking for a place to encounter the Lord of Love rather than the Letter of the Law. As Anglicans we are the product of the glorious experiment of the "Elizabethan Compromise" ... intended to end the bloody feud between Catholics and Protestants during the 16th century and to create a church where orthopraxis (common practice) was valued over orthodoxy (common belief).
My Church History text tells me, "The significance of the Elizabethan religious settlement is that it was able to hold the vast majority of the people together, despite being a compromise few would have chosen." The compromises we face in the 21st Century call us to dig more deeply into our 16th Century roots ... to claim with enthusiasm the heritage that gives us the ability to live with disagreement ... to honor the tension of diversity and focus on the things that bind us together rather than allow ourselves to be distracted by the things that threaten to divide us.
Forged in the crucible of the English Reformation, the Episcopal Church was refined in the fire of the American Revolution -- emerging as a uniquely American Church -- Anglican in worship and democratic in governance: where bishops have their authority balanced by the clergy and laity -- something we will see ample evidence of when our General Convention convenes in Denver this July!
It's a far cry from other Anglican provinces, organized with different systems of governance ... systems that allowed Archbishop Kolini from Rwanda this week to pronounce: "You see, the primates are like God the Father" and therefore must be obeyed. [See and hear Archbishop Kolini if you have Real Player] Referring to matters of authority in his own province that may well be the case. However, referring, as he was, to the rejection by some in the American Church -- including this Diocese of Los Angeles -- of portions of the Lambeth Resolution on Sexuality, he is sadly and utterly mistaken. Our foundation is Unity in Christ ... not Uniformity of Opinion -- that is our heritage, our inheritance, our tradition. Let us not succumb to the temptation to deny who we are but live boldly into our identity instead.
"We must be the change we wish to see in the world," said Ghandi. When we do that, then we truly follow the Lord who told us not only what kind of death he was to die but what kind of life we are to live. Do I have "an agenda" this morning? You bet I do. It's the agenda of the Lord whose love lures us toward hope ... who yearns to draw all people to himself - the Jesus who took time, in the last days before his crucifixion, to reach out to those Greeks who came to him … not sure if they'd be welcome. It's the Gospel Agenda and it's begging to be fulfilled.
Nowhere is that "agenda" articulated more clearly than in that great old hymn we sang last week ... #321 ... "My God, Thy Table Now Is Spread."
My God, thy table now is spread
Thy cup with love doth overflow;
Be all thy children thither led
And let them thy sweet mercies know.
We sang that same hymn the Sunday after the Lambeth Conference. I remember because as I stood behind the altar, my tears were thick and my heart was heavy. I was consumed with grief that this table, so lovingly prepared and offered -- this holy food and drink of new and unending life -- was not available to some of those who need it most. Grief for those who would never know they were welcome here because some bishops told them they were "incompatible with Scripture." By the time we got to the fourth verse, I just couldn't sing anymore; but stood - silenced - while the tears ran down my face.
But that was then. If "We must be the change we wish to see in the world" then we must persevere in proclaiming God's Good News to all people - in spite of the setbacks and obstacles; the challenges and the tears. Relying on the love that lures us toward hope, we find our voice and can sing again:
Nor let thy spreading Gospel rest
Till through the world thy truth has run
Till with this Bread shall all be blessed
Who see the light or feel the sun.
That's my agenda. Amen.
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