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The question comes in many forms.
- Maybe it’s a new member class, someone who is new to the area and hasn’t been to church for many years. Will I find a community that will notice me, he asks?
- Maybe a neighbor meets you as you pick up the paper. She’s heard you mention church before, loves the mission we do, but is skeptical of institutional religion, she calls it. Does the church really have something real to offer, even if I bring some hard questions?
- Maybe it’s a session meeting. Really, in a session meeting, in the weeds of this purchase of the land next door, and how that fits into our priorities, or the budget. Who are we called to be?
They can first manifest themselves in the small things. But I tend to believe, most of our questions about church and faith have echoes of the Greeks’ question to Philip. What about this place matters? What is God up to? In a world of tragedy in our lives and across the globe, is there a way any of it makes sense? But at the heart of it, the words come. Sir, ma’am, friends, will we see Jesus?
Because the continued asking of that question was the Pharisee’s worst nightmare. In John’s gospel this text immediately follows Palm Sunday, which we’ll celebrate one week from today. At the close of that narrative, after Jesus comes riding in on a donkey and a spontaneous parade erupts, the camera narrows in on some Pharisees worrying aloud, "You see," one says to another, "you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!" (John 12:19) It is this fear that is motivating their plans, back from the chapter before that when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. It is this miracle in John that finally makes the Pharisees, conspiring with the Romans, decide they needed to kill him. He was too much of a threat to their delicately established order.
But these Greeks want to see. This language of vision John has used throughout, from when Jesus first called disciples, greeting Andrew and others with that invitation, "Come and see," and later Philip calls Nathanael with those same words (1:39,46). Nicodemus, a leader of the temple, sneaks out to see Jesus in the evening, he meets a woman at the well in broad daylight. Jesus is seeing, and being seen, and people are wondering.
Many commentators also note that the Greek arrival foreshadows the future mission to the Gentiles and the inclusion of non-Jews in God’s promises. Just before this text, the Pharisees are throwing up their hands lamenting that the whole world is now going after Jesus. Now two outsiders show up inquiring about Jesus. Word is traveling fast. People outside their separated community are sensing something in this man even if they’re not exactly sure what.1
The "Greeks," that’s all we know about them, approach Philip, from Bethsaida, a highly Hellenized region2 – these Greeks find someone who understands them to make the connection. Philip goes to Andrew, then they, together, find Jesus. His answer, as is typical of John, is cryptic. It’s hard to tell if Jesus is speaking to the disciples or to the crowds or to those Greeks, especially here at the beginning. I don’t think any of them realize that they have stepped right into the middle of it. At least three times in John Jesus has talked about it not yet being time, the hour not coming (2:4, 7:30, 8:20), but now it is here. None of them quite have the sense that they are just a handful of days out from the beatings, Jesus’ nailed to a cross.
And he leans in and wants to tell them something about what all of that is going to mean. He goes back to creation, with this comment on a grain of wheat both dying and bearing much fruit. As we read further I think Jesus’ point is more theological than agricultural, framing the heart of his argument here about the relationship between death and life, dying and rising, that is in many ways what these weeks are about. I must also confess I got stuck this week on the next line: Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. I was hoping the Greek translation would be softer, but it’s worse, meaning detest, abhor.3 There aren’t too many things, if any, I abhor about my life. In fact, even when I am tired or overwhelmed or short of patience, I work hard to be the opposite, grateful for these days.
But that is also a privileged position. I wonder how many of us who don’t live under threat of violence every day, don’t worry about losing our homes or having enough food, don’t struggle, struggle, struggle to make it work – it’s tough for folks like us to hate our lives. We could all make a list of things we don’t like. Things we would change. But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says HATE. The things I HATE are things not necessarily about my life but about the world. I HATE that there are a huge percentage of folks in our world and in Durham that don’t have much of a shot in life because of the zip code they grow up in, who their parents are, the opportunities, or lack thereof, placed before them. I HATE violence, the hatred that often is promulgated in the name of God, like the awful, GODLESS stuff ISIS is doing right now. I HATE the way our present political and media culture – and the church, too – works to boil things down into polarities, this/that, either/or, liberal/conservative, lacking listening or nuance or subtlety or, God forbid, here in Lent, discernment.
But I think, beyond this grain dying and bearing fruit, beyond us hating this life in order to gain it, Jesus is trying to do a couple of things. One is to draw us into a conversation what we love and don’t love about our lives, because that conversation moves into one about values, about priorities. Connecting it with the bearing fruit is Jesus wanting us to see how that bears fruit in how we live. In some ways it doesn’t matter how important we say our family is to us if we don’t spend any time with them. If we can’t put down our phones. It doesn’t matter how much we say we care about poverty if we don’t put in the time or the money doing something about it…if we just sit and shake our heads. It doesn’t matter – and this is most appropriate for Lent, to reflect and say we care so much about our faith if we aren’t willing to work on it. With God alone each day, in community. In corporate worship every week. Showing up, being a part of things, sharing your talents, sharing your gifts, freely, in gratitude to God. That is how we begin to learn to follow Jesus, the point of the whole thing, after all.
But beyond the rhythms of our decision making, I think Jesus is pointing us to an essential paradox at the heart of life and faith that will soon become very, very important. It is in the hating, the stepping back, the distancing from the things this world values that we gain perspective, that we win, that we get a glimpse of life abundant, true life, in this world and in the world to come. In my experience, at least, the things that are the most work, the hardest, that push us to the very edge are also the things that give us glimpses of what is REAL, that show us something of this Jesus. When you have fought through another round of chemo, with the toll it takes on your body to try and kill that cancer (that’s another thing I’d say I HATE in this life, cancer). In the exhaustion you get a warm day and can sit on the porch, or take a short walk. When after a night of laying on the floor with your child the fever breaks, and the sun comes up, and you notice the desperate love you have for this one. When you work through a difficult issue with a group of people that you may not like all the time, but ground your work, your faith, in relationships, in God. When you tend to your family – I know so many of you are wading through caring for kids and grandkids as well as spouses and parents – as you navigate tricky waters as dad can’t stay at home by himself anymore. When we, sit holding the hand of someone we have loved for decades as their body weakens. It is this, in the heart of the beast and in the heart of the hard stuff, that we see in some small way God helping us see something of what in this life is worth clinging to with all we have, and all the other stuff, that we spend so much time on, that plain doesn’t matter.
Because it is this essential paradox, this tension between life and death and dying and rising and loving and hating, that shapes what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in this world. To bear fruit, means understanding, deeply, that it is in the losing that we gain. That in the hating, the push against this life, that we see what matters here and beyond. That in death, especially the death of the one those Greeks came to see in His giving of all of himself, that we glimpse eternity. We’ll need to begin to see this in the coming weeks, next Sunday, as Holy week begins, and we walk into the story that gives all others meaning.
Yet even in this moment thick with foreshadowing, Jesus steps back. We see his humanity: Now my soul is troubled. Jesus senses what is coming and, I think, is a little afraid. Reassurance comes from above, a voice that the crowds don’t get but Jesus does. Oh, the time is coming soon, he says. The world will not – and still doesn’t in many ways – see this love. But in the sacrifice, in the losing and the gaining, as we begin to loosen our grip on the stuff of this world that consumes us, we see. He tells us we will see. As we prepare for Holy Week in this week to come, let us look for this great love, hard as it is, so that we might be taught to follow.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. This helpful insight comes from the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s paper on this text at The Well, 2008, Kansas City.
2. Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004), p 150.
3. Also from Heather’s paper, cross-checked on Bibleworks.