Yeah, but…


Following on the heels of John 3:16, we have another popular verse this week.  Last week, it was, arguably, the most oft-cited verse, this week, the most popular pulpit inscription.  Like John 3:16, John 12:21b is often ripped out of context and jammed into whatever usage the preacher might need, but I guess that’s a bit of how it works in the larger story anyway.

From the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry, we have skipped ahead to the last.  Whether this is the second or third Passover that Jesus has spent with his disciples is open for debate, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  The end is nigh, and Jesus knows it.  As the crowds begin to swell in Jerusalem for the festival, Jews and Proselytes from all over the known world are there to celebrate the Feast in hopeful expectation of what God might do this year; how God might save the Jewish people from their bondage-in-place at the hands of Rome.  The must have been a buzz in the city as people from all over shared stories of one particularly brazen Rabbi who was performing miracles and teaching with a conviction with which they had not known.

Word spread far and wide, until even Greek converts began to seek out Jesus.  A group of them approached one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  What follows is one of the most puzzling non sequitur responses that Jesus gives, and he was pro-level at the random reply.  Here, he doesn’t even begin to engage the request that Philip and Andrew make on behalf of the Greeks, but rather goes down a rabbit hole that the time has been fulfilled.  It is dangerous to mix Gospels, especially the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and John, but if the timelines are close, then this is likely the day Jesus turned the Temple a second time.  Things are tense, to be sure, and so, we can forgive Jesus’ somewhat odd response.  Except, that there are still some Greeks who are out there hoping to see Jesus.

I imagine Andrew and Philip standing there, listening to Jesus, thinking, “Yeah, but…”  They had heard him talk like this before, but it hadn’t stopped him from proclaiming his message of repentance and salvation.  This time, though, it seems different.  This time, Jesus seems to be of a one-track mind.  The Greeks will see him, but not in the way they had hoped.  Instead, they will soon see him glorified, lifted high into the air on his cross, with arms outstretched, as the savior of the world.  This is more than a pulpit inscription, but rather, the Greeks name what will be the desire of all nations one day.  That we might see Jesus in his glory, welcoming us into his arms of love and the reach of his saving embrace.

All People

Thanks to Bishop Spong, Marcus Borg, Rob Bell, and others, there seems to be a growing universalist trend among moderate to liberal Christians these days.  I’m a long-view universalist, in that I tend to believe that at the final judgment, when everyone has the chance to experience the overwhelming love of God, no one will be able to choose to walk away from it.  As Bell more succinctly put it, “Love Wins.”  While universalism isn’t a new theological concept, there has, over the past 100 or so years, been subtle liturgical changes which have invited it into our common prayer.

A recent example can be found in Enriching our Worship I where in Eucharistic Prayer I it substitutes the word “all” for the more traditional “many” in the Institution Narrative.  “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins” (p. 59).  In the notes, the SCLM explains their decision, “The use of ‘all’… in the institution narrative emphasizes the forgiveness of sins is made available to all through Christ’s sacrifice.  While the Greek word is literally translated “many,” biblical scholars have pointed out that in the context of the passage it means that the sacrifice is made not just for a large number of persons, but for all humanity… New eucharistic prayers in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church us ‘all’ rather than ‘many'” (p. 77).

The prime example,and one timely to this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, is the third Prayer for Mission in Morning Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

This prayer was written by the Rt. Rev. Charles Henry Brent and published while he was Bishop of the Philippines.  It certainly doesn’t assume that everyone is getting into heaven simply because God loves them, but it does take Jesus’ promise in John 12:32 very seriously.  “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  Unlike the gymnastics the SCLM has to do in their notes, the underlying Greek word here is very simply the word for all or everything or in common parlance: all the things.

As we approach Holy Week, the magnitude of Jesus’ death will come into focus.  We should take time to consider that Jesus died for me, and for you, but more so, he died for all (2 Cor 5:15).  As Bishop Brent’s Prayer for Mission suggests, this realization should be our motivation to share the good news far and wide, to let the whole world know of God’s saving love for all people, everywhere.

Serving Christ

Thanks to the Holy Spirit and scheduling conflicts, we’ll be baptizing three people at the 10am service on the Fifth Sunday in Lent.  I can hear the grumbling from my Anglo-Catholic friends, and while I agree baptisms on Easter would be preferred, I think a baptism smack in the middle of Lent works just fine, especially on Lent 5B.

Here’s what Jesus says about discipleship in Sunday’s Gospel lesson. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Here’s what the Baptismal Covenant says, at least in part, about discipleship, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”

The life of discipleship is a life of service to Christ and neighbor.  Jesus tells us that plainly as he approaches the cross, and the Church makes it equally clear for those who would come to be baptized in Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection.  So what does it look like to serve Jesus?  Like I said on Monday, it is about loving our neighbor so much that they are compelled to ask why.  Serving Jesus looks like caring for the poor through food pantries, homeless shelters, and advocacy.  Serving Jesus looks like caring for the middle class by teaching them that the American Dream isn’t the be all and end all, that he who dies with the most toys still dies, that life is more than soccer games, good grades, and eating dinner in the car.  Serving Jesus looks like challenging the rich to share their blessings with those less fortunate, to give generously to the Church, and to take good care of those in their employ.  Serving Jesus looks like reaching beyond our selves to ensure that the whole world can see and know that Jesus Christ loves everything and everyone he created.

A 21st Century Jeremiad

After many, many, many months of procrastination, I have finally started the research phase of my DMin Thesis, “William Reed Huntington Meets Brian McLaren and The Episcopal Moment.”  One of the reasons I was so slow to begin was that the first book staring me in the face wasn’t one I wanted to read.  The American Jeremiad was recommended by a member of the Sewanee Thesis Committee who suggested that perhaps the narrative of a changing world was nothing more than an old wive’s tale, based on the founding narrative of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the theory posited by Sacvan Bercovitch, author of The American Jeremiad.  I’m 25% through the book now, and I just don’t buy it.

What I have found interesting is the word in the title that I had never heard before, Jeremiad.  According to Google, a jeremiad is a long, mournful complain or lamentation.  Bercovitch expands that definition to include not only lamentation, but the promise of restoration of God’s chosen people.  His argument is that America, or at least the Massachusetts Bay Colony portion of it, was founded on a belief that America was God’s new Promised Land, that the early settlers were chosen by God to bring about the End Times, and that any suffering they encountered was simply God preparing them for their future glory, and he bases it on a series of sermons, preached over the course of three generations on the Old Testament lesson appointed for Lent 5B, Jeremiah 31:31-34 (hence the name Jeremiad).

Like I said, despite what I said yesterday about Rabbi Friedman’s theory of foundation story, the American colonies were too diverse for me to believe that to this day, all of American society is built on some sermons by early preachers/civic leaders on Massachusetts Bay. (And I don’t think this opinion is merely the result of my overwhelming dislike of all things New England).  The fact that Jeremiah 31 is scheduled to be read this Sunday does have me thinking about what a 21st Century Jeremiad might look like.

Most American preachers have long since given up the idea that American prosperity will bring about the return of Jesus, but we are very accustomed to the idea of the New Covenant, written upon our hearts.  When we look at the world around us, we realize, very quickly, that it is not the way God intended it to be, and yet we know that in Christ, we find the fullness of the Kingdom of God living and active not only in 1st century Palestine, but through his Church, empowered by the Spirit, to this very day.  Not only in America, but around the globe.  The 21st century Jeremiad, the promise of restoration even in the midst of pain and hardship, thanks to the power of the internet is an international promise as well as an international call to repentance.

The world is once again flat.  Overindulgence in America creates climate woe in Africa.  Political hardship in the Middle East creates an immigration crisis in Eastern Europe.  The ubiquitousness of Social Media creates violent reactions in non- or anti-globalization cultures.  The Jeremiad of the 21st Century is a call to read the law written upon our own hearts and to live it, to set an example of justice and peace for the people around us, and to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world at large.  It is not less idealistic that it was when Jeremiah spoke his now famous words, but it is likewise no less the call of God to his faithful people.

We wish to see Jesus

If I’m honest, there are several things I wish Jesus had never said or done.  In last week’s Gospel, for example, did he have to bring up the snake on a pole?  Did he really need to curse the fig tree for not having figs out of season?  Did he have to call the Syrophoenician woman a dog?  And why didn’t he just let those dang Greeks meet him?

Jesus’ response to the request of the Greeks sends such a bad message to the Church.  He gets all theology-y.  He gets all closed in with his small group.  He gets all my-God-and-me-y what with the voice from heaven that sounds like a thunderclap.  Rabbi Friedman says that you can tell a lot about a church  based on its origin story.  If it began out of conflict, it will be forever defined by conflict.  If it began to serve a specific need, it will continue to do so, often to a fault (see most congregations built in post-WWII suburbia).

The Church universal has this high-profile, high-friction encounter between Jesus and the Greeks as part of its birth narrative, and for 2,000 years we’ve had to work against it.  This non-engagement by Jesus is the foundation of the Gnostic heresy which plagued the Church for hundreds of years.  It is the subtle background to every church that chooses to be the frozen chosen rather than engage with the community around it.  It is one of those moments when we shouldn’t forget the larger context of Jesus’ ministry.  We can’t ignore that he spent 3 years meeting with the outcast, the oppressed, and the needy.  As disciples of Jesus, we should respond to “we wish to see Jesus” with “come and see.”

We should be out and about.  We should be present to the needs of our communities.  We should be showing people Jesus in our actions before they even ask to see him.  We should, as the Turkey Take-Out folks say, “love them until they ask why,” and then be prepared to show them Jesus, the reason behind every good work, every act of charity, the very impetus to love.

You’ll see Jesus better standing outside.