March 29, 2009
Jeremiah 31: 31-34; John 12: 20-33
Drawn to God
Our reading today begins just after Jesus entered Jerusalem. It was the festival of the passover and a great crowd was there. In those days, before the city was destroyed, people came to Jerusalem to worship in the temple on the high holy days. And when the crowd heard that Jesus was coming, they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel." Jesus got this welcome, John tells us, because the people heard that he had raised a person from the dead. Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days when Jesus called him out. The crowd that had seen that sign continued to testify. And the Pharisees had to admit to one another, "Look, the world has gone after him!"
Among those from the world who went after him were some Greeks. John didn't mean Greek Jews, but rather Greek gentiles, outsiders - although they may have been seekers who went to synagogue, studied Torah and worshipped at the temple. These Greeks wanted to see Jesus. So they went to the disciple with a Greek name - Philip - who then went to Andrew, and then Andrew and Philip went to Jesus and told him.
Jesus might have responded in an ordinary way that everyone could understand. He might have said: tell them to meet me at the southwest corner of the temple at 4:30. He might have said, tell them to come to my Bible study tomorrow morning. He might have said, tell them I'm sorry, but I don't have time to see them. My mission is to the people of Israel. He might have said, sure. Philip, bring me to them.
But he didn't respond in an ordinary way that everyone could understand. (He does that often in the gospel of John). Instead, he started talking about death. His death and the death of others. First he says the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified -- which might have sounded like great news, until he started talking about that grain of wheat needing to fall into the earth and die. He then said some will lose their life -- all those who love it. Others, he says, will gain eternal life -- but only after losing their life by hating it. Jesus confesses that his soul is troubled as he approaches the hour; but that when his hour comes, when he is lifted from the earth, he will draw all people to himself. Just in case we didn't get it, Johns spells it out: He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
The Greeks said, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus" -- and Jesus said "When I die, I will draw all people to myself." Jesus did die. In the weeks ahead we'll remember his death. We'll remember his last meal with the disciples, his arrest, his trial before the religious authorities and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. We'll remember how the imperial soldiers beat him. We'll remember how he was raised on a cross and buried in a tomb. On Easter we'll celebrate his rising from the dead. For the 50 days of Easter tide, we'll tell stories of the early church, stories of how the death and resurrection of Jesus drew people to him, drew people to God. On Pentecost we'll celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, when people from all the world could hear the good news in their own language. Indeed: when Jesus died and rose from the grave he drew people to himself, and still draws people to himself. Lost people, suffering people, confused people. People like us. The single grain that fell to the earth has born much fruit.
But we may have a question about something Jesus said. He said he would draw "all" people to himself. But has he? First, there are the millions - billions - who do not, or have not believed in Jesus if they've even heard about him. Hindus in India, Muslims in Indonesia, American atheists, Chinese communists, most Europeans who no longer claim to be even nominally Christian. They may be loving, kind, justice-loving people dedicated to serving others - people who seem to have the law of God written on their hearts - but they are not drawn to Jesus Christ. Or we may wonder about folks who profess Christ but do not seem to serve him: did Jesus draw them to God? To pick an example from the past: what about all those Crusaders? The mobs and the church leaders who led them, indiscriminately killing Jews, Muslims, and each other? Christians have brought us other crimes against humanity: the genocide of American Indians, for example. We may also wonder about ourselves: drawn to God sometimes, but repelled at others -- or so it feels. We may wonder about ourselves when we think of the way we love our lives - not [necessarily] in thankful praise, but in a grasping, each-man-for-himself kind of way. We may wonder - and worry- about people we love who seem to be on the wrong track. When Jesus was raised up, did he bring ALL people to himself?
On the face of it, the answer would seem to be no. The answer would seem to be that Jesus has drawn only some: professing Christians only, and not necessarily all of them. But we have to confess that we are seeing a very small part of the picture. We don't really know all that God is doing - or will be doing - in our hearts and in the hearts of others. We also don't know what wonders God will work with us after we die. We don't know what kind of powerful work God may be doing on the other side, to draw all people to God's self. God's not finished with us. God was not finished with Jesus when he died and God will not be finished with us even when we die. God is not finished with us as individuals, as unique, beloved children. God is not finished with the nations. God is not even finished with creation. So, we can hope, we can trust, that in the space of eternity, God will draw all people to God's self; and as Christians we may profess that all drawn through Jesus Christ as a member of the triune God. (But I need to add -- if we say that Buddhists, for example, may be surprised when they see God through the face of Christ, we have do admit that we could be in for some surprises, too. If we think we're going to go to heaven and find everyone standing around the altar singing our favorite Presbyterian hymns, we may be disappointed!).
When the Greeks asked, "Sir, we would like to see Jesus," and Jesus responded by talking about death, he spoke the truth. To see Jesus, to come to full faith in Christ, we have to look at death. We have to look at Jesus dying on the cross. We have to look at Jesus dying on the cross so we can celebrate his resurrection from that death and the hope that gives us. We have to face our own deaths. We have to face the "little deaths" that we know even as we are alive on this earth. The little deaths of those allegiances, or distractions, that get in the way of our seeing Christ. Our allegiance to money or possessions, for example, or a desire for power or comfort or whatever it is that keeps us from seeing Jesus. (I think that's what Jesus meant by losing, or even hating, our own lives). And we will each have to face our own deaths, because it is only through death that we will see Christ, and see God, in all God's fullness. That is the promise of God in Jesus Christ: that it is through death we see life. As we near Holy week, let's be unafraid to look on the death of Jesus, and our own deaths, because that is the way we will see Jesus.