Tempted to Exclude and Preserve

Part 4 of the series “Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 22, 2015—Fifth Sunday in Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31–34 • The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the LORD. No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

Image courtesy wordle.net

John 12:20–33 • Some Greeks were among those who had come up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and made a request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip told Jesus.
Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me. Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard and said, “It’s thunder.” Others said, “An angel spoke to him.” Jesus replied, “This voice wasn’t for my benefit but for yours. Now is the time for judgment of this world. Now this world’s ruler will be thrown out. When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” (He said this to show how he was going to die.)

I. BEGINNING

So, there’s a great place to get cupcakes in Georgetown. I am not speaking the obvious Georgetown cupcake purveyor. I’m talking about this little place off the canal that’s a combination coffee shop and confectioner’s called Baked & Wired. In addition to getting an award for the best double-entendre name of any coffee/sweets shop in the District, they also make cupcakes and sweets that are far better than the ones you’ll stand in line outside for at the other place.

Now, to be perfectly honest, if you’d asked me a couple of years ago where the best place to get cupcakes was, I’d have told you without hesitation. However, it’s become clear that the secret about this place has gotten out and it’s become a lot more crowded than it used to be. Since most of the business is carry-out it’s okay, but still: it used to be this out of the way place that only a few folks knew about and could enjoy. And now there are tourists who go there. And take up our tables and couches where we used to sit.

So, my motivation to share the good news about Baked & Wired isn’t as strong as it used to be. I mean, it was better when it was just kind of our thing. Now all these other people are coming in and just kind of ruining it for those of us who were here first.

II. THE TEXT

That’s a common response to newcomers and outsiders. There is something of this idea lingering in the subtext of tonight’s gospel lesson. The text begins with an interesting statement: “Some Greeks were among those who had come up to worship at the festival.” This is not a reference to Greek-speaking Jews, or “Hellenists” as they are referred to in the scriptures, but to actual honest-to-God Greeks. Pagans.

Now, Judaism was attractive to a lot of people in the Gentile world. There were many who were drawn to the ethical teachings of Judaism and who desired to be a part of that community, but who had not converted. Some were considered “God-fearers” and it seems that perhaps these Greeks were among that category, such was their desire to meet and speak to Jesus:

They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and made a request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip told Jesus.

Now, it is not explicitly stated in the text where this is all taking place. This whole encounter actually takes place on Palm Sunday just after Jesus has entered the city riding on a donkey and receiving the hosannas of the crowd. But there is a clue in the text: when it says the Greeks had come to ‘worship’, it suggests that the location is in the Temple, specifically in the Court of the Gentiles, the exterior region of the Temple precinct where non-Israelites were permitted to gather. One commentator suggests that by this time Jesus must have already passed through the Court of the Gentiles and be at least in the Court of the Women, the next level up. The request of the Greeks to Philip suggests that they are not able to see Jesus where they are, and hope that he will come to them.

Philip doesn’t say anything to them, but tells Andrew and Andrew tells Jesus. One commentator even goes so far as to speculate as to what Philip must have been thinking about this request. It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus confined his mission activity to the land of Israel and did not engage in a Gentile mission himself. There are the occasional encounters with Gentiles in the Gospels—the centurion, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Samaritan woman, etc.—but Jesus is on record that his mission is “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Philip may have been uncomfortable passing along the request himself to Jesus from these non-Jews. That may be why he kicks it up the ladder to Andrew to deal with it. There must be, after all, a reason why there is a separate Court of the Gentiles in the Temple. The people Israel were told repeatedly that they were to be a people apart, a holy people.

Now, Andrew does pass along the request to Jesus. And in response to this, Jesus engages in a monologue about his upcoming “glorification”—John’s language for the crucifixion:

“The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me. Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard and said, “It’s thunder.” Others said, “An angel spoke to him.” Jesus replied, “This voice wasn’t for my benefit but for yours. Now is the time for judgment of this world. Now this world’s ruler will be thrown out. When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” (He said this to show how he was going to die.)

Am I the only one who has noticed that Jesus just doesn’t respond at all to the request? I have looked at the verses that follow this passage, thinking perhaps that the conclusion to the story had just been cropped from the lectionary text. Nope. A few more questions about what Jesus is talking about, his own teaching on light and darkness, a word from the prophet Isaiah about how the people didn’t believe in him even though he performed signs, and then it transitions to the Last Supper.

It seems like the Greeks’ request goes unanswered. It seems like the division between insider and outsider is maintained.

III.  TEMPTED TO EXCLUDE AND PRESERVE

If that is the case, then it would hardly fall outside of our ordinary experience. It’s not just favorite coffee and sweet shops where we are tempted to exclude and preserve. It is with practically everything we find of value. And especially in the church.

A.   Exclude

The church has a universal mission. It is meant to go into all the world and proclaim the gospel. And we certainly talk about it like it should be doing that. But the reality is there are always limits to just how far we think the free offer of grace should go.

There have always been people that we Christians have believed were unworthy of God’s grace. Or at least, unworthy of it in their present form. Once they conform to the dominant cultural expectation, then, perhaps, they’ll be ready. Once they become more like us, anyway.

Many Native Americans were converted to Christianity in the 18th and 19th Centuries. But so many Christians had an interesting understanding of what that meant. It meant that Indians should give up their traditional ways, should get their hair cut, should dress in different clothing, should speak English. In short, in order to be Christian, they had to be white. Christianity was not for them as they were, it was meant to change them into something else.

And of course, this attitude is seen today when it comes to inclusion of sexual minorities. The church is not meant for you. Adulterers, tax cheats, crooks—they’re okay, apparently. We don’t even ask about those things! But you, LGBT person, you need to change first before you’re welcome here. This community is only for the holy; for a people set apart.

B. Preserve

There is another aspect of this that is even worse. So, even if we are willing to share the message of God’s grace with everyone, as a church we frequently find ways to put “conditions subsequent” on that deal.

Most obviously, we see this with the church’s schizoid desire to have young adults in the church but doesn’t want them to actually change anything. No, please, come sit in our pews and sing in our choir and work with our daycare and just be young for us. Frequently, when young people seek to be in positions of leadership they are often told they’ll have to put in their dues first. You know, wait until their old.

In the same way, we’re reluctant to embrace changing demographics in our churches. The neighborhoods in which many of our churches are located are becoming increasingly diverse and yet often our churches resist any change to embrace modes of worship or cultural expressions that might have anything to do with the people who are neighbors. Instead, the church plods along with the same thing it’s done for the past century or more and wonders why more people aren’t coming.

When we’re not excluding directly, we’re trying to preserve what we’ve had. We lift up the idea that “we’ve always done it this way” almost to the status of a creed and as the world changes around us, we stand still.

I don’t really fault many churches for that attitude; it’s the nature of the beast. It’s what institutions do: they seek to preserve themselves. Museums, corporations, non-profits, educational systems, churches, social clubs, and nation-states all cling to existence. They go down fighting. No one walks into a board of directors meeting and says, “You know what, I know we’re really profitable, but does anyone really need a blanket with sleeves? Let’s just dissolve this company and do something else.” No, they’ll fight for profitability and put more in marketing. And even in those political systems that contemplated “withering away”—as communism claimed the state would do—nevertheless spent extraordinary amounts of energy to preserve the state.

So, it’s no surprise that churches both great and small would seek to keep everything the same as it was. It’s what institutions do. The problem is: Jesus didn’t start an institution; he started a movement.

So, let’s take a look at this Jesus one more time.

IV. THE CHRIST WHO IS LIFTED UP

One of the features of the Gospel of John is its use of irony and double-meaning constructions. Jesus has a famous conversation with Nicodemus in which he explains that in order to have eternal life, one must be “born again”—a phrase that also means “born from above.” And so while Nicodemus focuses on the former sense, Jesus is actually instructing on the latter one.

In the same way, in tonight’s passage Jesus concludes his teaching by saying “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” The Greek word hyps?th? means “lifted up” physically. It also means “exalted.” The use of the term later causes confusion in the crowd. But the author of the fourth gospel points out that Jesus is indicating the way he would die: by being lifted up on a cross.

But what often goes overlooked in this passage, however you understand it—lifted up, exalted, crucified—is what comes next: “I will draw everyone to me.” Now the Common English translation that we use has a nice conversational tone that makes some of these texts more relatable. But here, I think the New Revised Standard Version helps make the force of this statement clearer: “I will draw all people to myself.”

Our tendency to draw lines that separate and divide can even tempt us to hear a word like “everyone” as “everyone here”. Indeed, is there not a difference between how we would understand me saying, “I hope you’ll stay after services for fellowship; we have enough food for everyone” and “I hope you’ll stay after services for fellowship; we have enough food for all people”? I know that dictionary-wise, the two words mean the same thing, but we hear them differently. One sounds more intimate, the other more expansive.

And Jesus is being expansive. “I will draw all people to myself.”

Greeks included.

V.   END

Perhaps this is the answer to the Greeks’ request. They want Jesus to come out to them in the Court of the Gentiles to meet with him. Jesus—who elsewhere refers to himself as a temple[1]—declares that he will draw all people to him. There will be no separation between Jew and Gentile, no court for the Women and a court for the men. There will only be Christ and all people will be drawn to him.

We will always be tempted to exclude and to preserve. But as with all our temptations it is Christ himself who shows us how we are to respond in the face of those temptations. Whenever we are tempted to draw the circle narrow, whenever we are tempted to preserve the status quo versus embracing new possibilities, whenever we are tempted to think that God’s promises are for us first and foremost, whenever we are tempted to view the church like our favorite coffee and sweets shop, there is Christ lifted up upon the cross drawing all people to himself.

 


Notes

[1] John 2:21