Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 18, 2018
“I Would Be a None Too”
John 12: 20-36
Some Greeks were among those who had come up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and made a request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” 22 Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. 24 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.25 Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. Abba will honor whoever serves me.
27 “Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Abba, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time.28 Abba, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
29 The crowd standing there heard and said, “It’s thunder.” Others said, “An angel spoke to him.”
30 Jesus replied, “This voice wasn’t for my benefit but for yours. 31 Now is the time for judgment of this world. Now this world’s ruler will be thrown out. 32 When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”(33 He said this to show how he was going to die.)
34 The crowd responded, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Human One must be lifted up? Who is this Human One?”
35 Jesus replied, “The light is with you for only a little while. Walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness don’t know where they are going. 36 As long as you have the light, believe in the light so that you might become people whose lives are determined by the light.” After Jesus said these things, he went away and hid from them.”
There is so much going on in this passage that I couldn’t possibly cover the whole thing with any depth in 15 minutes. So, I want to share a few highlights.
With my family’s background in farming, I’ve always appreciated the line: “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.” Yup, that’s how it works, although I wouldn’t describe planting seeds as sending them off to their death. Farmers as the grim reaper. Perhaps it helps that Jesus then explains: “Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.”
But, no, that doesn’t really help. It just adds another one of those head-scratching sayings of Jesus. I mean, I love my life. What’s wrong with that? In fact, since losing 60 pounds five years ago, I’m healthier than I’ve been since my 20s. Hiking, biking, snow-shoeing. Plus, I love the work I’m doing. I love doing this! The church feels healthy and is becoming what I have hoped and prayed for.
But wait, what if I wasn’t healthy? Would I hate my life? Should I hate my life if the church felt stagnant and our ministry seemed defined more by moving backwards than forward? For that matter, is cancer supposed to make us hate our lives? Pain? Addiction? Grief? No. Would losing a job or a spouse or our home make us hate our lives? But hey, we could say, “Yeah! I get to keep my life forever?”
So, I explored this text a little more and found some weird advice. For example, an article entitled “How to Hate Your Life.” Or Lesson 67 at www.bible.org: “Why You Should Hate Your Life.”
This one verse deserves a whole sermon or six of them on its own. Can I just leave it at, “Don’t hate your life. Live your life to its fullest potential” and then move on for today? Because, like the seed in the ground metaphor, this is more about what fruit our lives bear. Anything else ultimately doesn’t matter.
Another verse I want to highlight: Jesus asked, “Should I ask God to save me from this difficult time?” I thought we were just told to hate our lives. Let’s remember the context. Jesus is just mere days now from being betrayed, swords pulled in the Garden, the sham trial, and his execution. Not surprisingly, he asks of his own struggles and fears, “Should I ask God to save me from this difficult time?” However, he immediately adds, “But this is why I came among you.” He then refers to his death. To which the crowd said, “but wait a minute.” They told Jesus that the Law, the Bible, says the Christ is supposed to live forever. Who are you talking about? What is this you say about the Human One, or as we may know it better, the Son of Man. Their bottom line: “This is crazy. What are you talking about?” To that, Jesus told them to follow the light while it’s here with you. As long as you have the light, follow the light… and so on and so forth.
Like much of the Gospel of John, the logic is hard to follow; it’s circular, it doesn’t go from point A to point B. Instead we’ve got this swirling mix of love and hate and light… and planting seeds that die, as well as a Christ that dies. As I’ve said before, John needs a good editor. Clarity. Make your point, please!
But after all that, perhaps my favorite line is the last one. Not because the passage is finally done, but for its clarity. “After Jesus said all these things, he went away and hid from them.” That’s clear. Except for why. Why tell them to follow the Light and then go hide?
Well, here’s at least one idea. And it takes us all the way back to the first line of the passage. “Some Greeks came to the festival,” meaning they came to Jerusalem for Passover, “and said, ‘Sir, we want to see Jesus.’”
Some Greeks came. Who are these Greeks? So let’s remember, context again: word had spread far and wide about Jesus – part-time miracle worker, healer, teacher. And increasingly a full-time enemy of both religion and state. Fascinating guy, right? Who wouldn’t want a personal look? So, who are they? Citizens from the land of Plato and Socrates? Perhaps they came to Passover to observe out of curiosity. They may have been spiritually hungry, open to exploring. Or maybe they just happened to be passing through. Or, as some scholars suggest, they may have been Jews living in Greece; Jews who were part of the diaspora centuries before during the time of the exile who never returned home.
Either way, they were outsiders in Jerusalem. But no matter who they were, they were seekers. And what did they want? They wanted to “see” Jesus.
Have you ever heard of the “nones?” I’m sure you have. Not the religious ones. Not the ones in Catholic orders living in convents. I mean the folks who are not affiliated with any religious tradition. They may have been. Many were at one time. But these “nones” are the ones who answer polls and surveys with “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. And why not? How can you blame them? When they’ve asked to see Jesus, they’ve been given creeds they had to agree with first. When they asked to see Jesus, they were handed a pledge card. When they asked to see Jesus, they were given a committee assignment.
John Pavlovitz says this much better in a blog post entitled “Dear Church, Here’s Why People Are Really Leaving the Church.” A few of the things he lists include: 1) You never leave your building, 2) You choose stupid fights – not to fight racism but each other, 3) You tell us we can come as we are – unless we’re gay, a feminist, believe in climate science, or consider family planning a choice.
But hey, at least now days, if you pay hush money to silence a porn star for an affair you had while your wife is still breast feeding your newborn, come on in!
But actually, that’s exactly right. Let’s hear it for heretics and doubters and people whose lives are just as messy and screwed up as the rest of us pretending to have it all together. Isn’t that exactly who Jesus came to share the good news of liberation?
Some Greeks came to Jerusalem. Where should people go today if they want to see Jesus? How often would that be inside a church? Not to bad mouth the church, but regardless of whether you were a first century seeker or 21st century none, where would you go?
Don’t get me wrong. Gathering in sanctuaries to sing and pray and listen is vitally important. It is respite care in a world that exhausts us, that discourages us, that angers us, that scares the pants off of us. We meet God here, or at least it provides a path where we meet God here sometimes. And the Holy Spirit heals us here, or at least sometimes. When the time is ready. Rituals have a purpose to help us return to center. Sabbath gives us a rhythm and reminds us to breathe and put our problems in perspective. We come here to remember to practice gratitude through generosity. All vitally important. And then. And then, we are sent right back into the world to put our renewed faith into action.
But, sometimes I think I could become a none too – not the one with a habit and long black skirt, except maybe on Halloween. But folks like Pastor Gabe from Junction City could cause me to become a none if no other option existed. Pastor Gabe publicly took issue with John Pavlovitz’s blog post and argued with a young woman who reached out for understanding. He quoted some scripture at her and concluded, “People leave the church because they hate God and they hate God's people. There is no other reason.” She replied, “I don’t hate God. Instead of quoting scripture, how about listening to our questions?” He retorted, “The reason why you feel threatened and alienated when you hear the Bible quoted to you is because your conscience is guilty.”
Yeah, he could turn me into a “none” too. And sadly, this wasn’t satire. It wasn’t a teaching moment. It was simply evidence of what author Anne Rice called a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group,” the reason she loves Jesus but left the church. Pastor Gabe’s whole, very lengthy exchange turned my stomach. And breaks my heart. What evidence of Jesus did this young woman see?
Again, the passage began, some Greeks wanted to see Jesus. Twelve more confusing verses later, the passage ended, “Jesus went and hid.” What was all that stuff in-between about? Life, death, hate, seed-planting… follow light around in circles…?
Well, boil it all down, and I think I hear Jesus ask, “What are you willing to die for.” To some Greeks and the seekers in all of us: “For what are you willing to die?”
If we asked that question of people who consider themselves nones or spiritual but not religious, I think the church would expand exponentially. Not that church growth is the point, but if we told people the truth:
You get what I’m saying… If we were less concerned with our own lives, you could call it “hating” our lives, but I’d rather not; if we were concerned more with the life, health, and well-being of our neighborhoods, cities, countries, and the planet we share with billions of people than we were with our church (ouch), we would make a difference that would matter in the grand scheme of things. Confronting racism. Standing up for refugees and immigrants and supporting #MeToo. Getting people to love God more than their guns. Maybe we wouldn’t attract a single new person, but at least our neighbors might see Jesus. And isn’t that the point?
But it may require the death of many of the expectations we place on what is important in the church. In fact, how many churches are dying because they wouldn’t die? Die to programs that didn’t make a difference in the world. Having a building but no ministry. Die to worship that speaks of concerns and in a language utterly unintelligible to anyone outside the narrow confines of their particular faith. Die to the way things are “supposed” to be or have always been done. Die to the fear that we might die.
Which is no different than the same questions we could ask in our personal lives. Can we die to the fear that we might die, or rather, will die? Die to the way things are “supposed” to be or have always been done? Die to worshiping things that are meaning-less? Die to a way of life that makes no difference in the world?
To what must we die. And for what are you willing to die? 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.
Jesus said all these things and then went off to hide, which strikes me as one of the funniest things in the Bible. But why else would Jesus go off and hide other than to encourage his followers to be the Light? So that the whole world might see Jesus. And if I wasn’t being clear enough, so that people can see Jesus in you.
At least that’s one potential explanation for this text. One that doesn’t make me want to become a none. How about you?