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To Live Among God's Faithful/Faulty People

A sermon on John 12:20-33

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Katie Moum on]

Our bulletin team this week had a conversation about what to do with lectionary readings that start with a reference back to prior content that is not included in that week’s readings.

It can be kind of frustrating as worship planners because, on the one hand, it feels inappropriate to “edit” the Bible.

There is a convention for putting added, explanatory notes in parentheses, but even that can be tricky if the content being explained is at all complicated.

On the other hand, we don’t want people to get confused in worship, or be distracted by wondering about what context they are missing and then actually miss the heart of the reading.

All of which is to say, that worship planners and preachers sometimes question the decisions of the lectionary committees about where they stop and start the readings.

However, at least for this week’s gospel, I think they got it right.

Not that that’s obvious. In fact, at first glance it’s not just the lectionary breaks but the original text that seems to present a complete non-sequitur:

We start with a scene of Greek worshippers who have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and apparently heard the buzz about Jesus, asking Phillip to arrange an opportunity for them to meet with Jesus.

Phillip and Andrew pass along the request, and we expect at least some kind of response…

But, instead, the narrative takes an abrupt turn and Jesus launches into a discourse about his coming death, ranging around from a metaphor about seeds in the ground dying to bear fruit, to an expression of his personal distress at what he is facing, to an affirmation that he is there to glorify the Father’s name…

And then that discourse is interrupted by a voice from heaven affirming God’s glory, which the gathered crowd tries to explain in various ways, before Jesus offers his own explanation that this heavenly pronouncement was for their benefit, before returning to the theme of his coming crucifixion (through another vague allusion about being “lifted up.”)

If Quinn’s AP lit teacher were grading this bit of narrative… she would almost certainly criticize the lack of necessary transitions!

And from a modern literary analysis perspective, she would be right.

But from a theological perspective, I think there is actually a very important through-line to this story: a through-line of inclusion.

This theme starts with the Greek pilgrims seeking an audience with Jesus.

We can easily intuit the reason for their request: It would have been fairly natural for them to assume that their ethnic identity made them outsiders among Jesus’s followers.

They came to worship at the Jewish festival, so they were worshippers of Israel’s God.

But they are identified as Greeks, not as Jews who had travelled from Greece, which means they would fall under the category of Gentile “God-fearers.” This was a religious category in the 1st century for people who came from outside the Jewish ancestry and culture, who recognized the One True God and sought to participate in God’s worship, but who were not considered fully “Jewish.”

This was the group for whom the Gentile Court in the Temple that we talked about a few weeks ago was designated. They were believers, but they had to exist on the margins of the religious community.

For such a group, it would have felt safer to them to approach Jesus in private, rather than risking the suspicion of the native crowds who followed him.

They wanted to learn about Jesus. They wanted to know if they could be included in the vision of God’s Kingdom that he was revealing. But they couldn’t assume they would be welcomed.

Of course, in response, Jesus could have agreed to the private conversation and offered his verbal reassurance that they were part of his vision of the Kingdom… but instead he started speaking to the crowd that the Greek believers were worried about.

His message was a continuation of his predictions about his coming death and its significance for his followers… which seems like a non sequitur to the originating request.

But consider the metaphor that he chooses for this prediction:

“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.”

It’s a metaphor for death and resurrection, obviously.

AND, it’s a metaphor that focuses specifically on expansion. The seed that starts as singular multiplies when it bears fruit.

The original barriers that define its identity break apart, and the result is a growth that goes far beyond those original confines.

In the context of an approach from a group of outsiders wanting to know if they can be included, it’s at least a suggestive metaphor.

Then Jesus moves on to a call for his listeners to follow his example, even as he admits how hard it is, and how much he wishes he could ask to be spared what is coming, before affirming his commitment to glorify God.

That’s when the voice from heaven interrupts Jesus’s verbalized inner dialogue affirming that God has been glorified.

This elicits the first reported reaction from the listening crowd. Some want a naturalistic explanation for the supernatural sound, while others recognize the heavenly origin.

It’s just a moment in the text, but it pulls our attention back to the question of unity versus distinctions… to the human need to categorize and the ways that that instinct compels us to draw lines the separate us.

AND Jesus is not having it. He refuses to engage the debate. Instead, he offers an inclusive category:

This voice was for your benefit – as in ALL of you. Your task is not to define what you have heard. Your task is to listen to it. Hear the affirmation of what God is doing in my ministry…because now is the time.

Which brings Jesus back full circle to the prediction of his coming death.

But this time he doesn’t depend on a metaphor to drive home his point about inclusion… he says it outright:

When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.

Not all of you listening. Not everyone in Jerusalem. Not everyone who comes from the right background, or believes all the right things. Everyone.

In Greek, the word used is pas. According to the outline of Biblical usage, it means “each, every, any, all, the whole, everyone, all things, everything.”[1]  

In other words, Jesus is declaring that his mission is ultimately inclusiveness, wholeness, a lack of disqualifying distinctions.

And so, it turns out, that when Jesus launched into his discourse rather than responding to the request from the Greek pilgrims for a private meeting, Jesus was not ignoring the needs of the outsider group… rather he was demonstrating that they did not need to worry about whether or not they belonged there.

He was unequivocally affirming that they belonged among his followers, and he was doing it publicly. So that everyone else would hear it too.

He was telling the world that he was breaking himself open, like a seed in the groud, so that the barriers to new life could come down, and the harvest could grow beyond its current confines.

He was rejecting the human instinct to draw distinctions and the need to be “right” in the way we each define God’s action.

He was explaining that God’s revelation to and through Jesus was for the benefit of all people, and that he really meant all. No distinctions. No insiders and outsiders.

This thematic through-line in today’s gospel does more for us than just make an apparently scattered piece of narrative hold together as one, coherent story.

It also offers us important guidance about how we understand our calling as followers of Jesus.

And that guidance has special relevance for the way that we interpret the final baptismal commitment we will explore in this Lenten season: “to live among God’s faithful people.”

It would be far too easy to hear that commitment as a call to insularity, a subtle instruction that a life of faith requires us to draw lines and make judgments about “faithfulness,” in order to determine whom we can hold in community.

It would be easy, because that is so often the model that people who loudly identify themselves as Christians in our society present:

They publicly define tests for faithfulness, which involve agreement with their exclusive moral codes, and they draw bright lines of who can and cannot be considered Christians.

And sometimes they do great harm in the process. Convincing people that their lines are God’s lines and that those lines limit God’s love and grace.

But even knowing the harm these claims cause. Even having been personally attacked by such line-drawing… I have to hold to Christ’s assertion that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw everyone to himself.

And that means I cannot try to wall myself off. I cannot decide who is in or out. I cannot ask Jesus to meet with me in private to avoid the uncomfortable conflicts or presume that I have absolute authority in interpreting what God has said.

My commitment is to live among God’s faithful… and imperfect… and often divided… and sometimes destructively misguided… people.

And to practice in God’s beloved and broken community the one law about which Jesus was unequivocal: that we should love one another.

Thanks be to God.


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