A few weeks back, at a street market in Papakura, I heard a loud fundamentalist preacher shouting about what he called the evil religion of the Muslims and declaiming that followers of false Christianity (which I think included most mainstream Christians) were doomed to burn in hell. Prejudice about those with different backgrounds and religion is not a new phenomenon.
So some Greeks – who of course would have been Gentiles as far as Jesus’ Jewish disciples were concerned, came with a request – “Sir we would like to see Jesus”
Philip sounds suspiciously like most of us in the Church today. Well, it’s not for me to introduce a stranger to Jesus….you can almost hear him thinking… So I’ll find someone, someone who can act as an agent on my behalf. In this case, Andrew. After all it was Andrew who has invited others to meet Jesus…. If we had been in Philip’s place today might we have referred the foreign strangers to the minister or Parish Steward?
We shouldn’t be too surprised at Philip’s reaction. After all, from what we know of churches today would a group of mainline Protestants be in a hurry to invite a Muslim, a Jehovah’s witness, a Russian Orthodox or even a Catholic into their inner circle? Maybe if they took the words from the example of Jesus they should – but would they – or more to the point would we?
As it happens, I’m guessing it might have struck the disciples as being strange or even a bit bizarre that the Greeks should even be there. Gentiles were not part of the inner circle, so why were they there? One commentator J H Bernard notes that since the account of Jesus clearing the Temple reminds us that event would have occurred in the Gentiles courtyard, and he speculates that perhaps these particular Greeks may have even witnessed this event and been sufficiently intrigued to seek out the man responsible for this daring act.
In this reading we are reminded that is as if we are being reminded that with Lent almost behind us Jesus can now be lifted up now that the dawn of the time has arrived….. when in Jesus’ words , “I can draw everyone to myself” . If Jesus can make himself open to the Greeks, perhaps we too should be wondering how we can make the strangers feel as though they belong. We might note also in passing that he seems to be treating them as if they were already disciples. Jesus certainly doesn’t make allowances for the Greeks as foreigners or waste time on conversational niceties.
So do we see Jesus making it easy for these newcomers? As that TV character used to say, “I should cocoa!”
Jesus too, leaves his would be disciples with the same difficult, costly and potentially damaging choice he offers his followers. What he says in effect, whether it be to the fishermen disciples at their nets, the rich young ruler, those he challenged to pick up their cross – or in this case the casual enquirers who were Greeks…. this is not merely a half hearted choice which allows you to keep to your old way of life. “Whoever serves me must follow me.”
I guess this has always been the challenge. Our own declarations count for little. We can announce we are Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics – but whether we are new to the faith, even would be followers like the Greeks, or for many of us, members of a particular Church with many years of membership behind us… it is not our status that counts but whether or not we are following the way that Jesus set out in front of his disciples.
By using his allusion of the seed that has to separate itself from its parent plant – in effect to die to its old self before it can set off its new life, he confronts them with an uncompromising alternative. Soren Kierkegaard would probably identify it as the key feature of existentialism – the leap of faith.
………..the leap that no one can do for you.
I suspect that Jesus’ message is typically down–played and treated with caution by modern society and even by much of the corporate Church.
Modern society is based on the concept of success and the achievement of status through the accumulation of wealth and possessions. To set these aside is to reject what is commonly accepted as the only sensible way to live. Even in the corporate Church, the notion of individual response without someone to organise it on our behalf is just not how we operate.
While this no doubt gives us the assurance we are not acting alone, there is a conservatism, and frequently an inertia, particularly when there is an assumption that we require the Church to act as broker before we can respond to how our conscience appears to lead.
Robert Funk sees typical religion as unfortunately something brokered by a whole raft of people on our behalf. The Archbishop or Church president selects and ordains the senior leaders, the senior church folk (often Bishops) ordain the clergy – and the clergy act as an intermediary between the congregation and the divine. And just in case we are expecting action on the issues that concern us, there is usually a ponderous committee structure to navigate. While we have clearly become more democratic in our processes, we should be honest enough to see the end result is that the Church no longer typically gives clear lead on issues of conscience.
I guess that is not new.
In the Second World War for example, in Germany it was only the individuals acting alone who could bring themselves to stand against Hitler. Those individuals were not waiting for their actions to be mediated for them. Less than 10% of the Lutheran Church clergy spoke out and the Roman Catholic Church is continuing to defend itself on a frequently expressed charge that if anything they supported the Nazis. On the world scene, the traditional Church denominations were also initially reluctant to speak against slavery, more recently the mainline Churches were painfully slow in that the biggest Churches still appear reluctant to see women in significant leadership roles. Today they continue to say little about the arms trade. Peace makers may be blessed in the sermon on the Mount, but in reality they have not always been visible as part of Church leadership in some of the nastier conflicts. An army chaplain, blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city may not represent one of the Church’s finer moments. In this country, despite the record growing gap between the rich and the poor, the Church response has been reactive rather than proactive and if anything muted and restrained.
Individually however we do see within our Churches a small number of determined brave individuals anxious to move forward even without official backing, prepared to follow where their conscience leads. Since we should never forget that in the last analysis the Church is us, we can and should be inspired that we have amongst us those unafraid to question government policy, those prepared to speak up for refugees and minorities, those unafraid to work with the gangs, the addicts and the homeless. We continue to be inspired by those prepared to volunteer in disaster zones, those who insist on supporting Christian World service and those of our Church folk prepared to go into War zones as aid workers.
When we look at the way Jesus interacted with those he met we notice he continually pushed them to take personal responsibility. It is also my impression he tended not to insist those healed that God had done it for them – or that he had interceded on their behalf. Rather instead he acknowledged their personal faith, or actions in seeking his help. It was as if he represented a non brokered faith … a faith in which the shouldering of a personal cross is the test of an individual response.
The seed analogy is vivid and helpful. A seed still attached to the parent plant can only whither and decay. The seed freed to germinate and take root can give rise to new life. Certainly the parent plant – in our case even the parent Church has an essential part of our life cycle. Yet even there the parent Church should be continually allowing and even encouraging the seed to break free to give rise to genuine new life.
Jesus talks of the confrontation as one he in particular must face for himself. He sees the paradox of finding life through death, release through suffering, in effect the dawn after the night. Some of the terminology he uses strongly suggests his premonition of the dark despair he is understood to have faced in the garden of Gethsemane. As always with John it is hard to disentangle the theology from the factual record.
Some of the allusions are easy to grasp. When Jesus talks of he (and she?!) who loves his (or her?!) life will lose it Jesus is not of course talking of a sense of the worth of life – but rather the attractions of a shallow pursuit of that which comes easy… yet there is still mystery. The notion of hating your life to win eternal life is a difficult thought-provoking paradox and perhaps related to the historical fact that by the death of the martyrs the Church itself apparently grew. Yet in what sense the life continues is much harder to put into words. Modern cosmology has in effect put paid to notions of heaven being up there and hell down there as places, and the certainty with which some describe the hereafter (particularly at funerals) is hard to justify since many of the descriptions are contradictory and mutually exclusive.
What we can however be sure of is that a sense of what Jesus stood for has continued to have a lasting significance and regardless of the manner of his execution his message and the Spirit of what he stood for lives on, but not in the ether. Rather it is in the responses and deeds of those who win the right to be called followers by how they respond to the way of Jesus. Will that include those like us?
By contrast perhaps we might finish with an historical anecdote.
There are several versions of the story about the King Xerxes about to invade Greece. One version says that before they crossed the Hellespont River he had his mighty Persian army drawn up so that he might review them. He smiled in great satisfaction at their magnificence – then his officers noticed suddenly he had tears in his eyes. “What troubles you?” they asked.
“I was just thinking that in one hundred years not a single one of these fine soldiers will be alive. Nothing will remain”.
Xerxes’ words should remind us that each of us have a relatively brief time in which we can respond to the gospel. And dont forget that when it comes to following Christ each generation needs to ensure the mission is handed on to the next generation. We can’t depend on what previous disciples did in the past – glorying only in the deeds of a previous generation of Christians. Newcomers or old-hands, the test is always the challenge of living the faith.
The essence of Christianity was not necessarily finished when Jesus was lifted up on his cross. It continues to live if we make it live, but finding meaning in his message with our own seed is the chapter still to be written.
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