SERMON 3/25/12 Lent 5B
“We wish to see Jesus.” In a rural town in Western Kentucky, a quaint little church had been in existence for well over 100 years. The First Christian Church early on, saw so many folks arrive at their doors to be a part of this thriving community. The people of this church always openly welcomed and embraced new folks, folks who like the Greeks in today’s gospel, were wishing to see Jesus. With each new person came new ideas and new ways of doing things. The whole church lived into this culture of welcome, and they seemed always to be eager to try “out of the box” ventures in order to bring others to know Christ.
A few years ago, the leaders noticed that attendance had dropped off and the growth they had once experienced seemed to be diminishing, and many feared they were in decline. They decided to invite a consultant to help them do some deep soul searching, and they discovered some unexpected truths that were a little difficult for them to hear.
The little church had been so busy looking inward, that they failed to realize how much the community around them had changed and without their notice. Many of the families that had once lived in the little town, had fled many years ago when the local coalmine closed. In addition, they missed the major shift that had happened in American religious life over the last 25 or 30 years. Denominational loyalty, which once was a guaranteed source for bringing new members into the community, had all but disappeared as new seekers were looking for authentic glimpses of Jesus. People were now crossing denominational lines in a desperate search for spiritual engagement. The little church also missed the fact that nearly an entire generation was no longer to be found in the church. These new realities came as quite a surprise, and it brought great fear among the membership.
What had only fifty years prior, been a thriving, growing, risk-taking community, now remains a mere shadow of what God was truly calling her to be. Although this story sounds a bit foreboding, the truth of the matter is, there is great hope, because God is always making things new, if we are willing to release our tight grip on what has been, so that which we are being called to become, might emerge.
It is never easy to die to what we have been so that we can live again in to the blessed reality that God is calling us into. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” There are some interesting things going on today in the Gospel. People outside the Jewish community were arriving to get a glimpse of this new Rabbi Jesus. The Greeks were considered outsiders to the Jewish community, so their arrival and desire to see Jesus was quite a shock to his disciples.
“Sir, we wish to see JESUS!” You can almost imagine Phillip getting a little nervous about these strangers coming to meet the Lord. Phillip might have said, “Hang on, I’ll be right back.” Phillip grabbed Andrew and the two of them ran to the Lord .
When they arrived, Jesus like so many times before gave them instructions, veiled in allegory and metaphor. He said something about single seeds dying so there might be much fruit to blossom. They both probably looked at each other with eyes rolling in their heads, “Here we go again, another parable.” Jesus explained, “If you who love your life lose it, and you who hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life.”
In other words, Jesus was telling them to drop their preconceived notions about this community, and who was welcome and who was not. He said, “when we die to ourselves and our own personal desires, and when our own comfort becomes less important than allowing Christ to live in and through us, we will find a life that is everlasting.” When we die to our old self, we will find the life God promises: a life of joy, peace, transformation, mercy and grace, and the best part is we have the opportunity to share that life with others. In dying to our old selves, we find life that will last and others will see Jesus in us.
Leaving behind that which we were, in order to embrace that which we are becoming is what Our Lord is talking about when he speaks of “dying to self.” Jane Tomaine in her book, “St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living” wrote, “Over time . . . conversions bring us to a different place. We become a different person.” New possibilities, never before considered experiences, personal transformation does not happen when we are static, when we accept the status quo, when we are comfortable, or when we are lethargic.
Someone who experiences the death of a relationship through the pain of divorce may emerge on the other side of this experience a new person. Someone who leaves a life-long career to go back to university to pursue another degree, must face the pain of dying to their old career, to emerge on the other side in a new vocation. The person who leaves a home that they knew and loved, a life that fed them and sustained them for years, may have to endure a painful death of identity, to emerge in the new place and find new life.
The Good News Jesus brought us was not about status quo. Jesus’ radical message of self-giving love, Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation stood in contrast to a static religious system and a social system that was exclusive, oppressive, and self-indulgent. The religious and political leaders wanted to quiet Jesus’ movement because he threatened the establishment, and his radical message eventually cost him his life. Jesus was a change agent, a transformer, reformer, a “turn-upside down the tables,” full revelation of God in flesh; the blind saw, the lame walked, the broken-hearted rejoiced, and the mourners celebrated. God is always infusing new life into moments of death.
The Christian life is not a life focused on arriving at a particular state to remain there. The Christian life is a never-ending change, ongoing transformation, and life filled with circumstances in which we fall down and get back up again. When we live life in Christ, we can like Our Lord, look into the face of death, and say, “Your power is defeated,” because we believe new life is on the other side.
Death is the great enemy of humankind, and death comes in many forms. Physical death is a reality yes, but death’s power lurks in other areas of life as well: emotional, relational, and communal. When we fail to allow the Spirit to transform us, we succumb to the fear of death. Death thus, holds us in the grip of status quo. Death binds us into lethargy and immobility. Death stops us in our tracks and holds us back from God’s promises, and that promise is that death is not the end.
Jesus faced it, defeated it, and emerged resurrected from it. Jesus taught us that the only way to overcome the fear of death is to die to one’s own self; to look death in the eye, and say, I will allow the promise of new life to emerge in me; I will allow conversion of life and transformation to happen;” and new life will be on the other side.
Tomaine once again in her book wrote, “Conversion of life and the transformation it brings doesn’t happen in a vacuum but in community: family, friendships, work group, or church community.” Like the Greeks who came to see Jesus, there is a movement about all around us today and there are new generations who really want and need to see Jesus. The Good News has leaked out and it is once again being proclaimed in the streets.
All around us, people are testing the waters of faith and are dropping into the churches, hoping to get a glimpse of the Master’s face through the lives of his followers. Are we ready for that? If we are truly listening, we are being told every single day, “I want to see Jesus.” We the church must accept a new reality, that we are the only lens through which people will see Jesus. The difficult part for many of us is, our lens must be re-focused for folks who may sees things very differently from the way it was so many years ago.
In a world that is changing exponentially, we may have to face a new truth and as painful as it may be. accept Our Lord’s command and really die to our old selves. If we are to remain a reflection of the Master’s face, in the years to come, we must be willing to shrug off that, which keeps us from emerging into that, to which we are being called. We may have to die to our old selves, so the new life the Spirit is infusing, might become incarnate in and through us.