Sunday, March 22, 2015

22 March 2015 -- 5th Sunday of Lent

5th Sunday of Lent  — 22 March 2015
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

Jeremiah 31:31-34  |  Psalm 51:1-13  |  Hebrews 5:5-10  |  John 12:20-33

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

I’m assuming that most of you are aware of some things about the reading of Scripture:  The Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament, and the Bible as a whole.  (The “as a whole” is important!)  These are not simple newspaper articles.  They require some sophistication.  I don’t mean you have to get all academic and scholarly with the Bible; it’s often useful to do that, but sometimes it may also get in the way of hearing the Word of God.  What I am talking about is being careful to read the text.  Read the text.  And to be aware that the Gospel narratives, particularly, were not written by CNN reporters who were present onsite with cameras and sound recorders.  The Gospels were written, in the form we have them now, by Christians, followers of Jesus, some 35 to 65 years after the events, based not only upon their communities’ authentic memories, but also upon their own prayerful reflection on the meaning of those memories of the events.  I’m assuming that Mother Alice and other clergy have discussed and taught and preached about these kinds of things with you over the years.

One of the things you also will have noticed is that the four Gospels are not four identical, or even similar, books; they are not like birds on a wire.  Well, the first three Gospels are obviously related.  Each is distinctive, with material of its own, but obviously related.  They can easily be compared, or looked at side-by-side.  Which in Greek is to say “synoptic.”  But you know that, and the details are for another time.  The fourth Gospel, that “according to John” (although the author nowhere names himself – or herself!) covers a lot of the same material about the ministry of Jesus, but with a very different perspective.

For instance:  as we all recall, most of the accounts of Jesus’ ministry in the first three Gospels are brief straightforward stories.  (They’re not simple, and we keep discovering new dimensions in them all our lives, but they are generally short and to the point.)  Jesus tells a parable.  Jesus heals someone who is sick or disabled.  Jesus gives some short pithy instructions about life.  Jesus gives little pictures of the Kingdom of God.  In the Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, Jesus heals someone, or feeds the multitude – there’s not much parable-telling in this Gospel – and then follows that up with a long discourse on the meaning of it all.  And even after many many years of reading the Fourth Gospel over and over, I still find myself saying “What is he talking about?”

Okay, here’s what I think.  This is what I think, and you may disagree with me, and that’s all right, and Mother Alice may disagree with me, and that would be all right.  But I think that the Fourth Gospel is up to something quite different from what we see in the first three Gospels.  In the first three we see, basically, the writing down of stories passed along in the “Jesus Tradition.”  They may undergo some editing in the writing down of the Gospels, particularly as the local communities’ circumstances change over a generation or two – particularly after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans – but these are basically traditional stories.  The Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, apparently knows all those traditional stories – I would say from the tradition itself; I don’t see any indication that the author knows any of the written Gospels.  But the Fourth Evangelist starts with one of the traditional stories, and then goes on to compose a long discourse, placed in the mouth of Jesus, about what those stories and events mean.  And I’m certainly not saying his interpretation is not right – but it’s the result of his, and his community’s, reflections on the meaning of the stories of the Jesus tradition.

Okay, so finally now we come to the Gospel reading today.  Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem (following the so-called “Triumphal Entry” that we will celebrate next Sunday) and he’s in the Temple, and some “Greeks” approach him.  In this case, the Evangelist probably means people who were ethnically Gentiles – not necessarily from Greece but Greek-speaking – and may have been proselytes, that is, religious converts to Judaism, which explains why they were in Jerusalem for Passover.  (A slightly different word is used for Greek-speaking ethnic Jews who lived in the Diaspora outside of Judea and Galilee.)  Or perhaps these Greeks were “God-fearers,” Gentiles drawn to the moral and theological power of Judaism but unwilling to accept the full obligations of the Torah, the Jewish Law.  They approach Philip (who, being from Bethsaida, a mixed Gentile-Jewish town, probably speaks Greek, and he has a Greek name) and they tell him that they “wish to see Jesus.”  Not just look at him, but meet him, talk with him.  But also, in the Fourth Gospel, “to see” often connotes “to believe in,” and I can’t help but think the Evangelist has that in the back of his mind.

Anyway, we don’t know what happened with the Greeks after that; the Evangelist apparently doesn’t really care about them; he moves right on to the point he wants to make:  Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  All along throughout this Gospel Jesus has been saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  But with the coming of the Gentiles – the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” but whom Jesus must now bring in [John 10:16] – with the coming of the Gentiles the  time for his glorification – that is, his crucifixion and resurrection – has now arrived.  (As the Pharisees had just said:  “Look, the world has gone after him!”  [John 12:19])

The Evangelist then goes on to draw on some sayings from the Jesus tradition that we already know and have seen in the other Gospels, though slightly differently phrased:  only if you give up your life will you gain your life;  if you would follow me, deny yourself and take up your cross.  Following Jesus means following Jesus where he goes, and where he goes is by way of Golgotha.  And then, reflecting similar words which Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane – an incident which the Fourth Gospel does not include in the Passion narrative – “Now my soul is troubled – I am deeply grieved, even to death.  Father, shall I ask you to save me from this hour that has now come?  But not my will but yours be done.  Father, glorify your name!” [Cf. Mark 14:34-36 & ||s.] 

And then the Evangelist shows us Jesus speaking in words which we and the tradition have known, or should have known, all along:  “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”  Well, yes, of course!  That’s exactly what we all thought the victory parade into the city was about!  God’s reign is being restored, the Romans are about to be driven out, and the Messiah is to be crowned as King!  But no:  Jesus goes on:   “‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”  Hoisted up from the earth on a Roman cross.  The judgment of this world, and the fulfilling of God’s Kingdom, turns out to be very different from what we had in mind.

The Gospel reading today I think in some ways foreshadows the two Gospel readings for next Sunday, Palm Sunday.  As you know, and perhaps anticipate with some dread! next Sunday’s service is longer than usual, and involves a radical and abrupt change in mood and tone, from the apparent triumph of the Entry into Jerusalem to the stark and somber account of the Crucifixion.  To quote as I often do a colleague from many years ago [the Rev. Charles Peek],  It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, and moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.” As we move toward the conclusion of Lent, through our Lord’s death (and ours) to his (and our) resurrection, may we renew our commitment to the good news of God’s Kingdom, a realm which is not about the love of power but the power of love. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”