SERMON 3/21/21 Lent 5B, All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Miami, OK

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

We wish to see Jesus

            “Sir, we wish to see JESUS!”  There is a very interesting event going on today in today’s Gospel reading.  Hungry “wanna be” converts were looking for the Bread of Life –  Jesus.  They were people outside the Jewish community, who were coming to Jesus’ followers, to get a glimpse of the preaching, healing, and life-changing Rabbi.  These Greek outsiders’ desire to join the Jesus movement was quite a shock to his disciples.  Can you imagine Phillip’s reaction to this evangelistic opportunity?  I never understood why he didn’t take them to Jesus, show them Jesus.  Rather, he forgot his mission as an apostle and became nervous about strangers coming to meet the Lord. 

            Phillip, rather than welcoming these people and taking them to see Jesus, he left them hanging. He went to get Andrew and then, the two of them ran to the Lord . When they arrived, Jesus reminded them what his ministry was all about, and what their ministry was about likewise.  However, he veiled response in allegory and metaphor, which they did not quite understand. He said something about a seed 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 the community the Greeks wanted to join, about who was welcome and who was not.  In other words, Jesus was saying, “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 for others, we will find a life that is everlasting.”  Leaving behind what we want for what God wants is how we will find the life God promises:  a life of joy, peace, transformation, mercy and grace.  The best part is this, we will have the opportunity to share that life with others.  In dying to our old selves, we find life that will last in service.  If we do that, then others will see Jesus in us. 

The small church

            “We wish to see Jesus.”  In an old part of one of the cities in my old diocese Southwest Florida, a quaint little church has been showing people Jesus for 65 years.  Early on in its history, many folks came to the doors of the church to be a part of a new, thriving community.  The people of this church always openly welcomed and embraced new folks, folks who like the Greeks in today’s gospel, “wished to see Jesus.”  With each member there came new ideas and new ways of doing things.  The whole church lived out a culture of hospitality and openness to change, and everyone seemed eager to try “out of the box” ventures, in order to bring others to know Christ.  Their mission was clear, and they wanted to help people, “who wished to see Jesus.” 

            About five (5) years ago, the lay leaders of that community noticed that attendance was dropping off, and the growth they had once experienced, seemed to be diminishing and many feared the worst – decline.  They decided not to wait until that day and so, they invited a consultant to help them do some deep soul searching.   That little wonderful community discovered an unexpected truth, which was a little difficult for them to hear.  They had fallen into a malaise happening in many churches in America.  They had forgotten their mission, their neighborhood, and the needs around them.  They had become so busy looking inward, they failed to see how much the community around them had changed.  

            Many of the families that had once lived in the little town, had fled many years ago when the jobs moved.  Plus, there was another major shift in religion throughout our nation, which has affected church life dramatically in the last 30 years.   The Church’s mission in the 21st century has changed and is changing and thus, we must change with it.

The Nones      

            In our nation today, nearly 30% of Americans have no connection to a faith community at all.  in 1988, that number was only 8% of the population.  The number of people who are not participating in church life has nearly quadrupled in about 30 years.  That little church in Florida missed this change as well, but they decided that in order to be witnesses of God’s grace in this culture, they had to do things differently. The church must realize that we can no longer depend on a charismatic leader, good music, a good sermon, and awesome liturgy, in order for our congregations to thrive.  

            We all need to once again become evangelists who tell the story of how wonderful our Lord is and how in the community with which we are a part, “helps other see Jesus … in them.” Now this all may sound ominous, but I have great hope that we can once again can become vital mission-minded communities.  Why? Because God is always making things new, and that is Good News for all of us.  It is Good News only if we are willing to release our grip on what has been, so that which we are being called to become, might emerge.  

            Now that truth may mean we have to leave behind a few things that we hold so dear, and welcome change that new people might bring.  However, we don’t have to leave our beautiful liturgy or even our favorite hymns behind.  What may be most difficult is that we have to leave behind our internal focus, and die a little, in order to experience resurrection. It is never easy to die to what we have been, so that we can live again into the blessed reality that God is calling us into.  However, our neighbors are no longer going to church the way the used to do, but I believe they still look to the church and say, “We wish to see Jesus.” So, we have to show them Jesus in us in all we do.    Jesus always welcomed the outsider, healed them, incorporated them into his band of followers, and restored them to their rightful place.  We need to do that too, which may require us to embrace our ongoing mission of love; dying to self.

Dying to Self 

            Jane Tomaine in her book, “St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living” wrote about dying to self.  She wrote, “Over time conversions bring us to a different place.  We become a different person.”  Becoming a new person, a new community opens the door for transformation, which does not  happen when we are static, when we accept the status quo, when we are comfortable, or when we are lethargic.  

            When we experience the death of a relationship, we may emerge on the other side of that experience, a new person.  When we leave a life-long career to retire, or to go back to university to pursue another degree, we must face the pain of dying to their old career, to emerge on the other side in a new way of life.  When we leave a home that we knew and loved, a life that fed us and sustained us for years, we 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 and social system that was exclusive, oppressive, and self-indulgent.  Jesus was a change agent, a transformer, reformer, a “turn-upside down the tables,” full revelation of God in flesh.  When Jesus loved as we are to love,  the blind saw, the lame walked, the broken-hearted rejoiced, and the mourners celebrated.  God is always infusing new life into moments of death.   For that little church I mentioned earlier, God brought new life to it as well.

New Life

            A friend of mine from that church a few years ago saw potential in that little church that no one else saw, but she did her research about the neighborhood and discovered the church was located smack-dab in the middle of a “food dessert” in the city.  No grocery stores, no farmer’s markets, and no fresh vegetables were within driving distance of the people who lived in that area of the city.  So, the neighborhood had a need.  The church had land. The congregation had a desire to help their neighbors see Jesus.

            Today, that little church provides land on their property for their neighbors to grow their own food.  That little church grows fresh, healthy food and either sells it at a reasonably affordable cost or gives it away to the hungry folks living around them.  You see, they are feeding their neighbors because their neighbors “wished to see Jesus.”  They shifted their focus outside the four walls, found out what people needed, and they showed them Jesus in gifts of food and love.

            All around us, people are testing the waters of faith and are watching what the churches are doing, hoping to get a glimpse of the Master’s face through the lives of his followers.  Are we really ready for that change that is happening?  If we are truly listening to our neighbors, we are being told every single day, “I want to see Jesus.”  We the church must accept this new reality, which is that we are the only lens, through which people will ever see Jesus on this earth.  The difficult part for many of us is that our lens must be re-focused on love, service, and taking Jesus to others. 

            In a world that is changing so quickly, we must accept Our Lord’s command and really die to our old selves, so something new might emerge.  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.    People are asking us the church, please, “we want to see Jesus.”

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