fifth Sunday of Advent.
the gospel of john, 12:20-33.
for St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square, March 18, 2018.
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There is a sense of urgency that is present in our Lenten Gospel readings. We started with Mark, which is a frenetic text written in response to war and occupation, we have been chronologically working through Jesus’ public ministry and teachings on discipleship. We began at Jesus’ baptism, went through the clearing of the Temple, and encountered a Christ that urges us into deeper belief and faith. Time had been moving very quickly in Mark, and now as we draw nearer to Holy Week, time starts to slow down in our Gospel of John readings.
Because Lent and Advent are both times of waiting. While Advent is a time of hopeful waiting for the Christ-child to be born, Lent is a time of fearful anticipation. We witnessed this when Jesus rebuked Peter a few weeks ago. Jesus predicted his death at the hands of the state, and the disciples would not, or could not, accept this as truth. We are waiting for a future that has been predicted three times, but is unwanted. We don’t want Jesus to die. Finally, we have been given a glimpse of God-in-flesh, and now, after only three years of public ministry, the disciples are told it is up to them to continue the work.
Jesus’ predictions about the crucifixion are a lot to hold. What does it say about God if God had to send their beloved to be executed by the state in order for a new world be made? In order for Resurrection to happen? It implies a sacrificial theology that can be harmful. Jesus dies on the cross so we don’t have to. Jesus has witnessed suffering in those around him, physical suffering, emotional, structural – and has come to create the Kin-dom of God on earth where we can rest in Christ.
Working to envision that Kin-dom is hard work. It’s draining. I notice the tendency towards burn-out in myself, in activists, in healers. And I sometimes try to justify that with sacrificial theology – ‘well, we’re the body of Christ, and Christ suffered until the end, so we probably will too.’
No. We were already doing that before Jesus, and are still doing it afterwards. God wants that to change. God wants us to live into our holy Divine and dirt-made creaturehood. “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour” – to glorify God, and so glorify the breadth of God’s creation.
Jesus has been healing, renewing faith, shaking power structures, and has been giving creation a taste of the Kin-dom of God in a way that hasn’t been present except in dreams since Eden. How are we to continue that work in a sacred way? We are the body of Christ – we have already been crucified, and we have been raised up, and have been given the tools to imagine into being a just world. It is the both/and of discipleship – we have experienced in our molecules the Crucifixion, and it is also a completely unknown thing to us. A mystery of faith is that Christ is past, present, and future – past in our stories, and present in our bones. We hold the collective memory of Crucifixion, and Christ came to model discipleship and justice to guide us through these tensions.
Christ predicts that “the ruler of this world will be driven out”, and that all people will be gathered into Christ. On this Sunday, it feels like Jesus is teaching that one of the rulers that will be driven out is the sin of intentional ignorance – the same kind of ignorance when we plug our ears and sing when we don’t want to hear something.
Intentional ignorance is found when we say walkouts are worse than gun deaths, when violence is touted as the best way to resolve conflict, and when we choose to hear false narratives over lived experience. Peter is rebuked for holding onto false ignorance that Jesus won’t die.
The disciples keep refusing to embrace the prophetic truth of Christ. It reminds me of the Greek prophet Cassandra. Legend goes that Cassandra was a prophet who always predicted the truth. When she rebuked Apollo, he didn’t react with grace, instead, he corrupted her prophecy – she would still tell truth, but no one would believe her. She would shout into a void of disbelief, knowing in her heart that she is telling truth.
Cassandra and Christ both foretell the truth. And as the Greeks didn’t listen to Cassandra, the disciples keep having their hearts hardened to the truth that Jesus is going to the cross. Going to Jerusalem, knowing exactly what is going to happen. It’s absurd that the disciples don’t believe Christ, despite Christ being baptized by the Spirit, after rebuking Peter to see the truth, after overturning the Temple for it to be born new, proclaiming the Good News that all will be one in God, healing and restoring.
The urgency around speaking truth no one believes is frenetic. Jesus keeps trying to get through to the disciples, and it keeps failing. And even though we keep closing our ears and hearts to Christ, he doesn’t leave us alone. Jesus is persistent, giving us not one, not two, but three times to wrestle with the nature of his death before it happens. And we can’t. It hurts too much, since the Kin-dom feels just out of grasp – things are changing, we’re almost there. Jesus has put fear into the world as-is, and revealed the potential of the world to-be. And it feels like Jesus being executed will crush that. But Jesus is giving us tools to continue their work after the Crucifixion, after mourning.
These tools aren’t concrete – we are asked to wrestle with them, to discover how they impart meaning into our lives in the midst of Empire. One of the tools found in our text today is guiding us through the way we live our lives - “If you love your life you’ll lose it, but if you hate your life in this world you’ll preserve it for unending life”. Some version of this teaching is in every canonical Gospel. And it isn’t what we want to be told. If we love how our lives are unfolding, it’s human nature to want to hold onto that. But this comes after Jesus’ proclamation that the rulers of this world will be dethroned.
And I’ve found that sometimes, when I love how my life is going, I love it on the surface level. I love it because I am moving with the flow of society, with nothing really getting in the way of forward momentum. However, that usually means that I’m choosing the easy way instead of the way of Christ. And, Jesus doesn’t want us to suffer. Jesus wants to transform how we are living so we aren’t stuck in the same cycles of pain and oppression, because those follow us too.
Christ is telling the disciples about a third way – being neither in love with our lives so much that we can’t let go and embrace reconciliation and justice, and also not hating it so much we lose perspective on the hope of the Resurrection. Jesus reassures us that we will be gathered together into the love of the Beloved at the moment of death/resurrection, and to not fear that unknown future, because transformation is possible.
And I tie this back to the seed parables, an overarching tool and witness of Jesus’ ministry. Just as Christ is predicting the Crucifixion, they are also trying to instill in us what the Resurrection feels like – a breaking forth from the ground into new life.
We bury seeds. We bury bodies. We wait. We mourn. We nourish those sacred places with tears, with sunlight. We wait for what is just out of grasp. And unseen, the seeds break open. Their original form is destroyed, and a new sprout emerges. And from that, it bears much fruit to continue Creation’s cycles.
In order for the plant to sprout and flourish and grow good fruit, we first have to bury the seed. We have to let go of the way our lives reinforce Empire. We need to bury our dreams, and to let the spark of hope fall into the dirt and be buried, and trust that it will be transformed. If we shut our senses to the prophetic reality of Jesus, we hold onto a false love of life, one-dimensional, and we hold onto the seed. But when we trust that Christ will draw us into their Beloved body, we can wrestle with the complicated truth of the Crucifixion and rest in the trust that we have been made for this work.