March 25, 2012 First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
“Up me, Daddy, up me!” That was one of my favorite sentences ever to come from the mouth of one of my daughters. It meant she wanted to be picked up, of course. She was about 3, as I recall. Grown-ups seem to have all the height advantages, it is one of the reasons our children look up to us, at least initially. They have to. We’re taller. At first anyway. And early on, they recognize the advantage of height, especially in crowds or at a parade or any other spectacle. So my girls each had their share of time in their childhood, perched on top of my shoulders, gazing at the world around them at a height of over 6 feet instead of 2 or 3.
We all know the benefits of altitude. The mountain vista is so much more spectacular from a height than from the valley floor. A meandering stream’s course is so much easier to identify from 10,000 feet than from the river bank. People have always sought out elevation, because from an elevated perspective we can see so much better the entire context of our surroundings.
The Greeks in John’s lesson wanted to see Jesus. That’s what they requested anyway, though I’ll be darned if I can find anywhere in the passage where they actually got to see him. If you are like I am, you might first read their appeal, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” as a request to sit down and have a chat. An audience.
But maybe that’s not at all what John meant when he used the word “see,” just the way it’s not always what we mean when we say it. TV shows and movies are filled with an expressions like, “See what I’m saying?” Of course, it doesn’t mean do we actually see the words that a person is saying as they march out into the air, it means do we understand what is being said, are we connected to its context, its significance?
Later on in the passage Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Elevated, we will see him, and understand better too. In the first letter of John comes this same sense that it was events, and not a particular audience, that provided the response to the Greeks’ petition to see Jesus. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
How to elevate the cross of Jesus so all can see ... how do we do it? Well, for one thing we have to notice it. In a lot of churches, the cross around which people gather is entirely too civilized. It disappears into the background, an unwelcome reminder of the cost of the faith so many of us now take almost entirely for granted. I am so happy that the cross here in our sanctuary is, shall we say, hard to miss! And on Good Friday we will gather at the end of the service underneath this cross, this representation not only of the means of Jesus’ death, but the binding nature of our fellowship in his name, represented by the circle imposed on our Celtic cross, the very fruit of the seed sown in his death, born in our own fellowship. It makes me awestruck just to think about the staggering significance of it.
I have a friend in ministry who told me of a church that put up three crosses draped in black on the front lawn in recognition of Holy Week one year. They received a dozen calls complaining that the crosses made the neighborhood look bad. Well, yes, that’s the point of the cross, isn’t it, to reveal the badness in the world, and the way in which God went about addressing it?
Of course the cross is more than a furnishing or a decoration at the front of sanctuaries. We can see the work of the cross at work in our own lives if we train ourselves to look.
The saving power of Jesus’ death on the cross resides in its function as a seed, and that seed is meant to bear fruit in us. In us. The power of his death resides in the community that gathers as a result of it. In our gathering together here, and our going out, week by week, the seed of Jesus’ death bears fruit.
How can we understand this? We want to come up with theories, justifications for Jesus’ death. These often come in the form of statements that theologians call theories of the atonement. It sounds fancy, but the word atone just runs two easily-understood words together: at + one. Theologians contemplating the atonement ask, how can we, who are separated from the holiness of God, become at one with God again? So theories of the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice emerge: substitutionary atonement is probably the hands-down favorite: that Jesus died in our place, suffered punishment that really belonged to us. But there are other theories, other attempts to understand the meaning of Jesus’ cross-born death.
I appreciate something Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote about 60 years ago. He said that it isn’t by understanding that we are saved. Knowledge doesn’t save us, any more than our works can. “Here,” Barth said, “is a truth we cannot understand – we can only stand under this truth.” Beneath the cross of Jesus.
The Greeks wished to see Jesus, as in, perhaps they wished to understand him. He answered their request in a sort of literal way, that soon enough, everyone on earth would see him lifted up, and indeed it is true.
Preachers will tell you that there are lots of pulpits around the country where some well-meaning person has placed a plaque which the preacher can see upon entering the pulpit, which says, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” There was a plaque like that in the pulpit in Port Arthur, Texas. It is a daunting thing to read, seeming like more than any weak, human vessel can hope to achieve with our mere words.
But this isn’t a task for preachers, not alone anyway. We know this because Jesus, upon responding to the request of the Greeks, makes an oblique sort of statement. At least it can seem that way. They want to see Jesus, and he begins speaking about his coming crucifixion, saying, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
The only way the world will see Jesus is through the fruit that will be born among his followers from his dying and rising. What dies within us can bear fruit, even though the harvest may not be what we had expected. The death of a dream or an ambition, of a relationship or a cherished hope, can be raised in some new form we never anticipated, providing we don’t love our life as it is so much that we are afraid, we will lose it.
When all they wanted to do was see him, Jesus spoke about his death and how it would serve life in the future. And it probably worked on the Greeks who approached the disciples, as well as the disciples themselves, as our own little deaths and losses affect us, in the midst of indecision and turmoil.
The death that serves life, is, paradoxically, one of the ways we can “see” Jesus.
Jesus’ teaching is fairly easy to understand on the literal level, that a single grain of wheat in two years of successive harvests, can produce 32,000 grains when the earth yields its increase, enough to feed a whole village when one little grain is sacrificed. Most of us eat meat, all of us eat grain, and in the process, whether we acknowledge it or not, we know that death serves life in a multitude of ways, just in the natural order of things. We also know that the gift of living organs upon our death can serve life, and we hope that they will. Loss can become gain when compassion intervenes.
We also know that there are times when loss is irreplaceable and seems senseless. Sometimes the grain falls to the earth and seems not to be reborn, and it takes tremendous will to turn it into something beyond bitterness. Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving are born of the desire to remake death and loss into something resembling life for others.
There are many little deaths in life, deaths that precede the final end of the life we know, little deaths that are real losses to us, and learning how to turn them toward life is a spiritual art. It truly is. But when we do, when, through the grace of God, we can, what dies within us can bear fruit.
Several years ago there was a Public Television program on the problem of hunger in India. The TV camera panned the landscape, revealing a dry, rocky, pathetic little village populated by desperate people. They had lost crop after crop to a seemingly endless series of droughts which, combined with their rock-strewn landscape, made farming appear increasingly futile. What were they to do? Without a crop, they would starve.
But an engineer came to the area and told them, “The stones you now curse will become your salvation!” He told them to gather stones and bring them to a low area outside the village. How could stones help feed them, some wondered. But they brought the stones. And when the monsoon rains came, the low area became a lake, and the waters of the little lake proved sufficient to water their crops through the dry season, and the village flourished.
The stones you now curse will become your salvation. What we have already given up as loss, Jesus says, is where we will see him, where we will find our lives. The course of events, the course of our own lives, often throws our dreams, our ambitions overboard, and we wonder why this death, why this loss? Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
And in bearing such fruit, we will see Jesus.
And so will the world.
So will the world.
copyright 2012 © Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved