Fifth Sunday in Lent
Around the world these days we are seeing outcries for a new way of being, a new way of doing. I’m thinking of #timesup, #metoo, #marchforourlives, #blacklivesmatter and other movements, in which voices that have previously been soft are being raised. These voices rearrange the way we see and understand the world. Some people wonder how many of these new hashtag causes will disappear in the next six months, and how many have real traction for creating permanent social change.
As Christians we often pray for newness with prayers as we did this morning with Psalm 51—“Create in me a clean heart, put a NEW and right spirit within me.” But that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily comfortable with all this change. Change is scary, even when it’s good. Take, for example, Philip in today’s Gospel reading, approached by a group of Greeks saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” He may have been taken aback a bit. He and the other disciples were good Jews, and they understood Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah. Even Jesus himself may have believed that, at least at first. But now that his ministry on earth is nearly at an end, it is apparent that the seed of Jesus’ teaching has taken root and begun producing fruit in places and ways no one anticipated. Obviously the word of Jesus has spread, and a new way of understanding God is crossing borders willy-nilly; here are Gentiles at their door.
It’s not hard to imagine Philip’s discomfort in this scenario because it’s still happening. Folks who may not seem “the churchy type” are still coming to followers of Jesus begging, “We wish to see Jesus”—though they may word it differently. Unfortunately, Jesus-followers don’t always do a good job of showing them Jesus, especially if the seekers are different in age, color, social class, nationality, language, or legal status from us.
The public face of Christianity is often besmirched by wackos claiming that Jesus is anti-gay or anti-immigrant or anti-women or anti-you-name-it. It doesn’t help that the media frequently represents Christianity with people who are cruel, abusive, unknowledgeable and bigoted. The Gospel of Jesus—the Good News that God loves the whole wide world and wants to save it—can be obscured by religious people speaking and acting badly or—more often in Lutheran circles, I’m afraid—not speaking or acting at all.
It seems to me that the Second Commandment—YOU SHALL NOT USE THE LORD’S NAME IN VAIN—applies here. In his Small Catechism Luther pointed out that the commandments aren’t simply a guide for what not to do, but that keeping them requires we do the inverse. Not only should we not use God’s name to condemn whatever we dislike, but also we are to actively use God’s name as we point to who God really is. Keeping the Second Commandment means our job remains what it was in the time of Philip and the Greeks—to show people Jesus.
We mainstream Christians are failing at our job to speak out, to challenge and unveil falsehood whenever we encounter it. It may be because people are afraid they aren’t good enough, don’t know the Bible well enough, or are afraid of sounding preachy or stupid. But we don’t get to determine how or when or with whom God can use our witness. It is simply our job to show them Jesus as we have come to know and love him. Jesus puts it this way in today’s Gospel: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”
Where did people find Jesus, most of the time? He was with the poor, the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the lonely. So if we are following Jesus in our context, we will be with those who have been told—overtly or subtly—that they don’t matter, who are treated as “less than” because of the language they speak, the color of their skin, their immigration status, their insurance coverage, their romantic orientation, or the way they choose to worship. We who have been drawn to Jesus through his radical ministry of inclusion are called upon to speak the truth to and about such people. That’s what it means to follow Jesus: to stand with and for the people Jesus stood with and for.
Daring to follow Jesus by standing with the powerless and telling the truth is dangerous. Many who do are treated just as Jesus was: with false accusations, humiliation, and frequently, assassination. Voices clamoring for justice are still routinely silenced by those who are threatened by it. It’s true that when people die pointing toward the beauty and dignity of every life, a seed is planted and grows into something much bigger. Someone hears, someone sees, someone follows. It’s scary—and risky—to show people Jesus.
In spite of the ways that loud voices pervert Jesus’ message every day, in spite of our inadequacies and misadventures individually and as a church, the seed of curiosity, of hope, of “yes” still takes root in hearts and minds of people every day. The fact that Jesus wants abundant life for all creation, wants to draw all people to himself is still ear-shattering, earth-changing news! And it’s both our duty and our privilege to share it!
My guess is that for many of us who are trying to show others Jesus, our first step is inviting people to attend worship with us. That is a lovely and good thing. The vast majority of people who attend church services do so for the simple reason that someone asked them. And surely God is here among us, since God is always wherever two or three gather in God’s name. But this is not the only place to find Jesus, and it may not always be the best place to start.
If someone has been wounded by the church, worship might be too threatening an introduction. Instead, maybe we can start showing someone Jesus by how we choose to use our time, or by the way we talk to or about our family—or people we don’t like. We can point to Jesus in jail or immigration detention centers or at meetings. Jesus is on buses and in bars, at work, and in beauty shops. Jesus comes to the Canopy Center’s counseling sessions and attends AA here on Monday nights. He stayed in our Sunday school rooms with IHN this week. And he’s among the sick to whom many of you take communion. Jesus might not always be recognizable in these places, but he is there. Everywhere. Always.
Our Lenten prayer is that God will create in us clean hearts, and new and clean spirits, so that our trust in the assurance that we belong to God grows and flourishes. No matter what else changes, nothing can kill the little seed of faith planted in us at our baptisms. Daily, Jesus empowers us to follow him, planting in us seeds of understanding and welcome, nurturing within us a yearning to embrace the whole world, just as Jesus did. This seed has fallen into our midst; nothing and no one can stop it from growing.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider