Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--' Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And 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.
“‘These people who have been turning the world upside down’” is the complaint registered early on about Christians. (See Acts 17:6)
Complaints have changed one hundred eighty degrees two thousand years later. Now Christianity is identified with the established order. “God, guns, and gays,” key issues for those defending the established order, has become the rallying cry for “good” Christians in a substantial segment of the American population.
No need for me to go there.
I’ll stick with the text. The one for the fifth Sunday in Lent. In which Jesus turns worldly wisdom on its head.
The world proves that might makes right. The fittest survive. The good die young. The victors write history. Nature is blood red in tooth and claw, and human history is no different. No good deed, I’ve been heard to repeat with a sardonic smile, goes unpunished. Self-interest is the principal rule of economics. On the refrigerator door a congregant on Long Island posted this backhanded tribute to Jesus’ command: “Love your enemies; it will confuse the hell out of them.”
Jesus lifts a cross. The Gospel according to John identifies that deed as “glorification.” No, the Gospel according to John identifies that deed as “glorification!” What kind of gibberish is it, the world asks, when Jesus speaks of loving life as the way to lose it and hating life as the way to keep it for ever. Echoes of other red letter words reverberate: the first shall be last and the last first; the servant of all is the greatest of all. How can it be that dying on a cross is life’s surest affirmation? “Nonsense,” worldly wisdom declares.“Glory,” rebuts the Gospel, basking in the brilliance of the cross.
At its simplest the Gospel insists that giving is far more satisfying (eternally as well as earlier) than getting. Or, better, in the kind of paradox in which Jesus delights, giving is the only way of getting… and the corollary that getting is the surest way to losing. “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” The Apostle Paul salutes the young Galilean rabbi in whom he perceives the design of heaven: Jesus, “who emptied himself… even death on a cross… therefore God has highly exalted him, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and earth… and every tongue should confess.” A couple of millennia later it may not yet be every knee and tongue; still Paul’s prediction seems prescient.
This logic is irrefutable to an old man. An old man who, unbeknownst to himself and without any real intention, freely spent his time and attention on a generation of young people in the borough where the Dodgers once played more than fifty years ago. The other day one of those young people, now seventy-one, paid us a visit. I baked him a cake. He brought us lemon tarts. We laughed with sweet memories of triumphs and mischief. His father lived miles away in those early years. Mom had four other children to nurture. I was something of a surrogate dad, even though I didn’t know it at the time. In my age the gratitude flows back, the brighter consideration of the modern adage that what goes around comes around. I gave and I’m still getting… far more than lemon tarts: affection, appreciation, and, some might say, love.
The glory of the cross shines on a certain bald head.
Others, many others, know whereof I write. I could, of course, cite saints and luminaries who are the stuff of which inspiring sermons are made. Let me tell you, however, about someone most of you have never met, but a few of you will remember, my friend Margaret. She was a main frame computer whiz, who suffered from acrophobia, yet braved bridges and ballpark upper decks to help me shepherd junior highs all over the Big Apple, lovingly if often exasperatingly doting on children who weren’t her own, spending her time and energy and fears on those who in that moment could never understand or appreciate the extent of her giving. What did she get in return besides headaches? The satisfaction of being useful. In the hospital where she was dying from a terminal illness, she countered my attempt at comfort with “Bob, I’m not afraid of dying.” Why, I didn’t press her to explain, because I thought I knew: she had lived generously, giving freely of herself, and tasted the return flow of love... and it was enough...
To live and to die in the glory of the cross on which God gave and gave and gave.
As I reread what I have written here (and I do, reread, edit, and rewrite, often a dozen times) it becomes painfully clear that I seem to reduce the cross, that glorious event radiating its grace through the centuries, to a minor flash within a human heart here and there. I fear I am making the cross mundane. So be it! If mundane is taken in its literal sense, down to earth, within the realm of possibility for ordinary mortals. Like you. Like me. We need not feel the sting of nails or wipe a drop of blood from our brow to sense the satisfaction of self-giving, with which Jesus with his last words at Calvary commends his soul to God.
The poor world is bewildered by and unbelieving in such mercy. But to some, among whom I would number myself, it is the purest glory.