Read John 12:20-33
This has been a week of pandemic anniversaries. Today is the one-year anniversary of our first worship service entirely online. On Thursday, our session (our board of elders) met in-person for the first time in a year. One-year ago session had their first meeting on Zoom. We spent some time at that session meeting remembering and evaluating what we have learned. This week the online magazine Faith & Leadership published by Duke Divinity School asked twelve faith leaders what they thought we’ve learned. One of them said something that sounds a lot like our gospel reading for today from John 12.
In the article, Adam Russell Taylor, the president of the social justice ministry Sojourners, talks about the danger of selfish individualism. He believes that COVID-19 has been apocalyptic, a word that means “to reveal and lay bare.”
Taylor says that some of what the pandemic has laid bare is a health care system that leaves behind those who are racially and economically marginalized, and a nation polarized to the degree that wearing a mask provokes anger and division, all of which is deeply disappointing.
“It’s the danger of selfish individualism,” Taylor said, and instead we should be taking a more selfless perspective: “Wearing a mask is a testament to Christian discipleship. It is an expression of the golden rule.”
Taylor believes the pandemic leaves us with a challenge: to care first for the least of these — the elderly, minorities, essential workers — and to see our lives and futures intertwined like the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 12. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26 NRSV).
Taylor’s right. Our lives are intertwined, which is why the selfish individualism that the pandemic has revealed is such a problem. Instead of selfish individualism, in our scripture reading today, Jesus shows us how to live selflessly.
The passage we read is part of John’s account of the event that we will celebrate next week on Palm Sunday. This is Jesus’ last public appearance in John’s gospel. That’s why we’re reading this passage on the last Sunday of Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, during which we remember the events that led to Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Jesus knows his death is imminent. Prior to this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has said several times, “My time has not yet come.” Now, in our reading for today, Jesus says, “…the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory.” He’s talking about his death, and his next statement gives us a metaphor for death and self-sacrifice. He says:
“Unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” (John 12:24)
A plentiful harvest indeed. Fun fact: One head of wheat can contain 50 kernels. Who knew? Well, probably everybody in Kansas, but I was surprised.
Hey, what do you call it when someone eats too much wheat? Glutteny.
But I digress.
Jesus compares what’s about to happen to him to a seed being planted. Jesus will be dead and buried, and then rise from the dead on the third day, the event we’ll celebrate in two weeks on Easter. A year ago we celebrated Easter online, broadcast from my kitchen table. This year we’ll be here in the sanctuary. Thanks be to God.
Today there are 2.3 billion Christians in the world. That’s just today. Think how much bigger that number gets if you add in all those who have followed Jesus over the past two thousand years, and all those who will follow Jesus in the years to come. That’s a plentiful harvest indeed. If Jesus had not died and been resurrected, we would not be who we are today. His death bought our forgiveness and salvation. Jesus’ death brings us new life.
And then Jesus tells us how to put this into practice. He says, “Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” (John 12:25)
If we live for ourselves, focusing on wealth and self-promotion, we may find success in this world, but none of that will follow us into the next. But if we live selflessly and generously, we will help others and have impact that outlives us. And in reality, whether we live selfishly or generously, we are affecting other people.
When Jesus said this, he was talking about the eternal life we gain through trusting in him. The idea of trusting in something bigger than ourselves is a theme in the new Disney animated movie Raya and the Last Dragon. Raya is the daughter of the leader of the tribe called Heart. Her tribe is the guardian of a powerful light that has been forged to keep evil from taking over the world. The other tribes are envious of the power of that light and want to take it for themselves, but Raya’s father has a vision for sharing it and working together, so he gathers all the tribes together to begin this process. As you might expect, things fall apart. The result is that the heart light gets broken and the evil it held back is released into the world. In the process, many die, including Raya’s father. Thus begins Raya’s journey to find out how to fix what has been broken and bring new life.
Raya sets out expecting that she will have to do this by herself. But along the way she learns that her quest is important to other people as well. And she learns that she’ll have to trust others enough to work together, even those who have proven to be untrustworthy in the past. And the success of their mission to save the world cannot succeed without that trust.
Raya doesn’t come to this point of trust easily, and neither do we. But it’s important that we do, because our lives and our futures are intertwined. What we say and do now affects other people now and ripples into the future.
Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me.” (John 12:26)
“My servants must be where I am.” How can we be where Jesus is? We might say that’s why we come to church, but it’s not the building that matters. That’s not where Jesus lives, or where the Holy Spirit lives. Jesus lives in us. In our hearts. It’s the people that matter.
Maybe one of the hardest things for us to do is to trust that Jesus is working in other people. We know, or we think we know what Jesus is doing in ourselves, but sometimes it’s hard to see what Jesus is doing in someone else, and so we often default to thinking that we know better. This is part of the reason we have so many different Christian denominations. I sometimes wonder what Jesus thinks about that.
Jesus says in John 3:17, part of our gospel reading from last week, that, “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)
Jesus talks more about that in one of the readings from our Lent devotional this past week. In Luke 6 Jesus says, “Do not judge…And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying, ‘Friend, let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Luke 6:36, 41-42)
One of the ways we follow and serve Jesus is to let Jesus help us deal with our own logs, and trust that Jesus is helping others to deal with their own specks. It’s not easy, because we can’t really see what’s in our own eye, but chances are if we’re pointing the finger at someone else, the faults we see in them are likely to be much like our own. We need to ask God to help us address our own sins, so that we can be people who are trustworthy, as well as people who trust one another. So that we can work together to help the suffering, support the weak, and love and serve the Lord.
In our reading, John tells us that Jesus was troubled over what he knew was coming. Jesus says something very similar to his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But this is the very reason I came! 28 Father, bring glory to your name.”
A voice from heaven says, “I have already brought glory to my name, and I will do so again.”
Jesus explained to the crowd: “The voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out.
The Message version says in verse 31, “At this moment the world is in crisis.”
The crisis then and now is that we are easily drawn into focusing on our own comfort and our own selfish desires. And Satan is good at encouraging this behavior.
In our current time, one of the ways that crisis of evil is playing out is the racism that caused the murder of eight people in Atlanta this past week. We need to stand together to push back the racist ideas that make someone think that’s ok to do.
But through faith in Christ, we have the Holy Spirit to help us to overcome this challenge. Jesus has already overcome sin and death, and won the battle, and the more we trust and follow Jesus, the more we are able to overcome, and the more we have God’s grace whenever we stumble and fall.
We don’t always agree about how or when to take a stand. We don’t always agree about the issues on which to take a stand. I hope we can agree that hatred is never ok. Judging is not our job, that’s God’s job. As we seek to follow Jesus together, we will grow in our ability to trust one another and work together to overcome the challenges before us – racism, poverty, church vitality.
In verse 32 of our reading, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
- Jesus was literally lifted up when he was nailed to a cross.
- He was lifted up from the grave when he was resurrected on Easter morning.
- And he was lifted up 40 days later when he ascended into heaven (Acts 1:1-11).
- He is also lifted up whenever we turn to him, whenever we choose his ways over ours, whenever we trust one another enough to work together to help others, whenever we give up our agendas to follow his.
His agenda IS to draw all people to himself, to bring salvation to us all.
The challenges ahead are big. We will not always know exactly what to do. We will not always agree about everything. We may struggle to trust God enough to keep walking forward together. But God’s mercy is bigger than anything we face, and God’s love is big enough for us all.