March 18, 2018 – Rev. Debbie Allen
Recently, I was going through a stash of greeting cards that I’ve collected over the years with the idea that some day, I would find the right person and occasion for each card. The picture and message on one of these cards caught my attention. There’s a photograph of a man climbing a vertical rock façade – no ropes, pulleys, just him clinging to narrow ledges of rock with the sea far below. The message (a quote from German author, Franz Kafka) reads: From a certain point onward, there is no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.
There’s a reason why I’ve never sent this card to anyone. It’s not the usual message written on a greeting card. The greeting card industry is more interested in comforting remarks – expressions of sympathy, congratulations, encouragement during illness. There is something in this message that feels daunting, urgent, almost ominous.
In this morning’s passage from John’s gospel, Jesus has reached this point of no turning back. It is a defining moment for Jesus because it marks the culmination and end of his public ministry. He has just raised Lazarus from the dead and been anointed by Mary with an extraordinary amount of expensive perfume. He has entered Jerusalem to the hosannas of the crowd. But there will be no more hosannas now, only his farewell address to his disciples before he is arrested and crucified.
So this moment demands our attention because Jesus will tell the crowd and his disciples why he came to live in human form and what is required of those who will follow him. It is not an easy message, partly because it has to do with death, and death in our culture is a subject we avoid, and partly because the gospel writer uses such expansive and paradoxical language that we have trouble grasping its meaning. It turns out that that sheer cliff on the greeting card is an accurate portrayal of what it means to follow Jesus.
At the beginning of today’s passage, some Greeks have come to worship at the Passover festival. They tell Philip that they want to see Jesus. Philip tells Andrew and both of them relay the message to Jesus. Jesus’ reply doesn’t sound like a response to the Greeks’ request at all. In fact, we don’t know what happens to the Greeks, but it turns out that their appearance is very significant. Earlier in John’s gospel, we read that Jesus’ goal is to gather into one the dispersed children of God (11:52). The Greeks represent the Gentiles who are to be included in God’s plan for universal salvation, and now that they have arrived, the time has come for Jesus to complete his mission on earth.
It is time, says Jesus, for the Human One to be glorified. To glorify means to praise, honor, worship. But the glorification of Jesus refers, not just to the final victory of light over darkness or the restoration of the relationship between God and creation. It includes everything that leads to victory, including death on a cross. Glorification, for Jesus, involves an act of love so great that it requires the giving up of life so that new life and a new consciousness can be born.
Jesus must have realized that the crowd needed a story or image more closely related to their lives to shed light on what was to come, so he tells a parable about a grain of wheat. If the grain does not fall into the ground and die, he says, it remains a single seed, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. This simple, but powerful image asks us to see falling and dying as an integral part of the upward growth of the plant that bears fruit. It is the movement of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In the next verse, Jesus continues to use seemingly contradictory images. Now we hear that loving our lives means losing them and hating our lives in this world will result in keeping them forever. These words jar us out of our usual ways of thinking and force us to see in a new way. Loving our lives in this sense has to do with being attached to our security, comfort, and power in this world, and hating our lives with letting go of self-centered concerns and putting the needs of others before our own.
Jesus then reminds us that, if we want to serve him, we must follow where he goes and not turn back to the ways of the world. Thankfully, we see a glimpse of his humanity in his admission that he is deeply troubled by his death and his wondering whether he should ask the Father to save him from this time. But there is no agony in the Garden of Gethsemane in John’s gospel. Jesus quickly says no to troubling thoughts about his future and, with complete conviction, embraces the suffering that lies ahead. For this is the reason why I have come, he says, Father, glorify your name! And, in case we had any doubt, Jesus’ words are confirmed by a voice from heaven. There will be no turning back from this path.
My guess is that each of you can think of a time in your life when you realized that, no matter what insecurities or challenges you faced, you knew you would not turn back from the path to which you felt called. Perhaps it had to do with a relationship, a vocational decision, supporting a cause that was of great value to you, or choosing to live your life without succumbing to addiction. Whatever the circumstances, that commitment required the letting go of some aspect of your life that gave you pleasure or a sense of security. By not turning back, you chose to enter unknown territory.
I experienced such a turning point in my third year of seminary. That’s right, it took more than 3 years before I began to know why I was there and could trust that calling. In my first semester of seminary, the pressure of deadlines, grades, and hours of driving back and forth to Rochester overwhelmed me and I longed for the days when I had more freedom. Gradually, I became absorbed in my courses and less anxious about them, but learning was still focused on personal fulfillment rather than service to others.
In the middle of my third year, I needed to choose a site for supervised ministry. At the time, I thought chaplaincy was the direction in which I was headed. But my sense of direction changed one day when the dean told me that John McNeill was looking for an intern. Without hesitation, I said yes to this opportunity. I had never met John and he had never met me, but I knew in that moment that this experience would take me beyond the self-oriented work of study and achievement and into the challenges and unpredictability of ministry. Taking that step required the letting go of my work at Longview with people I loved. It still took another 4 years to complete seminary, but, from that point on, I felt a sense of purpose and no longer questioned what I was doing.
There are much greater and more impactful examples of people who have come to that point of no turning back in their lives. One of those people is Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. March 24th of this year will be the 38th anniversary of Romero’s assassination.
Romero was appointed the archbishop of San Salvador because he was thought to be “a conservative, a ‘safe’ choice who would not involve the church in the growing political and social unrest of the country.” Catholic peace activist, John Dear, writes: Indeed, as bishop, [Romero] sided with the greedy landlords, important power brokers, and violent death squads.” He was not judged to be an ally of most priests and scholars who were involved with social justice in El Salvador.
The turning point for Romero came when another priest, Rutilio Grande, was murdered by agents of the Salvadoran government. Grande had denounced the injustices perpetrated against the poor and worked to help them remember their dignity and worth. “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead,” said Romero, “I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”
From that point on, Romero became increasingly outspoken in his defense of the poor and his defiance towards the repressive government. On March 24, 1980, he was celebrating a funeral mass in the chapel of the hospital where he lived. His homily was about the parable of the grain of wheat in John’s gospel. These are Romero’s words:
One must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us. Those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives. Those who, out of love for Christ, give themselves to the service of others, will live like the grain of wheat.
As he began the Eucharistic prayer following his homily, a paid assassin burst through the doors of the chapel and shot him at the altar.
Romero’s life and death give us insight into the meaning of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel. We might say that his situation was very different from ours and that is true. History never repeats itself exactly and most of us do not have the authority and influence of an archbishop. But we face powers today that are no less dangerous than those faced by Archbishop Romero.
These are the powers Jesus speaks of when he says, Now is the time for judgment of this world. Now this world’s ruler will be thrown out. The Greek word for world is Kosmos which means, not the individual failures we often focus on, but the systems we are a part of – systems that drive racism, the domination of women and other minorities, the violence in our culture that makes winning a priority, and the destruction of the environment.
We may think that we can have little impact on such pervasive systems, but, in fact, there are numerous opportunities in our daily lives to speak out and affect these systems. We have recently seen such action when students walked out of their classes last Wednesday in protest of gun violence in schools, and we will see it again on Saturday as people here in Ithaca and throughout the nation march for gun safety and peace.
Romero put it well when he said, Let us do all we can, …we can all do something. We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.
But let us not forget that Jesus taught us to overcome the ruler of this world by not engaging with the world on its terms. The system brings about order through violence. Jesus chose nonviolence to overturn the system. The system seeks power at the expense of others and the environment in which we live. The salvation that Jesus brings to the world came through powerlessness, vulnerability, and the emptying of the self on behalf of others.
We are challenged by Jesus to let go of a sense of selfhood that is defined by possessions, profit, success, superiority, and attachment to comfort. In our struggle to find peace and harmony in our lives, we often to get stuck on the side of that cliff, wanting to stay where we are or lower ourselves to a more comfortable elevation.
The 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, understood our distress when she spoke of Mother Jesus [carrying] us within him and [bringing] us to spiritual birth. The cross, for Julian, was the womb in which Jesus gives us new life. If we get a glimpse of the promise that awaits us, she says, we can endure hardship, trusting that we are a part of a greater reality grounded in love. So I leave you today with this tender image of the cross as a fruitful womb from which we are born and the invitation to trust that the path Jesus walked is the path to abundant life. Amen.