The Rev. Jenna Strizak Lent 5B 3/22/15
I don’t know if this happens to other priests or pastors—but sometimes I get phone calls, or texts from old friends. Sometimes we haven’t really talked in years beyond a friendly birthday facebook message—but when I pick up the ringing phone the voice on the other end sounds a little bashful, a little embarrassed. “So I didn’t know who else to call,” they confess, “see, I have a religious question.”
And it’s usually folks who don’t go to church, but for one reason or another God creeps in around the edges of their life somehow, and they’re looking for some vocabulary, or context, or someone to reassure them. About a year ago, it was my friend Laurie from high school on the other end of the phone; she was calling about Jack, her five-year-old son. “Well,” she said, “I guess he’s going through a bit of a Jesus phase.” A few months before, they’d gone to church for the very first time—a friend’s baby was baptized at the Catholic parish in town. Jack was transfixed by the huge crucifix above the altar, and I guess it stuck. “He took a hundred pictures of it with my phone that day,” Laurie said. “Now he wants to watch Jesus videos all the time; for his birthday he asked my parents for a big cross—and he was really specific: the kind with Jesus on it. Did you know you can order them off Amazon?!” She sounded worried; I was a little bit tickled. “Do you talk about it with him?” I asked. “A little,” she said, “but mostly Jack likes to tell me: ‘They killed him, but he didn’t stay dead.’”
And when my friend Alexandra was only a little younger than Jack—maybe three or four—she also was drawn to Jesus. Her parents sing Sacred Harp with me, and so even though her family wasn’t religious in the slightest, she’d been hearing these old, rugged hymn texts since she was in the womb. Her Jesus phase coincided with a Peter Pan phase—well, she was more of a Captain Hook girl I guess—and sometimes those stories would get a little muddled in her imagination. One afternoon I was babysitting and heard her singing quietly to herself, while she played with plastic toy pirates: “Jesus, Jesus; they nailed him to the crossbones.”
I wonder what it is that those kids found so compelling. They’d never made sweet cotton ball crafts in Sunday School, never argued about theories of the atonement, they never heard a well-reasoned academic sermon. Instead there’s just an encounter, a vision, an arresting image: Jesus on the cross.
And we hear the words today from Jesus himself: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He echoes what we heard him say last week: just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to heal the fearful, wandering Israelites, so, too, does the sight of Jesus on the cross bear fruit in us, heal our fear and stop our wandering, and lead us to eternal life. And it doesn’t make any sense at all; not intellectually, not rationally: that God’s own Word made flesh should bear the worst pain and violence we can throw at him; that somehow God’s suffering transforms our own; that by Christ’s holy cross he has redeemed the whole world. It’s a mystery too great to wrap our heads around. We can’t understand it; we can only behold it.
And I think of the Greek tourists we hear about at the Passover festival this morning, tugging on Philip’s sleeve. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” They saw the crowds clamoring; they’d heard the stories of the signs: the paralyzed folks now walking, the stonings interrupted; the hungry thousands full with bread… even the whispered rumors that he’d called a dead man out of the tomb. The Greeks couldn’t wrap their heads around any of it, but still they were transfixed; still they were drawn to him. They wanted to see.
In John’s gospel, seeing is never a simple visual act. To see is something deeper—to behold, to experience, to understand—but not just intellectually. Do you remember that story from the beginning of John’s gospel? Do you remember when Philip, that same disciple the Greeks approach today—do you remember when he’s first called? He finds Jesus so compelling, so magnetic, that he begs his friend Nathanael, “come and see.” Come and see. And his life is changed forever. No wonder Philip was sympathetic to those Greek seekers; no wonder he passed on word of their request. Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
And we never do find out what becomes of those Greeks this morning; you see, as soon as Jesus hears their request, he begins to sing for the crowds the same old song; the one we don’t understand; the one it seems we sometimes try not to hear: lose your life to gain it; die to bear fruit; follow me. United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon points out, “We human beings live by the pleasure principle. We can do no more than [try to] avoid pain, whatever its source — other people, finitude, failure, risk, truth.” In other words, Jesus offering himself on the cross is so counter to every instinct we have that we can’t help but stare. You wish to see me? Jesus seems to say, gently, kindly, but firmly: well, take a good, hard look at who stands before you.
I suspect for most of us, this wish the Greeks have, I suspect this is why most of us show up here on a Sunday morning. We wish to see Jesus. We may not say it quite like the Greeks—we may balk at their forwardness, their boldness—this is the polite south, after all. Instead we may hover around the edges of that crowd, waiting to be invited in. We might call it by a different name—we maybe use the language of spirituality, or community—but I would guess most of us show up here because we wish to see Jesus. We’ve heard the rumors, the stories, the testimonies—maybe we’ve even witnessed for ourselves the signs—but it’s just not the same. We wish to see Jesus.
That is, we wish to see God’s goodness; we wish to see God’s glory. We wish to behold God’s love and mercy and forgiveness and have our lives transformed. And at the heart of it, Jesus gives us the same reply he gives the clamoring crowds. You want to see me? Look carefully. God’s love and goodness and mercy are more profound than we can imagine. God’s glory is not trite, nor easy, nor sweet; it is the bread of life, the true light, Jesus lifted high on the cross, drawing all people to himself. A body given and broken and shared and consumed, that it might somehow bear more fruit. Lose your life to gain it. Follow me. We are not asked to make sense of the cross: they killed him, but he didn’t stay dead. We’re not expected to understand it. We are just to see it, to gaze upon it, to let Jesus on the cross draw us to himself; to let the cross lifted high be the sight by which we behold an empty tomb; let the cross lifted high be the sight by which we behold all else.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus. May it be so.