The Fifth Sunday in Lent (Lent 5B): March 22, 2015
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Last month our Racial Justice Group here at St. Michael’s was honored to have a speaker join us from the Raise My Voice Speakers Bureau of the Harlem Community Justice Center. Craig Benton told us the story of his life to date—and about having been released from prison one year ago after 15 years of incarceration.[i]
Craig, a big man standing over six feet tall, grew up in Long Island in a large family with an absent father and an overwhelmed mother. He realizes now that his negative behavior from an early age came about because he didn’t know how to cope with the feeling of rejection that he carried with him everywhere he went.
He says he tried marijuana when he was twelve years old, and had his first drink at thirteen or fourteen. Craig says these substances gave temporary comfort, but, like all drugs, they would never last. Craig told us that the drugs and alcohol destroyed his ability to think, to reason, and to be creative, and stunted his interpersonal skills. Before he knew it, he found himself in prison, severely depressed, and, in his words, “unpleasant company for anyone trying to fellowship” with him.
Luckily for Craig, the story didn’t end there. In 2004 Craig says, “I had a spiritual awakening; I reconnected with the Christian faith that I was raised in and began to adhere to the principles of Christian life. I stopped living by compulsion, and starting living by conviction. For a large portion of my life, I used to always blame others for my struggles and never stood in accountability for the things that I had done. I had hurt a lot of people, including myself, with the limitation that I placed on my life with self-pity, lack of discipline, and most of all entitlement.”
Beginning in 2009, Craig was able to join the Network in the Prisons Program, which, he says helped him to shaped his character and stand on a higher plain of virtue and principles, as he began to consider the needs of others, not solely his own.
In short, Craig was able to overcome the power and attitudes of the street, and the expectations of the system. Instead, he began to live into a higher purpose, a greater calling. Craig felt himself called to a life of service.
As we join Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading, he has just come into Jerusalem. He has come to the great city for Passover, and, also, we know, for the inevitable events of the Passion.
Following his triumphal entry—the event we will recall next Sunday—he is approached by Greeks, who want to meet him. As this is Jesus’ last public dialogue in the Gospel of John, scholars speculate that this approach by outsiders signals the change of focus for the message of Jesus from his own people to the entire world. Jesus is pointing the way for his followers—that they must connect outside of their own familiar surroundings.
Interestingly, however, we don’t really get the story of Jesus’ interaction with the foreigners. Instead, he makes a public statement. He begins to explain the meaning of his coming death and resurrection.
Who Christ is speaking to is really unclear—and probably irrelevant. That’s because we are the audience Christ is speaking to. He is pointing us to the mystery of God’s actions in the fateful week that lies before him.
And he says words that are ripe with symbolism. “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.” We know that the grain Jesus speaks of is himself, and the death he speaks of is his own.
But with these words, and those that follow, he invites us to follow him into the events of Holy Week—and to be willing to die to self, because only in the act of giving oneself completely can we unleash the full power that God promises.
Jesus then appeals to God the Father, who answers him from heaven—now that must have been quite a scene! I know there’s a whole sermon just in those verses, but my eye is drawn a bit farther down. “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out,” says Jesus. That one intrigues me.
As we try to unravel this statement, we first have to look back to the original Greek, to understand just what Jesus means when he says, “the world.” The Greek term is kosmos, which refers not to God’s creation, but rather to the fallen realm of humanity that is in opposition to God’s purposes. One scholar says that a better translation of kosmos for our day might be “the System;” that is, the structures and institutions of humanity that shape our lives and seek to hold us captive to their ways.[ii]
Theologian Walter Wink spoke extensively about this concept of kosmos and of Jesus’ preaching about it in his book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination.
He suggested that many of the lures of our society can easily take us down the path of death rather than life. He points to our appetite for consumerism, where we begin to value stuff more than relationships; our inclination toward domination, where we start to see the world only in terms of winners and losers; and even embrace of violence, where we begin to believe that the only path to eliminating threats to peace and order is to destroy them with physical force.
On this last point, Wink reminds us that this is the system that takes Jesus’ life. Jesus was hardly a major player in the Roman-occupied Jerusalem; by all rights he should not have been considered dangerous. But those in power perceived of Jesus as a threat to the Pax Romana, or Peace of Rome. And so they turn to the solution of violence—they kill him.
In the discourse we read this morning, Jesus is denying the power of this system of violence. He declares himself independent of this system here, and again later in the 18th chapter of John, in his trial before Pilate. In that passage he responds to Pilate’s questions about his relationship to the powers of the world by saying, “My kingdom is not from this kosmos – this system. If my kingdom were of this system, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”
In his very public torture and execution on a cross, Jesus continues to expose the system for what it is. By his very death, he shows that the human systems that we think might give life, or protect, are actually what bring us death.
Jesus urges us to turn away from the ways of the kosmos – of our human world, and instead turn to the way of God. As we prepare to go into the events of Holy Week, and again face our own guilt in turning away from the way of Christ, we are challenged to turn our focus outward; to see the world around us, and to experience the other.
What might that mean for us?
Well, it begins with actually seeing and naming the powers—acknowledging the ways that the System gives unfair advantage to some while allowing others to flounder. That’s an important part of our work here at St. Michael’s on racial justice. We are gathering regularly to hear stories of the ways that racism has affected each of us, and to name the evils that we all too often are willing to overlook. This is important, and sometimes difficult work. But as we have engaged one another, I think all of us have had our eyes opened in ways we had never imagined. We have learned not only about each other, but about ourselves.
For me and for many other members of the group, these conversations have been some of the most stimulating and illuminating conversations we have ever engaged in. I hope each of you will consider coming to our next gathering, which will be shortly after Easter. For our conversation to have lasting impact, it must become wider.
Now, once we’ve identified some of the evils of the world, we must move beyond just naming them—naming is an easy thing for anybody, but especially for a preacher, to do. I find myself challenged not just to talk about it, but to do something; to actually work to make a difference.
One route to these ends is through activism—working directly for change. Each of us must take seriously our responsibility to make our system more just, more fair, more compassionate. We make this happen through the ballot box, as well as through our advocacy, letting public officials know what matters to us. We are called to play an active role in changing the system.
Another route to that path to this way of Christ is through service to others; in choosing service, we are able to see the way of God, which is the way of love. And in service our hearts are softened, so that we can begin to see beyond ourselves and to empathize with those who are not like us. As we serve, we are changed. We begin to reflect Christ.
And such service is itself a political act. By serving a meal every week each Saturday to those who are hungry for over thirty years, we have been a constant reminder to our neighborhood that there are many among us who do not have enough to eat, and that we believe it the responsibility of society to feed those who are hungry. And, through our service, we not only stand with those who are in danger of succumbing to the system, but we gain empathy and understanding. We gain far more than we give.
In the center of these verses, Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it; and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” I wonder if at least part of what he’s getting at is our far too pervasive smugness about the good fortune many of us have been privileged to live in. Wallowing in the superficial, in the trappings of the good life, and turning our eyes away from those ravaged by the same systems that have made that good life possible, leads only to death. Opening our eyes and acknowledging the ways that the System makes us all less, in fact, leads to Christ and to eternal salvation.
Jesus calls us to die to self—to give up the self-centered and short-sighted ways of the world, and instead open our eyes to the needs of the world, and to dare to live for others. We are all called to follow the way of Christ—the way that looks outward, that values the other at least as much as we value ourselves, and that opts for the love of God and not the violence of the world. Each year, as we experience again the events of Holy Week and Easter, we are reminded of the grace of God, which made it possible for Christ to rise from the dead, and also makes it possible for even strong-willed—dare I say stubborn?—folk like us to walk the way of Christ.
May we all find our feet on the path to God’s eternal salvation. Amen.
[i] Craig’s story was told in “My Story Feb. 12th 2015,” provided to me via email.
[ii] Campbell, Charles L. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 141.