One Sunday, with everybody talking outside on the lawn after church, I was bored, so I went looking around the church to pass the time. (Yeah, I know, I had such an exciting childhood. While most kids were horsing around on the lawn on a glorious summer’s day, I was inside, looking at the hymnals and investigating the pulpit. And look what happened to me….).
And then I found it: a sign. The sign was not in plain sight, given where it was hidden away. You had to be standing behind the pulpit to see the sign, hanging slightly askew on the thumbtack bracing it to the pulpit.
The sign on the pulpit said: “Sir, we would see Jesus”.
At the time, I did not know the scripture being referenced on this note card. I just stood there and read those words aloud, and wondered why it was there. The card had been thumbtacked to the pulpit probably years ago.
Handmade lettering on cardstock, laminated for posterity’s sake, the sign greeted the minister each Sunday as the worship hour got underway. As you approached to lead worship or offer the sermon, these words were there, just below where you perched the hymnal, a message (or a challenge?) to the minister to remember what mattered most.
“Sir, we would see Jesus.”
The reference comes from John 20, the words of some Jews coming home from far afield for Passover. They approach Phillip, one of Jesus’ disciples, asking to meet Jesus. Phillip talks with Andrew, his fellow disciple, and together, they approach Jesus with the request.
And what does Jesus do? He talks for a few minutes and then heads for a hiding place.
Perplexing, huh? For a text that begins with a request to see Jesus, this curiosity to be in the teacher’s presence is complicated by a brief speech and then his exit stage left.
Throughout the four gospels, Jesus gets more attention than he cares to address. To hear this text with our ears, well-tuned (callused as well) to the 24 hour news cycle and the super-velocity speeds of posts and videos going viral online, this scene just doesn’t play that well in Peoria like it used to. It’s a startling contrast in our media saturated world, where celebrities, politicians and anyone else strive for the “buzz” or the sound-bite capturing enough attention to make your star shine a bit more (and hopefully dim a rival’s own if you’re lucky).
Instead, we get this rather moody reflection, with its talk of death and loss, and not necessarily in the ordinary way that life goes. No, Jesus is weighting these words with such seriousness. He speaks of living your life in a way that does not seek self-centeredness or self-promotion. To understand his way, to be connect your life with the gospel, you have to be willing, at the ready, to lose your life.
Such words must have puzzled the crowd, even those inquiring Greek-speaking Jews. I imagine even his disciples wondered at this one. Jesus said, “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.”
A few years back, the writer and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner appeared at a book signing at the Northshire Bookstore. The occasion was in honor of a collection of his sermons being published, so he spent a few minutes reading selections for the crowd, who was very appreciative, drawn into his rather low-key speaking style. It was a delight just listening to the cadence of his voice as he talked of grace and sin, love and redemption while drawing upon his life story, his experiences and his wisdom as one who has considered life and the gospel for so many years.
At the end, just before the crowd lined up to get their books signed, a brief time for questions and answers was offered. A young man raised his hand and mentioned a particular passage Buechner had read moments ago. The young fellow was evidently quite amazed at Buechner’s skill as a reflective writer. He asked, “How did you get all of that (i.e. Buechner’s sermon) from just a few verses of scripture?"
Perhaps the answer to this young man’s earnest question is found in how we handle the verses of scripture that strike a chord within us. The John reading has several verses with great substance. Think back to that thumb-tacked message on the pulpit, where clearly some minister long ago left a note to himself and anyone else standing behind the pulpit. The sermons given at that pulpit had the strong words of challenge for what really matters when the sermon draws to the closing Amen: “Sir, we would see Jesus”.
To be honest, that “note to self” left by the minister (and who knows, it might still be there) lingers in my memories, a constant word that guides my sermons and my work as a minister. How does the pulpit resound each time with a word about Jesus, the faith he calls us to keep? We preachers can go off in a variety of directions, and all of us have our favorite ways of going about the weekly preaching task, yet by the end of things, how do we move persons closer to a faith that can be a single grain, willing to die so that much fruit can be born? I know there’s no thumbtacked message here on the pulpit, yet those words haunt me still. How can we learn something that transforms us “from just a few verses of scripture”?
People wanted to see Jesus, yet he turned the tables on those wanting to see “celebrity” or even “the wise teacher”. If you are truly able to see Jesus, it’s a different type of “seeing” at work. Instead of fame and glory, the follower of Jesus is to follow the way of the gospel, shaped by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. John’s gospel may seem to get lost off in the clouds with its lofty language, yet the language here is plain spoken.
The logic is blunt as it is sound. If one seed refuses to give of itself, how can anything more happen of that seed than its own life and death?
Do we love our lives to the point that we’ll do anything to avoid the risk or vulnerability that happens when living life differently when we are given over instead to the gospel way of Jesus? When does the gospel take root within us so that Christ’s love blooms in the midst of our life?
How do we fit our lives into the scriptures that place such a claim on our lives? In one commentary on this passage, the writer comments Jesus restates the gospel. One little seed seems insignificant, yet its potential, its ability to bear much fruit, comes to naught if that seed holds on and does not die. For the Christian, Jesus asks us to die to self, giving up our vanities and our own agendas so that we may follow “Jesus through death to life”.
The commentary on John’s gospel states it well, “These terms [given by John 12] require interpretation”. Without our decision to do so, these words of Jesus are merely words on a page It is only in our willingness to hear and heed them that we begin the process of dying to the ways of the world and rising up as beloved children of God, those able to live the ways of Jesus. (Cf. James D. Ernest, Feasting on the Word, Year B: Lent through Eastertide, p. 145).
As Holy Week nears, it is a time to decide what story frames our lives and our daily living. You could look at the time between Palm Sunday and Easter as a week with more than the usual emphasis on “church”, when we gather for services where there’s more going on (and small children chase us with palm fronds one week and butterflies the next). The traditions we keep of palms next Sunday and Thursday night potluck with Communion are part of the lead-up to the days of tragedy, sorrow and alleluia known as Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter.
Yet in truth, the Christian is not “off the hook” by journeying through this one week to Easter Sunday once a year. The story of Jesus, made known through the gospel’s tales of his life, death and resurrection, are the words that should linger in our minds as we rise for the day, go about our work and play, accompany us to and fro and back home.
Such faithfulness helps us understand what Jesus says to the curiosity seekers and crowds, and even to his disciples. If you wish to see Jesus, you have to see Jesus with hearts and minds attuned by the gospel at work in your life, letting its message be your guide. You have to let go of your demands (and those who place demands) on your life’s meaning and purpose. The gospel draws you into the ancient story of Jesus, who let his own life be given over to the will of God, even when it meant he would endure hardship, rejection and even a dreadful end.
How does your life interpret (give a reading, make sense of) the story of Jesus? Each one of us is grain for the Lord’s work, yet have we decided to give of ourselves and bear much fruit? Do we look for Jesus as devoted curiosity seekers, or have we heard his message and lived lives where in our words and deeds Jesus can be seen?