Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

Sunday Worship:
8:30am & 10:45am

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Dying to be a Success

John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival [of the Passover] were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 

Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 

"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--"Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." 

Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." 

Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Once again the schedule of worship texts has us jumping around, so that today’s gospel story actually takes place following a couple familiar stories which we’ll hear during Holy Week. First, there’s the account of Mary (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) anointing Jesus’ feet with oil; at which point Jesus took the opportunity to tell his disciples that he will not always be with them. That is followed by Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem; which brought great crowds primarily because the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead had spread throughout the lands. Looking out at the crowds waving palm branches, the Pharisees said to one another, “It’s out of control; the world’s in a stampede after him” (Eugene Peterson, The Message).

Today we learn that some Greeks were among those who had come to see Jesus. These Greeks request an audience with Jesus. While the text does not elaborate on who exactly these Greeks are, the fact that they are referred to by their ethno-nationality is important. It tells us that the Jesus wave had crashed over onto the cosmopolitan culture of the Greeks. You know you’ve made it when the Greeks show up.

And so Jesus says that his time has come.

Previously in John’s gospel account Jesus has said, “It is not yet time.” Like at the wedding in Cana when he turns water into wine (John 2) or when he accompanies his brothers to the Festival of Booths and nearly starts a riot (John 7). 

But now the time has come. And what’s different about this time? The Greeks; they have shown up and present the possibility of cultural influence, wealth, and power.

Imagine it like this: you write a story and share it with your friends. They enjoyed it and shared it with their friends, who shared it with their friends, until it reaches the desk of Steven Spielberg, who, naturally, loves it and hops on a plan bound for Indianapolis to find you.

The arrival of the Greeks is like Steven Spielberg knocking on your door saying, “I want to make a movie based on your story; I want to make you rich and famous.” It is the cultural stamp of approval; the proof that Jesus “made it” in the world; the indication that the Jesus movement was going viral. 

When Jesus learns that even the Greeks want to cozy up to him, he responds by saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

Except, that doesn’t mean what we think it means. 

Being glorified means something completely different to Jesus than it did to the Greeks. 

Jesus could not have cared less about the cultural markers of success of his day (which are not very different from today) because Jesus wasn’t playing the same game as everyone else. His goal was not to become a billionaire or a Hollywood success story. He had no desire to trend on social media; nor to partner with or benefit from the powerful and influential cultures of his day. 

The glorification of the Son of Man is not measured in awards, endorsements, legions of fans, tons of money, a key to society’s inner circle, or even the size of a Christian congregation today. Rather, the glorification of the Son of Man will come in death, like what happens when a single grain of wheat falls to the earth only to give life to new sprouts of wheat. These sprouts will mature and drop dozens more seeds into the ground, which in turn multiply new sprouts and new seeds.

Jesus rejects the cultural and religious claims to power; instead, he embraces death. In so doing, he offends the Greeks, the Jews, his own disciples, and anyone else who had bought into the false promises of prosperity broadcast by the powers and principalities. 

Instead of becoming a part of the system of success, with its elite few carried on the shoulders of the masses; Jesus promises to drive out “the ruler of this world” and “draw all people to [him]self.” 

As always, you need to draw your own conclusions about how this story is relevant to your life. But here are some ideas.… 

We could stop striving for the world’s illusion of acceptance and affirmation. For example, the number of friends we have or “likes” we get on our social media posts have no correlation to our value. 

We could pause and evaluate whether we are contributing to a system of abundance for all people, or a system of accumulation of stuff for just ourselves. Could we be convinced that the increasing gap between the rich and poor is a spiritual issue?

We could allow our faith to send us out onto the dangerous front lines where our convictions intersect with injustice, willing to risk everything on behalf of others.

Last week the Vatican announced the canonization of Oscar Romero, who was an Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. Archbishop Romero was a passionate and outspoken advocate for the poor and oppressed as well as a fierce proponent of nonviolent resistance. His theology and activism put him at odds with political and military leaders in his country, and at odds with the larger church, who thought his was too political.

On March 23, 1980 Archbishop Romero preached a message calling out human rights violations in his country and demanding soldiers end to the violence of El Salvador’s civil war. He said, “In the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression.”

One day later, while celebrating mass at a hospital, Archbishop Romero was shot and killed by a death squad. 

 Mural of Oscar Romero in El Salvador.

Mural of Oscar Romero in El Salvador.

He almost assuredly knew that his path would lead to his death, as he drew inspiration from his close friend Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, who was also assassinated for his own work seeking justice for the poor in El Salvador in three yeas earlier. Certainly both men drew inspiration from another man who also suffered for his fierce advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable as well as his pointed antagonisms against the powers of his day. That man, of course is Jesus.

Faith in Christ must always be outwardly evident and counter-cultural. Jesus did not promise safety and security for those who would claim to follow him. Instead, we, with our beautiful churches and positions of social privilege, must be ready to give it all up on a moment’s notice. That’s the message of Jesus; it is strength disguised as weakness, and it is no wonder that even his closest followers turned on him. May we do better.


The Hair of the Dog

John 3:14-21

[Jesus said,] “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

“Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the holy son of God. And this is the judgement: that the light has come into the world and people preferred the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. Those who do what is evil hate the light and do not come to the light for fear that their deeds might be exposed. But those who do what is true, come to the light so that it might be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Remember with me, first, that story we heard from Numbers about Moses and the serpents. Back in the day, when the Israelites were wandering around in the wilderness, and being pestered and punished and killed by snakes, God gave them the gift of this serpent on a pole. I always think of it as God’s “hair of the dog” sort of cure for what ailed them. (I hope you’ll forgive my irreverence, buy I’m guessing a room full of Lutherans knows the reference to that old wives’ tale about how “the hair of the dog that bit you” is rumored to help a person feel better after having had too much to drink.) By “hair of the dog” in this case, I’m talking about how the Israelites who were being punished by poisonous serpents were supposed to lay eyes on the very object of their affliction – this bronze statue of a serpent on a pole – or the hair of the proverbial serpent that bit them, if you will.

And this is what Jesus compares himself to in John’s Gospel: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” he says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.” “Just like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”

How, then, is Jesus like a snake on a pole, lifted up in the wilderness, to which the people of God might look and be healed? How, then, is Jesus – the Son of Man – like the “hair of the dog” for us, as people who believe in him and hope for forgiveness, and salvation, and grace in his name? What does it mean to look to the source of our suffering and expect to be healed, cured, forgiven, saved?

Isn’t that, a lot of the time, the very last thing we are inclined to do – look to the source or object of our struggle and sinfulness? Isn’t it hard and scary, sometimes, to look our fear and our shame and our greatest threat in the eye? Aren’t we pretty good at – if not inherently wired for – avoiding so many of the difficult, scary, broken parts of our lives, rather than face them or engage them and expect good things to come of it?

It all makes me think about Adam and Eve – the first in our faith’s story to deal with the likes of a serpent – and how their first inclination was to hide, to cover themselves, so that God couldn’t see them in the fullness of their shame for having disobeyed and committed that first sin of eating from the forbidden tree. They had been tricked by the serpent, and their first instinct was to blame, to hide, to go undercover, to hope they wouldn’t be seen. They’re first inclination was not to confess, not to confront, not to repent, not to face the music – or the snake – or the sin they had committed.

And I think we’re the same way, still. In the face of our sinfulness, our inclination is to hide. In the face of whatever it is we do wrong our initial response is so often, if not always, to run for cover; to duck the punishment; to deflect blame; to fear and avoid and dodge whatever judgment we deserve.

And it’s no wonder, really. Our world is an unforgiving, judgmental, punishment- seeking, vengeance-hungry, score-keeping kind of place to live in – and so are a lot of churches. Admitting failure is bad for approval ratings – just ask a politician. Acknowledging mistakes is bad for business – just ask Wall Street. Asking for forgiveness is seen as weakness – just take a look in the mirror.

But this is what Jesus asks us to do in this morning’s Gospel. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” … on a pole… on a tree… on a cross for all the world to see, so that we might look at him, so that we might look to him for deliverance from that which threatens us.

I have what I think is one of the coolest, strangest coffee table books, ever, called A Lifetime of Secrets. It’s the result of an art project of sorts, where a guy named Frank Warren invited people from around the world to send him anonymous, creatively decorated postcards, bearing secrets they had never before revealed. It’s full of anonymous confessions from people as young as eight and as old as eighty, and it’s fascinating.

It’s full of revelations as innocent as a kid being embarrassed by her dad’s nose-ring.

Or this kid who’s afraid to grow up.

As cool as someone who anonymously gives away $100 every month.

There are sad secrets like this one: “Grandma died in a nursing home with a stranger caring for her. We visited and had our photos next to her bed. I don’t think it was enough.”

And there are even darker secrets, too, about eating disorders and unhappy marriages; about infidelity and abuse of all kinds. There are confessions of crimes and addiction, repentance for disbelief in God, fear of death, failed suicide attempts. You name it and someone is keeping it a secret.

And there’s something about this book – and the idea of its creator – to invite people to share their secrets in a creative, artistic, tangible way; to invite people to spell out, in words, for the first time, their deepest, darkest sin or shame or fear or failing, that reminds me of this “hair of the dog” theology. See this exercise with the postcards and the secrets proved to be healing and cathartic, life-changing and life-giving for many of the people who were simply able to see and to say and to share their secrets – however large or small – for the first time, in a concrete way.

It makes me think about God’s invitation, in lifting up Jesus Christ on the cross – like Moses did with the bronze serpent in the wilderness – so that we might look upon all the sin and shame that hangs there with him, in death, and be relieved of whatever burden it holds over our lives in this world.

Because, as Jesus also says today, when we live in the guilt of our sins, the judgement we fear most is already upon us – never mind the after-life, we are condemned already by that of which we are ashamed. We are already suffering. We are already not fully alive as God intends for us to be, if we’re living in the darkness; if we’re hiding from the light; if we’re keeping secrets and harboring shame and suffering silently and full of fear – no matter how large or small.

But there is hope in the hair of the dog!

Because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And what’s even better to remember, if you ask me, is what Jesus says next, that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And, as many of you have heard me say before, I’m under the impression that if God sets out to save the world, then God’s going to save the world – secrets, shame, and sins be damned.

And that’s why we are invited to look at his sacrificial death, lifted up on the cross  for our sake and for the sake of the world… so that we might stop hiding from the  sins that hang there with him – all the things done and left undone – so that we might look full in the face of our greatest shame and our deepest fear and into the threat of our own brokenness – even into the face of death – and to see God’s salvation in spite of it all.

Because when we see it all crucified and killed and raised to new life, then it can’t bite or burden us any longer. And when we receive and accept this grace, we can live transformed lives in return.

So we are invited – today and every day – to come out of the darkness of our fears, to step into the light of God’s forgiveness, to acknowledge what God already knows about our secrets and our sins and to receive the love that’s ours for the taking in Jesus Christ, our Lord.


All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.