Divine Ambush

John 12:20-33

There's been a lot going on, leading up to this morning's gospel lesson.  It's the week before the Passover, a huge festival that has taken over Jerusalem, as pilgrims stream from all over the place, eager to worship God, to remember God's saving work.  The air is humming with energy.  And being carried along by that energy is Jesus' name.  Everywhere you turn, his name is being spoken and gasped and muttered.  By now everyone has heard about his bit of prophetic theatre, donkey-riding into the city, while followers and fans and folks who just got caught up in the excitement of it all waved palm branches, and sang Hosannas, cheering the arrival of God's own King! 

So, it's not especially surprising that some people from out of town want to see if they can't get a few minutes with this guy that everybody's talking about.  This particular group, John tells us, are Greeks (which isn't really telling us much: just about everyone in the known world spoke Greek).  The point is: they've come from away.  And because they don't really know who they're looking for, they approach Philip--something about Philip tells them that he's from the same general area; he looks, or sounds (or something), like a guy who might know Jesus.  Perhaps this ought to make us wonder what it might mean for us to look or sound like we might know Jesus, like we're coming from where he's coming from.

Our Greek friends are in luck! Philip does know Jesus, and he seems pretty keen to go fetch him.  He grabs Andrew and the two of them run off to tell Jesus that even folks who aren't from around here are curious about him.  You can imagine them breathlessly running, to tell him the good news!  Perhaps it takes them back to their own first experience of Jesus, that first rush of gospel adventure, when the two of them were claimed by Jesus, gathered into his hodgepodge band of new disciples, and called to come and see what new and marvellous thing God was up to.  They'd been gathering others ever since, and now there are enough people excited about Jesus that they can throw spontaneous parades!  Some are saying that the whole world's gone after him!  That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but if we can get these outsiders in, maybe that'll be a sign that it's true.  Then the ministry will really take off--to the ends of the earth! 

Let's pray: Living God, however we come this morning, remind us that we're here because you've called and gathered us.  Open our hearts and minds, our whole lives, to you today.  Soften and stretch us for the sake of your kingdom.  In Jesus' name: Amen!

The late, great Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, describes his conversion, from nominal Christian to full-on disciple of Jesus, as being "ambushed."  He can point to the time and place, the church service in which he was ambushed by Jesus.  That's not going to be an image that works for everybody, but I kind of like it.  It gets right to the surprising nature of our call, that moment when we are startled out of what we are doing and the whole world becomes suddenly different.  When what was unseen is suddenly, startlingly seen.  A lot of my favorite Christian people describe something very much like walking along, happily doing their thing--sometimes even wearing a Christian t-shirt, saying Christian-type things (looking and sounding like they might know Jesus)--when Jesus jumped out from behind a car or a tree or a stained glass window and tackled them in a gospel hug that sent their lives sprawling in a completely unexpected direction.  Try as we might to make him sit still and proper, Jesus and his surprising gospel never cease to startle and stagger us.

It feels like a Jesus-style ambush is what happens when Philip and Andrew come to get him.  It's an awful lot like what happened to Nicodemus, way back in John chapter 3, when he came to interview Jesus, and got quite a bit more than he was expecting--an experience that will find him at the foot of the cross, not long from now.  Philip and Andrew come to Jesus with the news that some folks are looking for him, and would like to have a word (who knows about what?).  You can imagine them calling out: "Jesus, where are you?  Come meet our new friends from out of town!  They've heard about you!  Isn't this great?!" And Jesus jumps out from behind a fig cart and belts: "The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!  Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it won't bear any fruit..." 

Obviously, we don't know just what Philip and Andrew were thinking, or the spirit in which they went to find Jesus; the whole thing could be other than I've imagined.  But it's hard to think that this is what they were expecting.  It's startling, even jarring, to read; what must it have been like to be in the conversation that pivoted so quickly? It must have made the disciples' heads spin.  I think this scene is supposed to have that effect for us, too.  We can't stroll easily through it, but we're caught off-guard, it trips us up, and we can't help but look at the thing that's surprised us.

We have to stop and hear what Jesus says.  Jesus commands attention, in the midst of all the festive commotion.  There's something beautiful, if a little unnerving, about the fact that Jesus won't let his disciples get distracted by the excitement of the crowds, that he won't even let them do evangelism--what seems like good and faithful church work--that is separated from who and how he is. 

He draws them back to the task at hand, which is not simply amassing believers and seekers.  That's not a bad thing.  I'd say it's a good thing.  But it can become a distraction; it's a good thing but not the primary thing.  Our ends and our means need to match up.  What seems to be primary for Jesus, is creating a community of people who will not only look and sound like they might know him, but who are so intimately bound to him that they actually do what he does, they reveal who and how he is for the world.  When Jesus calls us to follow, he calls us into a way that shapes us in the ways of God, which often looks rather different than we'd expect.  Jesus isn't interested in a crowd for the sake of a bigger audience.  He's looking for a different kind of abundance: he's looking for fruitfulness; for the stuff of heaven to bloom and take shape here and now, bringing nourishment and flavor to a world heart-sick and sin-bland. 

It's almost like he's telling the disciples to be careful what they're promising folks.  It's not perfectly clear, but reading between the lines, Jesus seems to know that there's something just a bit off about Philip and Andrew's motivations, something about their eagerness that is enthusiastic, but maybe not holy.  When he says, Those who love their life [in this world] lose it, there's a sense that perhaps the disciples themselves have their eyes on a different kind of glory than the glory Jesus is training them for.

So he reminds them, before they run around setting up his social calendar, just exactly what he's got them into.  As the twentieth century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put it, when Jesus calls us, he bids us "Come and die." It's a call which seems to be a constant source of surprise for the Church.  I don't know anyone who ever was curious about Jesus, who expected that, let alone wanted it.  And yet, it's the call.  Come and die to all of the self hyphenated brokenness that undergirds the way things are.  Come die to the selfishness that keeps us trying to be the best single grains we can be.  Come and die to self-centeredness and self-concern; come die to self-improvement and self-protection and self-aggrandizement.  This is not immediately, or obviously good news.  We have a great deal invested in the notion that we are what we make of ourselves and looking out for number 1 is just prudent.  And Jesus says, Come and die.

Because the way of God is the way of self-giving, the way of intimate relationship and relentless community; it's the way of forgiveness and radical love and extravagant generosity; it's the way that is focused not only on the immediate and the obvious, but on the eternal and glorious; it's the way that sees the two coming together on earth as in heaven.  It's the way of the king who will strip down, wrap a towel around himself and kneel to wash the feet of his disciples, even of his betrayer.  After that Maundy Thursday scene, which is coming up soon, Jesus says to his confused followers, Do you have any idea what I've done to you? as if to underline the point that when we are ambushed by God's grace nothing is ever quite the same again.  When we're caught up in his way, as we learn to live and move and have our being in the way and truth and life of Jesus, then the wonder of God's way with us and this so-loved world will never cease to amaze, never cease to startle us. 

 

I confess that I've never liked this notion of "hating" our lives.  Though, I think it's ok if it makes us a bit uncomfortable.  I think it's meant to.  It comes as a word meant to startle us out of complacency.  An awful lot of folks (not to mention churches) have a fairly limited range of imagination for what is possible, by the standards of the way things are.  That's what the scriptures mean by "the world" (those who hate their life in this world)--not creation, which is good and beautiful, but "the way things are": the systems and structures that keep us and our neighbors weighed down and bound; the ways and means, that keep us separated from God and each other, that keep creation groaning.  I think this is not Jesus calling us not to a kind of perverse masochism, but to holy dissatisfaction. 

We can get so caught up in attending to the relatively meager marks of what St. John would call worldly, or human glory (John 12:43), a kind of glory limited to the way things are.  We can get satisfied with the lives we build for ourselves, which may have a very nice corner for Jesus to occupy, but are mostly dependent on our best will and effort.  And though we may not like it, that will and effort is going to peter out: those who cherish their lives first and foremost are grasping at something they can't hold on to.  Jesus insists that we're made for more than that.  We're made for more than fading away with good retirement funds and a strong portfolio.  He insists that we're meant to be evidence of the God who does abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, who works on an eternal scale.

He says, in verse 31, When I am lifted up, the world will be judged and its ruler run out of town.  When he is crucified, when the word that was with God and was God and became flesh is torn apart by the way things are--by the powers and principalities that try to tell us what is possible and permissible--then, in a way that no one saw coming, those powers will be judged.  And in his resurrection, they'll be destroyed.  It'll be a total divine ambush.  Those powers will be shown to be no power at all, to have no authority in God's kingdom.   

At the risk of breaking liturgical rules, and rushing our way through Lent to Easter: these are the conditions in which we're living, the conditions that foster a holy dissatisfaction with the way things are, and spur us to live in the way that they will be.  The way things are has been judged, and its power destroyed.  And even when the ways of violence and greed and irreconciliation and injustice and brokenness bluster and blow, that's really all they're doing.  The cross has made a mockery of that noise, that violence.  And we, who follow the One who has been glorified, are not just called but invited and wooed and startled into a different possibility, to live in his will and way, as signs and symbols of heaven's victory over the death-dealing, life-diminishing ways of the world.    

We get to do that wherever we are.  We get to trust, to choose, by heaven's authority, to live by a different standard.  We get to bear the fruit of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and gentleness and generosity and faithfulness and self-control, even if we're told those things won't grow here, that the ground here isn't fertile.  We have a God who can bring life out of a tomb, after all!  We get to be evidence of his surprising glory, his startling way, whatever we're doing.  We have to know that.  When we join Jesus in his subversive servant love, we go where he goes, and he doesn't seem to be terribly picky.  He hangs out with lepers and prostitutes, with religious professionals and politicians; he's happy to have lunch with tax-collectors and women of questionable reputation; he keeps company with drunkards and gluttons and Pharisees and City Councillors; he seems to have a special affection for kids who make too much noise and poor folks who make a nuisance of themselves. 

Wherever we go, whatever we do, with whomever we find ourselves--at work and play, in kitchens and board rooms, in classrooms and checkout lines--we get to join the One who goes ahead of us in the holy ambush, the surprise of grace, the unexpectedness of resurrection, our God's raid on the province of death.  We get to live, not for a fading glory, not by our own best will and efforts, but by the power of the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead, the power working in us for abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, the power of the One who makes us and all things new. 

We get to look and sound and live more and more like folks who not just "might," but truly know Jesus.  May we go where he goes and live for his glory.

Amen.

 

      

 

Aaron Miller