Who are the Gentiles in your life? Take a moment and give that some thought. Who are the people in your life that are asking you to see Jesus? Now, think of the Jesus to whom you are introducing them. Is it the Jesus described in the Bible, or is the Jesus to whom you are introducing them one of your own creation? Hmmm. I see some squirming. Good. I’ll take that as a sign that I was supposed to be preaching on John’s Gospel this morning.
Ruth to tell, I was certain I needed to be in John’s Gospel this week. My difficulty was figuring our collective Gentiles here at Advent. I did not have any corporate illustrations to share with you this morning, so it made me wonder if I was in the right passage this week. I made it all the way until Thursday before God started shaping my sermon a bit more toward us here at Advent.
Thursday night I had just finished riding the bike. I’d put in 12-15 miles and was really looking forward to the hot tub. David had finished a bit before me and was already soaking. I had just peeled off my sweaty clothes when a young man came into the locker room. He noticed me and then asked if I was that pastor guy that did human trafficking stuff. I told him I like to think I fight AGAINST human trafficking and that yes I am a pastor. So he asked, “Why is your God so mad?” I would like to claim shock or surprise, but Karen had prepared me. A number of people had been sharing a few Facebook memes that discussed the Atonement in simplistic and dishonest ways. The memes were claiming that God did not require Jesus to die for our sins, we did; that the “god” of their belief was not the angry “god” of Christianity; and that the “god” of the New Testament was distinct from the “god” of the Old Testament. This young man had been in some discussions with friends about God, and his questions came out of those discussions.
Now, I will remind you I was hot, sweaty, aching, and really looking forward to that hot tub, but I had a young adult Hindu who was asking about God. So we talked. I asked him to tell me what he “knew” about God. Most of his knowledge came from friends telling him about their own faith struggles or answers. He had read a small part of the Bible in a college class on theology, but most of his “knowledge” of God came from the opinions of those in his life. As he shared with me what he’d heard of God, I started chuckling. He asked why I was laughing, and I told him I would not worship that god either.
When spent the next fifteen minutes or so in a serious, but skimming, discussion about God. We talked briefly about the idea of Atonement and the certainty that love required it—God could not be loving and just and righteous and all those other wonderful adjectives if there was no consequence for sin. He’d never thought about justice like that before. Then I reminded him that Jesus was God; so God paid the price for our redemption knowing that people would reject Him, that people would kind of accept Him but lead people into error by mistake, and that people would pretend to accept Him and speak His language and work against His purposes. In a particularly inspired moment, we spoke of the hubris and temerity involved in evaluating God. During the course of that discussion thread, I asked him if he ever thought the pottery criticizes the artist for taking them in muddy form and turning them into the shaped and hardened work of art. He knew enough of the Bible to understand that was a biblical image, that God shapes and molds humanity to His glorious purposes. He’d never thought of us, particularly his friends, as being like a finished piece of art that claims the knowledge and perspective to know what was best for it.
We even chatted a few minutes about the works righteousness aspect of his faith. He believes that when he dies, he comes back to live another life. That process is repeated until he gets everything right. As a young twentysomething in a private conversation, he even shared he wondered whether the cycle never ends. He’d asked for the meaning of life, and I had shared—telling him I was being a tad simplistic, but intentionally so—that life was the time of our decision-making. Do we choose God, or do we choose another way? Do we trust the Potter, of do we think we can remake ourselves even more gloriously? If the Gospel is true, if Jesus was raised from the dead, we get a choice. Do we choose wisely?
Now, I would love to stand here and tell you we had a glorious baptism in the hot tub or pool at the Y Thursday night. In my mind, that would have been a great ending. The young guy thanked me for answering questions, for treating his questions the way he intended, for telling him when some of the answers were really much longer than our time would fully permit, and for giving him much to consider. Then, as he finished changing and was heading out he said, “you know, if more people talked about God and Jesus the way you do, I bet there’d be a lot more in the world. Too bad there are so many assholes who speak about Jesus more confidently than you.”
Now, I stopped him as he had picked up his gym bag and was on the way out. First, I told him, you need to understand I am an asshole, too. He laughed and doubted it. I told him if he spoke to people at my church, to my friends on social media, to anybody that had known me for any length of time, I was on the other side of sainthood. I even confessed that I would have rather been soaking in the hot tub with my son than having such a deep theological discussion in the locker room. He politely said he doubted it, so I shared some of my thoughts about other encounters at the Y. In particular, he thought I was justified shaming the guy watching the lady’s breasts on the treadmill. So I shared what I thought was God’s perspective on shame, and on that specific encounter. He’d never thought about God like that, that God longs for everyone to choose Him, that God woos us all our life long, even the ones who reject him outright—even men and women like Stephen Hawking. But I continued on, I told him that there are lots of saintly Christians in the world, nearly all of whom are ignored by those in power, by the press, and by those who listen only to loud voices. Look around those in your life who are serving, truly serving others at some significant cost to themselves, either in time or resources or prestige. Ask them why they are doing the things they are doing. My hope, my prayer for you, is that your eyes will be opened and your ears unplugged, and you will see those whose hearts have been transformed by God and that they, people you have known for some length of time, will point you to the God who is seeking you.
Now, I share that story as a reminder that we all have Gentiles in our lives. They just are not as easy to define or identify as they were, perhaps, in the days of Jesus’ ministry on earth and of the Apostles. My Gentile this week happened to be a young adult Hindu who, like many of the college youths raised in the Church, is beginning to decide for himself what he thinks is true. Yours may be someone with whom you golf, play bridge, or drink a martini. Your Gentile may be someone in your family, someone in your social or professional club, or a co-worker. Heck, your Gentile may be someone whom you serve in Christ’s name. We all have Gentiles; it’s just a question of discerning who they are and doing our best to point them toward Jesus. That’s part of the madness behind the method of our Lenten program this year! We have been doing spiritual autobiographies in some different ways—by the way and by way of commercial interruption, this week we will look at how God shares His story of redemption and identify ways in which He is using us in that story—to remind us of our experiences and our stories. A couple Adventers have already shared their excitement that they had done this Lenten program and been asked to share the story of their faith. They have shared with the Gentiles in their life their love of God for what He has done in their life, even when they were more prodigal than saintly!
Who are the Gentiles in your life? Those of you on Facebook saw that I had lunch with the now retired bishop of Ethiopia yesterday. In a prior life I had a difficult relationship with Bishop Grant. Grant taught exegesis at seminary. Under his tutelage, I translated most of Mark and most of First Corinthians. I hated it at the time, though I now appreciate the work he made us do—many of us have instructors who were rather good-for-us task masters. That also means that Grant was the professor who would not allow some well-planned hijinks to come to fruition (yes, he’s the professor of Grape Ape and nymphos). Anyway, as we were talking about the passage, I was reminded of a presentation by George Gallup. I have shared several times that George (Jr. or III or whatever) was a Board member at school and quintessentially Anglican. In his conversations with us students, George would discuss the data they were collecting at Gallup and our likely task if the data was truly a trend.
One such group of Gentiles was only then beginning to be understood. Gallup had asked people about a decade prior to identify themselves in one of four categories: Religious but not Spiritual, Spiritual but not Religious, both, and neither. Sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s, when this self-identification study began, people overwhelmingly identified themselves as Religious but not Spiritual. Let that sink in for a second. Religious but not Spiritual. People were coming to church; they just were not really interested in growing in their relationship with God. When George spoke to us, the future leaders in the church, his pollsters were noticing a disturbing trend: the numbers were shifting! It was almost as if people were self-identifying themselves more and more as Spiritual but not Religious. They wanted to think of themselves as good people, basically on the side of God, they just were disinterested in the offerings of organized religion. This, George warned us, was the milieu into which we were being sent. He was looking forward to future studies, but he wondered whether we should be surprised that children who were raised by Religious but not Spiritual would produce future adults who were totally disinterested in church or, at best, unable to see its value in a world that was shrinking because of the internet.
Fast forward fifteen years or so. The numbers have completely flipped. How many of us know people who identify themselves as Spiritual but not Religious? How many of us, were we to self-reflect upon ourselves and discern our behavior fifteen to thirty years ago, were parents or friends who fell into that Religious but not Spiritual group and have produced Spiritual but not Religious friends or children? Think back on this place three or four decades ago. No doubt some have left because our Lord called them home. How many, though, have drifted away though they still live in the area? How many still think of themselves and call themselves Adventers yet find themselves anywhere but here most days of the year? Maybe we used different language to identify ourselves, Country clubbish to use one that was popular around here, is a good example. What is the value of church, of religion to use the words of the study? Why do we gather as we do, sacrificing time, sleep, the opportunity to do other things? What makes this gathering important to us?
How do we identify the Gentiles in our life? Look at the passage. There are Greeks going up to worship at the festival. Right away, John is telling us that these Greeks already know God. Why else would they have journeyed to Jerusalem? Why else would they be going to worship? So they ask Phillip, one of the Apostles, to see Jesus. We are not told why, by Phillip tells Andrew and Andrew, we are told, tells Jesus. How does Jesus answer Andrew and Phillip, and by extension, the Greeks? This is where that “which Jesus do you direct others to” becomes really important. Jesus begins to speak about the kind of death he was to die. He reminds his likely agrarian audience about the nature of seeds. Unless the grain falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it falls to the earth and dies, it grows and bears much fruit. It makes sense, right? Unless we plant seeds, there is no fruit-bearing plant. Jesus’ death, to extend the comparison, will result in plants that bear much fruit. Hopefully, you and I are numbered among those plants!
Jesus goes on to teach those around him that whoever serves Him must follow Him. In modern language, we refer back to the idea that we will bear crosses to His glory. We, you and I and all who call themselves Christians are called to serve others, not Lord ourselves over them. It is a strong testimony against those “Christians in power,” those who have the bully pulpit and attention of the media, that young men like the gentleman who grabbed me Wednesday, find the idea of servanthood an anathema to modern Christianity. I wonder, were Billy Graham still alive to read some of the articles regarding his life and work, how he would respond to some of the headlines. Billy Graham: the last great non-political evangelist. Billy Graham: the last evangelist who crossed party lines. I’m certain he point the authors of such articles to look for servants in their midst. There are lots of servants crossing political party lines. There are innumerable Christians bearing crosses to the glory of God; the press just is not interested in talking about our brothers and sisters who work in prisons, who shelter the homeless, who, like Courtney today and the folks at Second Harvest, feed those who hunger. It’s not sexy work. It doesn’t cause people to click on an article. And, truly, where is the glory in such work? I mean, how could God ever know that meaningless stuff is happening, let alone the people who are doing it? He’s on the side of the rich and powerful, right? I mean, He needs to pick His tribe carefully and make sure the hoi polloi are not included, right?
Listening to the teachings and pontifications of some “christian” pastors or their flock, sometimes all I can do is offer up a prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus.” I find myself snorting derisively, and sometimes more angrily, when a pastor claims God does not want him flying commercial because his work is too important to be bothered by people in an airport or on an airplane. I find myself wishing I had the power of Holy Fire like my dwarf priest in Wow when some “pastor” claims he or she needs the mansion to escape the trials and tribulations of the world each day, rather than living among the flock he or she has been given by God to tend. I find myself enraged when some “pastor” advises those in power that God accepts, encourages, or demands that, in His name, we exclude others, we burden others, or we devalue others. And do not get me started on members of their flocks! That’s when that total depravity of which I warned my young Hindu friend really comes out. But it does so knowing that God is dishonored every time we mislead someone. God is besmirched each and every time you and I or others participate in the dehumanization of others in His Name, exclude others in His Name, or think ourselves more worthy of love and mercy and grace in His Name. And listening to the public voice and face of Christianity, I am in wise surprised that many in our society are put off by Christians. Were the only Jesus I knew the one from television and newspapers and internet memes, what would my faith be in?
If you are struggling bit today with how much Jesus knew about His purpose, notice a couple important statements besides the imagery. First, there is the wonderful rhetorical question in verse 27. Does Jesus want to die? No. Does He know it’s His purpose, His reason for coming down from heaven? Absolutely! Jesus teaches His Apostles and us that it for the events of Holy Week and Good Friday that He has come to this time! Better still, in verse 32, Jesus hearkens us back to the story of the fiery serpent on a pole that we read last week. When He is lifted up, He will draw all people to Himself. It may seem a crazy way to go about salvation to us. How can the death of Jesus atone for all my sins, let alone yours and those of the rest of the world? To those not yet grafted into His vine, it seems as crazy as looking at a snake on a pole that we might survive a snake bite!
One struggle which I bet many of us are not having is Jesus’ response. Have you ever noticed that Jesus does not tell the Greeks yes or no? Jesus neither agrees to meet with them nor tells them to go away. Instead, He launches into this teaching about His death, about His expectation of cross bearing on the part of His disciples, and about His promise that those who serve Him will, in turn, be glorified by the Father. Why? Jesus is already instructing His disciples that we will be the ones who point others to Him. We will be His hands, His feet, His Body in the world. It will be left to us to point others to Him through the work and ministry and crosses He has given us to bear or to do. You and I need to hear with His ears and see with His eyes. We are the ones who will be given opportunities to give directions to Him. To whom will we point them?
What does that Jesus to whom we are called to point others look like? What does that God whom Jesus calls Father teach us about Himself? So often, those in the world around us think that we seek to call ourselves Christian because we want to hope that we will be in heaven while they find themselves separated from Him for eternity. There’s a certain tribalism, a certain “us against them” mentality that is behind the words and actions of those who forget the Jesus described here and elsewhere in Scripture. In truth, God is drawing the world, everybody we meet, to Himself through the work and person of Jesus Christ, His Son our Lord. It is Jesus who incarnates kingdom life in our midst. It is Jesus who reminds us that we can love others as ourselves, that we can lay down our life in the service of God-called service to others, certain in the knowledge that, just as we share in His death by virtue of our baptism, we are promised a share in His Resurrection in the life to come!
More amazingly, and in a point I probably over hammered home with my young friend Thursday evening, we serve a God who loves us, who delights in us, who wonderfully made each and every one of us and all those whom we encounter. We do not serve an angry or volcano god, as some would teach and preach. We do not serve a God who tries to trick us into making bad choices or who willy nilly ignores the hurt or pain of anyone. We don’t even serve a God who makes us pass an exam to get in, apart from choosing to follow Him in this life! We serve a God who delights in those who seek Him, who is gracious to those who repent, and who, like the Father of the Prodigal Son, longs to see each and every one of us choose wisely. We serve a God who delights in demonstrating strength through weakness, who has the power to call new life from death, and who marvels us with His mercy and grace when we repent of our evil. We serve a God who delights in taking many tribes, many peoples, many cultures, and uniting them in His Son! We serve a God who takes the foolish idea of His Son dying on the Cross and turns it into saving wisdom! Is that the Jesus whom you serve? Is that the Jesus whom you call Lord? Is that the Jesus to whom you point others? In the end, my brothers in sisters, it is that Jesus who came not to condemn but to save, and it is that Jesus whom the world, Gentiles and Christian alike, needs to meet through us. Pray that as we transition into the events of Holy Week and Easter, and the Gentiles who may join us at that time, it is that Jesus that we are bringing to those in the world around us!
In His Peace,