The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival 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.John 12:20-33
“Now my soul is troubled”. Of all the wisdom that Jesus speaks throughout the Gospels, that single sentence is probably the most relatable thing Jesus ever said. Indeed, now my soul is troubled, is your soul troubled? How could it not be? Look and see the trouble all around us! It seems that the troubles are endless. For all the strife and division in our society today the one thing that we all readily agree on is that we are all troubled. What troubles your soul of course depends on your priorities, and we get stuck quite hard in parsing out solutions to our troubles (which in itself is troubling), but we have no trouble in admitting that we are troubled and are living in troubling times.
Though what is most troubling about our state of affairs is perhaps not our circumstances and challenges, but how we understand them. Something very dangerous that has been going around lately is this idea that our current troubles are “unprecedented”. That humanity has never before faced such troubles, and we are completely on our own to solve them. This is dangerous because it instills in us a sense of fear, of powerlessness, because “these systemic issues are so large that no single person could make any meaningful change,” or “everything is so broken why should I even bother?”, or “Those people’s beliefs threaten my beliefs but nothing we do seems to stop them!” This idea that everything that is happening to us now is unheard of is born out of arrogance and designed to make us fear and hate one another. Why? For views, clicks, ads, profit, and power. We get overwhelmed by our troubles, and when we get overwhelmed we simplify, generalize, and surrender our agency to anyone who promises to solve our troubles for us.
But we cannot let ourselves be deceived, the troubles we face are nothing new to humanity. Why are we surprised to face a plague, when they have been challenging society since the beginning of civilization? Why are we surprised at the spread of disinformation, of polarization, of wealth inequality, of injustice? It is simply arrogance. With our growth in material wealth, earthly power, and technology, we became complacent, and let ourselves be led to believe that we advanced beyond our barbaric ancestors and that the world was simply going to keep improving without intentional effort. Because we had become so accustomed to this vision of ourselves and unstoppable progress we forgot our place as stewards of God’s creation. So now everything is “unprecedented”. Because we forgot our past and God in favor of an idolized version of ourselves, when things go wrong, we feel helpless and alone, and that is troubling.
What are we to do with these troubled souls and this troubled world? Are we to retreat, hoard for our sense of security, or beg to have this cup taken from us? Should we say “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that we have come to this hour: to glorify God’s name! Now that the scales are falling from our eyes and we see that we are not alone, we see our true calling, and what ultimately will save us from our troubles: The Gospel. When the Gospel of loving God and our neighbor is so written on our hearts that the greatest and the least embody it, then will our troubles cease. The fruits of our labor will be the vision of the New Covenant proclaimed in Jeremiah:
“I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more”.
This answer of course is by no means unprecedented. This has been the message of the Church for millennia! We have proclaimed the name of Jesus across time, station, and continent! It is nearly impossible to find someone who hasn’t had “know the LORD” preached at them. Yet our souls are still troubled. Where are the fruits of our labor? Though we have sown the words of the Gospel, the stories, and even some of the wisdom, we have been content to remain single grains. As a body of Christ, we have filled our grain houses with prestige, social capital, cultural influence, wealth, and power. Yet for all our power and influence in our society, we forgot this lesson from Christ, “…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 have been gripping onto our grains, collecting them, storing them, never letting go and so there is no fruit.
Rather than asking ourselves, “what more do we need to stop our troubles?” the question we need to ask is, “what needs to die so that we can bear fruit?” Our arrogance, our inordinate love of power and wealth, our image of ourselves and our prestige, our image of our enemies and those who instill fear in us, our jealousy and belief in scarcity, and most of all our belief that solving these troubles can be accomplished alone. We need to let these die for us to bear fruit. In these past days, the perception of Christians is that they are not Gospel-Bearers, but people so hell-bent on keeping their influence in society that they are willing to go against the very principles of loving God and neighbor for the sake of maintaining power. When people tell me why they left the Church, it is almost never because of intellectual or theological considerations, but the behavior of Christians. And as much as we like to believe as a denomination that we are kinder, more progressive, more intelligent, and generally better than other Christians, the rest of the world really doesn’t see or care to know the difference.
As troubling as this may sound, there is indeed good news. With God there is always good news. While it is painful to let our grains of power, prestige, and self-image die, they have already begun to bear fruit. When we are no longer so concerned about power and maintaining a false image about who is and who is not among God’s beloved, we have been freed to welcome new and more people to the Body of Christ, people that we had never thought to welcome before, those who we formerly called “profane” or “unclean”. Though for now the number may be fewer, as we have been freed to be truer to the Gospel message, we are becoming more faithful.
As for the wider world, a world so troubled and in need of the Gospel, despite what it may look like, the world is slowly coming to know God. By God working through us, and in spite of us, the Gospel message is spreading, though not always in ways and names that we may immediately recognize. Often we hear lamenting about the state of our youth, that they aren’t coming to church anymore, that they have lost their sense of morality, and that our society is doomed to a bleak future because of it. This of course is nonsense and an excuse by adults to grip tighter onto their power. When teachers, social workers, and others who work regularly with youth were asked what was different about youth today, overwhelmingly they reported that youth today are kinder, more empathetic, less inclined to cliques and tribalism, more interested in education, more welcoming of people outside of usual norms, more interested in justice, and holding one another to a higher standard. That tired trope of “kids can be so cruel” is becoming less true by the day. And no, many are not yet coming to church, but they are living out the Gospel.
There is even good news in our troubling infighting. Though we may seem to be more divided than ever, we are holding one another to a higher standard of justice, righteousness, and inclusion. Despite attempts to convince us that we are powerless and that our efforts don’t matter, the fact that people on all sides are fighting so hard shows that as a society we still believe that change for the better is possible. Though we may sharply disagree about what needs to change and how, we have not succumbed to complacency and hopelessness. While there is still a long way to go and much healing to be done, this is the power of the Gospel, that even the most troubling circumstances can be redeemed.
The world needs the Gospel, and it is our mission to be the Gospel. What does it mean to be the Gospel? It’s being the best spouse, parent, child, or friend you can be. It’s looking for solutions in disputes, not allowing yourself to be baited into rhetoric meant to “win” the argument. It’s recognizing that you must rely on God and others. We need people who push the boundaries in our common life, we also need people connect us with tradition, we need people who can be moderators and intermediaries between to help make the transitions. We need to let the things holding us back both within us personally and in our society die so we can be fruitful. In short, we need to be so loving, so welcoming, so good that people take notice. And when they ask us why, we point to the Jesus, who for this purpose was lifted up so that all the world would be drawn to Him. Amen.