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All People To Myself

John 12:20-33

· Lent

John 12:20-33 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27 “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. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

*****    

The great southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor has a story called “Revelation,” that begins with a woman named Mrs. Turpin takes her husband to the doctor after he’s been kicked in the leg by their cow. The first half of the story takes place in the waiting room of the doctor’s office as Mrs. Turpin sizes up all of the other people sitting around her. She’s a respectable woman, clean and hardworking, a comfortable, middle class farmer’s wife, and she likes it that way. She looks around the waiting room and sees another woman, a bit older, but who occupies a similar station as herself. She’s very polite and they make small talk, but she notices the woman’s daughter, a pimply college girl, who keeps scowling at her from behind a huge text book and scoffing under her breath at everything Mrs. Turpin says. Mrs. Turpin is also not pleased with the poor family sitting across from her. She tries her best not to include them in the conversation. She has a clear hierarchy by which she measures the world. People of color and white trash go on the very bottom and should be pitied or avoided. Then at the top were the very rich, so rich they didn’t even know what to do with all their money, but Mrs. Turpin thought they really had too much; and then sometimes a person of color or some white trash made a bunch of money and ended up there, too, so it was hard to keep everyone straight. But the best place to be, which just happened to be where she was, was right in the middle with the nice, white, hardworking, churchgoing people. Her world was divided into classes and everyone should know where they belong.

A world divided into classes. We might like to think that our world is different, that after the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements we have progressed beyond those divisions, but in so many ways we haven’t. We still prefer what’s familiar and what’s familiar is people like us, our kind of people. As good churchgoing people, we hear rumors of divisions, of classes, but whoever is dividing the world up that way it’s not us. We’re too polite, too nice. We know we’re good people. There might be income inequality, but I give my tithe. There might be racism, but I read about Dr. King in school and think he’s a pretty good guy. There might be sexism in the world, but we have women preach. There might be homophobia, but we love the sinner even as we hate the sin. The world is the world and the church is the church, and we’re pretty much OK in here. Whoever’s dividing the world up like this is outside. If they’d let us include them we’d set them straight. But then sometimes it seems some people just won’t be set straight. That’s why they’re in the world and we’re in the church. It’s too bad they go on divvying up the world like that out there. They’re just not like us, in here.

Of course, dividing up the world into classes is a feature of human history (not a necessary feature but a constant one). And these divisions run not only through the rural south, or the 21st Century, but the world of the Bible, too. In our story this morning, Jesus and the disciples are preparing for the Passover, when some Greeks come to worship and ask if they can speak with Jesus. Now these Greeks were probably Greek Jews, because they’re coming to worship, but the writer still refers to them as Greeks. These people might be related way down the line as children of Abraham, as people who worship the God of Jacob, but there’s still a sense in which we’re Galileans and you’re Greeks. We live in the Promised Land, you live in the diaspora, we’re at home, you’re in exile. Earlier, in John 7, Jesus tells some Pharisees that if they don’t listen to his teaching he’s going to go where they can’t find him, and they say “Where are you going to go, to the Greeks?” as though that’s utterly ridiculous. Obviously Jesus isn’t going to teach some Greeks! The facts of geography and language and economics and race have a way of dividing people. They’re all there for worship, but some people are already near, while others have come from far off. Some people are already a part of “us,” some people need to be “included.”

So the Greeks ask for Jesus. When Phillip and Andrew go to get him, Jesus replies, 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. (To which Phillip and Andrew said, “Does that mean you’ll talk to them or is that a no?”) What does Jesus mean by this strange response? What does this have to do with some Greeks coming to visit him? These Greeks want to know him, and when this happens his response to his own disciples is that he and they will need to lose their lives in order to keep them, like seeds planted in the dirt and rising to bear fruit.

Back in the doctor’s office, Mrs. Turpin is still talking with the polite woman and still annoyed by the white trash family who keep trying to join the conversation. Mrs. Turpin reflects on how blessed she is to be who she is, to be married to such a good husband, to have a farm, and to be clean and hardworking, not like those other people, and she’s so blessed she says to the whole room, “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus thank you!” And just then a massive text book struck her in the face. The polite woman’s daughter had snapped; she couldn’t listen to Mrs. Turpin anymore and had thrown her book across the room and now was kicking and screaming at everyone there. When the doctor had pinned her arms down, she glared over at Mrs. Turpin and hissed, “Go back to hell where you come from, you old wart hog.” For the rest of the afternoon, Mrs. Turpin kept replaying those words in her head. An old wart hog from hell. “That’s not who I am, I’m a good Christian,” she thought, but the words stuck with her. She couldn’t just dismiss them.

When that book flew across the room at her, it did so in judgement, a judgement on who she thought she was and who she thought everyone else was. It was like her whole way of looking at the world, all her neat classes and categories had come under judgement, and so she had, too. Was she really blessed or was there something hellish about the whole set-up, not just that she looked down on people but that some people are up and some people are down?

When Jesus tells the disciples that he will die and calls them to do the same, the voice of God thunders from the heavens, and Jesus says to them The time for judgement is now; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. The patterns of this world, the divisions, the classes that set apart rich and poor, white and black, citizen and immigrant, man and woman, Greek and Judean, those who belong and those who by default do not are not natural. They are not orders of creation that God built into the fabric of the cosmos. These classes come from the Tower of Babel, and when we conserve them, we serve with the devil, the ruler of this world, not Jesus. This is why following Jesus requires the Cross, why the seeds of our lives are planted in the mud to someday bear fruit. It’s not because the Cross is good or the mud is nice. It’s because the patterns of this world have come to be written on our own hearts too, so that “we” know who we are because we are not “them.” And so to tear down those dividing walls, to say the Gospel is for Greeks, the Gospel is for the lower classes, the Gospel is not reserved for the polite, the clean, the nice, the neat, the people like me is, for some of us, to lose our very identities. When I know who I am through the divisions of this world, ending those divisions is the end of me. So we cling to our lives at all costs: instead of trying to tear down the dividing wall, we say that we just need to be more inclusive as to who gets in the walls, or we say that the people on the other side of the wall need to meet us halfway and do their part, too. And all along the walls are reinforced.

But what some of us need is not reinforcement, not preservation, but judgement, to die to ourselves so that others might live, so that by some miracle we might find new life too. Sometimes we need grace like a big book to the skull to wake us up to the ways our nice, polite lives can be quite damaging to our neighbors as we look passively on their suffering.

(By the way, if you’re sitting there right now, thinking of all the ways you can judge yourself, then this word is not for you. You need to stop digging deeper in the dirt and find ways to grow towards the light. But if you’re sitting there thinking, “Yes, judgement, finally” and making a list of specific people or categories of people in this world who are real sinners, know that these Scriptures are really talking to you. It’s time for you to find your cross, to lay down in the mud.)

But that’s not the end of the story. Judgement is neither the first nor the last word. The rulers of this world will be dethroned, and Jesus also wants us to desire a new world, where the dividing wall, the criteria by which we judge our neighbors’ worthiness is not just opened up, but torn all the way down. While some of us will surely lose ourselves in that moment, new forms of life will emerge there, too. And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself, Jesus said. Jesus judges the judgements by which we keep some people out.

The evening after the doctor’s office, Mrs. Turpin goes down to hose off her pigs, grumbling to God the whole time about what the girl had said, “What do you send me a message like that for? How am I saved and from hell too?…If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then," she said. "You could have made me trash…If trash is what you wanted, why didn't you make me trash?” and she turned on the hose to spray the pigs.

The sun slipped blood red behind the trees and she looked up: There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash…and bands of [people of color], and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself…had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.

And I, when I am lifted up, will gather all people to myself. All people. Can you see it? Do we want that? All people? Even them? Even them. We might not see them over our dividing walls but that just means those walls need to come down. Christ plants God’s love in this world so that it can germinate and bear fruit in all of our hearts, and the sower is coming back to reap what has been sown. So may we prepare, may we prepare for the grand procession of our reaping, when Jesus gathers all people into God’s embrace. May we die to our suspicions and become traitors to our class and so be faithful to God’s new world, where sinners are welcomed first and the saints bring up the back. May Ephesus Baptist Church be like Mrs. Turpin’s starry field, where a motley crew is always welcome to croak our hallelujahs off key as we make our way into the arms of Jesus. Amen.

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