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.
As we approach the end of the Lenten season, we turn to Jesus’ words in the book of John as he prepares his followers for his death on the cross. Earlier in John’s gospel, Lazarus died, Jesus mourned his death, and then he resurrected him. Jesus in the human flesh felt the emotion that his followers were going to feel after Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus shows the resurrection power through the raising of Lazarus back to life. The chief priests and the Pharisees decide that they must kill Jesus before he gains too many followers through his miracles and teachings. Caiaphas, the high priest, says, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” Just like when one commits a crime and must commit yet another crime to cover the first one up, they realize that Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead so they must kill him as well in order to get rid of the evidence of the sign that Jesus performed. The joke is on Caiaphas here as Jesus is willingly going to the cross. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and in the passage read earlier Jesus and his followers are at the Passover festival where the Greeks have just shown up.
Jesus foretells the death that he is about to die on the cross. Jesus knows that through his self-sacrificing love that all people will have eternal life. It is by this selfless act that Jesus will expose the powers and principalities of this world. Just before this, Caiaphas says that one person must be sacrificed for the sake of everyone else but he certainly isn’t jumping up and down volunteering himself, instead he says “Kill him! Kill Jesus!”. We see this same type of mentality in our leaders today. Our Presidents are willing to send troops into conflict in order to save the lives of many without losing any sleep.
Madam Secretary, a television series on CBS that follows a family involved in the inter-workings of foreign policy decisions portrays this mindset well. The husband must be the handler of a deep undercover operative whom he is intent on protecting. Just when they are going to safely extract the operative, the President makes a deal with a foreign leader to expose the operative because he has decided that it is better for the greater good to let one man die in order to make life better for many others. In contrast, Jesus willingly goes to the cross first, rather than sacrificing someone else. Caiaphas and the other high priests and Pharisees do not want anyone to get in their way, which is why they plot to kill Jesus.
The Netflix series House of Cards, a series based on the rise and fall of one man’s political career, depicts a way that this can happen in an extreme way as Frank Underwood is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way as he advances from senator, to the party whip, to vice president and then eventually president.
On Easter morning the church is always beautifully decorated with flowers. One of the flowers that comes to my mind this time of year is the Easter Lilly. The Easter Lilly, if planted outdoors in our climate will die when the temperatures drop and the frost hits. However, the seed in the ground will sprout to life once again when the spring arrives, a beautiful scene after a long harsh winter. Just like a flower dying in order to grow beautiful again the following spring, Jesus’ death on the cross is a time of great sorrow for his followers but it leads the way for the triumphant resurrection in which life is victorious over death.
As Jesus is moving forward on his journey to the cross we as his followers must do the same. Jesus says that one who loves their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will have eternal life. Jesus is calling us to pick up our cross and follow him. Our sinful habits as human beings must die before we can bear fruit. In this Lenten season of reflection Jesus is calling us to be aware of the things in our world that are separating us from him. We must surrender to God in order to fully live into this calling.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an individual that was willing to give up his life in order for the greater good of others. Bonhoeffer was a German minster and theologian known for his resistance to the Nazi regime in an era when most of the mainline church in German had endorsed the Nazi platform. He participated in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. He was detained in prison and eventually was transferred to a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was executed just two weeks before the U.S. Liberated the camp and one month before the surrender of Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer himself said, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer fought for his beliefs, even to the point of dying.
Or, consider Martin Luther King Jr. The night after his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, in which King called for unity, boycotts, and nonviolent protest, he was assassinated at the motel in which he was staying. Just like Moses, looked out over the promised land knowing that he would die before getting there, King knew that he would not see a day without racial discrimination and economic disparity. It was after King’s death that racism lost some of it’s power. King gave up his life fighting for justice. Are we willing to take up our cross to make the world a more just place, even if it means death?
The result of Jesus’ death on the cross is victory, but it was not achieved by domination or violence on his part. While many people today believe that victory and exposure comes through power and violence, we as followers of Jesus we are called to lead nonviolent campaigns as we strive to be more like Jesus. Martin Luther King Jr, whom I just mentioned for giving up his life for his just cause, did not expose the inequality through violence. Instead he organized peaceful protests and marches.
Just this past week, students across the country walked out of school in response to the shooting in Parkland, Florida as a way to draw attention to school safety. While tensions are high and divisions are deep over many topics in our church and our country, it is important to remember that we must prayerfully discern a way forward and lift up one another in love. It is through love rather than self-interests that a common goal can be accomplished.
While we as individuals are called to self reflection, we need to be aware of the things within our personal lives that separate us from God. If we are truly going to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Jesus, we will have to leave some things behind. We all have habits that we must let die in order to live lives lead by Christ.
At an early point in his ministry, John Wesley was willing to go anywhere and do anything in order to satisfy God. He traveled to the English Colony of Georgia as a missionary with a grand plan to convert who he would call “the heathens” – those who have no knowledge of Christ. His plan epically failed, as he seems to have failed to convert anyone. But, on that journey, he encounters a group of Moravians who have unshakable faith, even through the storm has they travel at sea. It is at this time that Wesley goes through the difficult process of self reflection in which he realizes that he does not have much faith. It is during this reflection that he realizes he cares about the lives of others more than himself. From that moment he begins to give his life to the ministry of others and extends the status quo so that those outside of the church could hear the good news that he had received. He traveled 250,000 miles on horseback during his ministry. To put that into perspective, it would be like circling the earth 10 times. While on his journey, Wesley gave away most of the money he earned during his career (roughly the equivalent of $1 million USD), and preached more than 40,000 sermons. By losing his former life, he found a life led by Christ rather than his self interest. It was in Wesley’s work after his Aldersgate experience that led to the birth of the Methodist movement.
The season of Lent is a time of reflecting and sacrificing at least one of these habits in order to let Christ lead our lives. Many of us give up chocolate, soda, and fast food during lent in order to improve our health. While this isn’t a bad thing, perhaps we should consider sacrificing a bad habit that separates us from our cross and replace it with one that enhances our relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters. In his Time Magazine article from 2015, Christopher Hale says, “If you want to change your body, perhaps [giving up] alcohol and candy is the way to go. But if you want to change your heart, a harder fast is needed,” a fast from indifference to feast on love. “This narrow road is gritty, but it isn’t sterile. It will make room in ourselves to experience a love that can make us whole and set us free.” While our season of Lent is almost over, we can still consider fasting from those habits within us that show hatred and disdain in order to make room for more fruitful habits that exhibit the fruits of the spirit such as love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Perhaps our prayer should become one from Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirt within me.”
Friends, the good news is that we do not have to carry out this burden on our own. Jesus is our great high priest. The book of Hebrews says, “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus is the one in whom we have salvation. He is the one who prays on our behalf. We are not earning our salvation because Jesus has already gone to the cross for us. And it is in the shadow of his cross that we are able to take up our own.
So, go! Take up your cross and follow Jesus!