The Rev. Robert P. Travis 5th Sunday of Lent Sermon – 8:00 and 10:00am online (due to Pandemic) for Morning Prayer Church of the Ascension, Wakefield RI and Chapel of St. John the Divine, Saunderstown RI RCL Lent 5 Year B 3/21/2021
Scripture Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 119:9-16, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
On Friday night Leah and I watched the movie, Molokai. It’s about Father Damien who went to serve and care for a community of lepers In the Pacific Ocean in the 1800s. I went to bed thinking about it and in the night, about 3:30 in the morning, I was awakened and felt I had a message to share with you from the Holy Spirit, connected to the Gospel today.
You see, chronologically we do a little bit of a dance between this week and next week because our Gospel reading for today takes place right after Jesus entered Jerusalem with the crowd spreading palms before him. We’ll hear about that next week on Palm Sunday. But it’s important to understand that context when we look at what’s happening here. Why Jesus is troubled and what he’s talking about when he considers asking “Father save me from this hour.” Outside of that context, it doesn’t quite make sense why Jesus would answer his disciples with that message about a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying. When all they came to do was to tell him that some Greeks were looking to talk to him.
So let’s take a step back and look at the Greek situation. The Gospel says that there were some Greeks among the Jews going up to the festival in Jerusalem. And they came and found Phillip. And said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
So these people, just by the way the Gospel writer puts this, we know that these people were not ethnically Jewish, but they were Greeks. Perhaps they were considered God-Fearer’s who were seeking to follow the Jewish religion, but they were not ethnically Jewish. We can imagine that, if they were seeking Jesus, they were asking around for him and somebody said, well, you can find him by finding his disciples. When they asked the name of the disciples and they heard that one of them was named Phillip. They probably thought “he must be one of us,” because Phillip is a Greek name. In fact the famous King, who was the father of Alexander the Great, was Phillip, the second of Macedonia. So they would think that in going to talk to Phillip, he would understand them. He would speak Greek. He would maybe even be like them. And that’s why they were probably comfortable going to him, seeking Jesus. Let’s hold on to that thought for a moment.
When Jesus hears that some Greeks are looking for him. He recognizes this as a pivotal point in his ministry. In fact, as the point at which his earthly ministry is about to end. He must have understood that his ministry was to, as he said before, to save the lost sheep of Israel. And when Greeks, who are not of the people of Israel start coming to him, he understands that that’s the next step of the mission. That reaching the gentiles is the mission that his disciples will accomplish. And that’s why he hears this and realizes, “If greeks are coming to look for me it must be time for me to die.” So he shares with his disciples his profound understanding. That if he is willing to give up his life and like a grain of wheat, fall into the ground. That he will bear much fruit. But if he tries to cling to it, to not give up his life in the interest of say, reaching the Greeks with the Gospel, he might not accomplish what he is supposed to do. Then his mission will go nowhere.
And then we get to that very hard to understand verse. And I don’t know if it’s hard for me to understand because I love my life. Or what? But he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” In any case, it can be pretty confusing for people, and is the kind of verse that taken at face value, just might make someone not want to follow Jesus, if it means inevitably giving up what we love or keeping what we hate for eternity. It may help you to understand here that the word life in this verse is the Greek word psyche, which means “soul.” And specifically, if in the Christian understanding we are made up of Body, Soul and Spirit, psyche is that part of the life that does die with the body, when we’re released into spirit and enter eternal life. So with that understanding, what Jesus is basically saying is that if you love your life, if you love your soul and you’re doing the right things, it will be easy for you to release to give up that soul and enter into spirit, to become united with God’s Holy Spirit. And if you hate your life, you hate your soul… If there are things that are weighing on you because you can’t stand it, for example: you feel like you didn’t get what you deserve or you hated that people treat you in a certain way, or you feel like you need to have more, or you can’t seem to get ahead of anyone else. Well then you’re bound to those things by cords of hatred, and that may just keep you from releasing that soul for eternity. You essentially damn yourself by being unwilling to let go of the hatred of your circumstances.
Jesus is, of course inviting us to a better way.
That’s why he invites us who serve him, to follow him even to this way that looks like death to the rest of the world, but actually is the way to everlasting life.
In that movie, Molokai. There’s a scene in the movie when Fr. Damien sees a woman who had been actively helping others but previously had tried to seduce him, he sees her later on, shacked up with some bad men and tries to take her out of the immoral situation. She refuses to leave and says, “I have a right to live the Good life.” He says to her, “you lived the Good life when you were helping others.”
It can be so easy to fall into the temptation of living in a way that deceives us into thinking that it’s good, when it’s actually killing our Spirit. And Jesus was tempted to reject the suffering that he was about to undergo. That’s why his soul was troubled. Because the temptation seems like it would have been to continue to go and reach out to the Gentiles who were seeking him and not walk the way of the cross. But he knew that taking up the cross would actually cause the message to spread further, and his life to be given to more people because only by walking that difficult path, and going through death, could he defeat death and rise again.
So how can we love our life more, and become willing to give it up? How can we be released from hating our life and being damned to live in that misery forever? I believe that is what the Spirit was telling me on Friday night. And I want to share with you what I heard. The message was simply this: Many people insist on praying only for others, not their own needs, and the same people when doing things or giving their money take care of their own needs first, and then give to others. The way to love your life should be the opposite, that people should pray for their own needs first, and then pray for others, and the same people should give and do for others first, and then do or give for their own needs. Let me say this again. (repeat from Many)
Here’s how I understand this message. I know that I have, at times felt like it was selfish to pray for my own needs. And so when I was praying, I would only lift up others in prayer. But what I realize the Spirit is saying is that when we lift up our own needs to God, then our hearts are more unified with the Lord. Because we’re offering the honest needs of our life to God, and from that place of love. When we turn and then begin praying for others our prayers are strengthened by that love in which our hearts were already united to God. Because we shared our own needs first.
And in terms of our actions and our giving, it works the same way in the opposite direction. If we act in taking care of others first, and only then see to meeting our own needs, we find that we have enough to offer because our actions and gifts are actually spiritually strengthened in the giving, so we have enough left for ourselves.
For a small example, just from this last week. When I received the stimulus and started to think about what I needed to use it for, I decided first to make my tithe from the stimulus. When I looked at where it was needed most, I found very quickly that the church in Madagascar that I had written about in the newsletter, where more than 1000 people were baptized just in the last month were seeking donations for bibles and song books to give to the newly baptized. I realized I could give a Bible and songbook to 28 people with just my tithe, and help them as they begin their new walk as followers of Jesus. In a country where many people earn $2.00 a day. Buying a Bible for $10 is the equivalent of five days wages! An astronomical figure when you consider what a Bible would cost for us related to our wages. When I made my gift first, and then looked at the other things I needed, I found that I had just enough for my own needs and had the additional joy of helping people first.
If each of us started to live this way, uniting our hearts to God in prayer first by lifting up to him our own needs, before praying for others. And uniting our actions in love to others by giving to others first before we take care of our own needs, I believe it would radically change our whole outlook on life. And may even bring us closer to that freely giving of our lives that leads to Eternal Life. Like our Lord Jesus.
If we live this way. I believe others will come to you just like they came to Phillip, saying “we wish to see Jesus. We see that you are living in a different way. We see the joy in your life and the peace in your heart and we want to know this Jesus too.” And the final thing I want you to remember is that those Greeks came to see Phillip because they thought they could relate to him. People you know who are comfortable with you will come to seek Jesus through you much sooner than they would ever come to seek Jesus through me or another Christian professional because they feel like you, they can relate to you. And so when this happens, you need to be prepared to share with them this way of life. How being united with God in prayer by lifting up all your needs to God, and serving others first with your actions and gifts, is what leads to a different and better way of life.
You can do this.
I know you can, with God’s help.
He’s counting on you to bear much fruit in his name.