Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018
‘They came to Philip… and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”’
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last month I had the opportunity to take a weekend course at the Divinity School with the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest and founder of Thistle Farms, an organization based in Nashville that helps women in recovery from trafficking, prostitution, drug addiction, and homelessness. Becca started this residential community, called Magdalene, in 1997 with a simple vision. She wanted to create a place where women who wanted to get off of the streets could live together for two years at no cost and begin to heal. There would no external authority figure in the house to govern the lives of the women. Much like a monastic community, the women developed their own rule of life that governed the way they lived together. The community was grounded on the belief that ‘Love Heals,’ and this simple mantra has guided the work of Thistle Farms for over 20 years. It is Becca’s deep conviction, born out of her own journey from abuse to healing, that no matter the depths of brokenness or the pain we have suffered, love has the power to heals us, because love is the most powerful force for change in the world.
A few years after establishing the first community, Becca realized that the women of Thistle Farms were still incredibly poor and needed some way to earn an income. She strongly believed that in order for the women to truly have agency and freedom they needed economic independence. A new idea was quickly born. Becca founded a social enterprise in which the women of Thistle Farms became producing all-natural candles and body products.
This enterprise has expanded rapidly and now brings in millions of dollars of revenue each year. As Becca writes, ‘there is poetic justice in producing healing and nourishing products for the body, all crafted by women whose bodies have endured years of abuse.’
The story of Thistle Farms is an inspiring one. After learning from and with Becca through the weekend I left feeling really good and energized for ministry. I share the story of Thistle Farms with you, though, not simply because it is a nice and inspirational story, though I do hope you will consider reading more about the work and ministry of this place and the products the women of Thistle Farm produce. I share this story with you because it is a testament to the power of the gospel, and it illustrates what Jesus is trying to teach us today.
Today’s gospel passage moves us deep into the heart of John’s gospel. Narratively it comes just before the story of the Last Supper and the footwashing. In the sections immediately preceding it, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in Bethany, then Mary lovingly and extravagantly washed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and her hair. Jesus then entered the holy city of Jerusalem in great triumph with acclamations of ‘Hosanna’ from the crowd. These events all took place in anticipation of the Passover feast, which is the ‘festival’ that is mentioned. Today’s passage begins by noting that among those who had come to worship at the Passover festival were some Greeks. Presumably they had traveled a considerable distance, and we have no indication as to how they had come to know about this extraordinary person called Jesus. The passage tells us that they first come not to Jesus but to Philip and then request to see Jesus. Philip, in turn, goes not to Jesus but to Andrew. Only then do the two disciples go to Jesus, and though the two disciples tell Him about their arrival, the text never mentions a direct encounter between the Greeks and Jesus. They fade into the background, and instead Jesus uses this moment to openly announce the events that are to come.
He tells Philip and Andrew, ‘the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ This word ‘glorify’ appears several times in today’s passage, and the concept of ‘glory’ is an important one both in the gospel of John and in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word is kavod, which is used to describe the majestic and awe-inspiring power of God. In the book of Exodus, God’s glory is described as a devouring fire on the top of Mount Sinai. At the end of the book, the tabernacle, the moveable place of worship that the Israelites used during their time in the desert, is completed and God’s kavod fills the tabernacle. The same term is used again in the book of Ezekiel when, toward the end of the book, the prophet sees a vision of the glory of God returning to the temple. It comes with the sound of mighty waters, and this glory makes the earth shine with radiance (Ezekiel 43:2). In the Hebrew Bible, God’s glory was something that would have almost demanded reverence. It was something to which one would have bowed down in awe and wonder.
Jesus takes this notion of glory, this idea of God’s awe-inspiring majesty, and turns it completely on its head. He begins to illustrate what he means by ‘glory’ and ‘glorify’ by using an agricultural image. He tells the disciples, ‘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 can easily see how this image points to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Like the grain of wheat, Jesus will die and be placed into the earth, in a tomb, and sealed away. From his death, though, will come abundant life. But Jesus does not use this image to describe only himself and his own death. It is also the way we as his followers must travel.
Jesus continues to instruct his disciples saying, ‘whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’ Jesus’ path leads to death, and so too must the path of those of us who seek to follow him. To be clear, I’m not talking about physical death here, though we know that one day we will all face the death of our mortal bodies. No, I’m talking about the type of death that comes with the Christian life, the dying to self, to sin, to the ways of the world. The Christian life is not an easy one. If we truly live it out and follow Jesus we will suffer loss. We cannot ignore this reality. Yet though the way of Jesus is challenging, we also know it to be the way of life. The great promise of the gospel is that life emerges from death. And Jesus shows us how to follow this path with courage. He tells his disciples, ‘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.’ Jesus knows what lies ahead. He knows what he must do, and moves forward with total trust in the Father.
At the end of today’s passage Jesus proclaims, ‘now is the judgement 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.’ The gospel writer adds, ‘he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.’ This is what Jesus means when he says he will be glorified. Stripped of his clothing, beaten, spat upon, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, and lifted up for all to see and mock, Jesus will be glorified. And the whole world will see the glory of God, not as described in the Hebrew Bible but in the form of one who emptied himself completely and was obedient unto a humiliating death on a cross. And we who see this glory will fall down before him in awe and reverence.
In older calendars of the Church, this Fifth Sunday in Lent marked the beginning of Passiontide, a tradition we still observe here at Christ Church. Our attention and focus now turn with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the events of Holy Week, and ultimately to the cross. As we continue our journey with our Lord toward Golgotha, we are invited to consider what needs to die in our own lives. Jesus reminds us of the core paradox of discipleship: ‘those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ Friends, what in your life needs to die this season? What sins cling to you and separate you from God? Whatever they may be, take them and bring them to the cross of Christ, and be assured of the promise that those things that fall into the earth and die will bring forth much fruit. That is the message of the gospel. We see it in our own lives, and we can see it in the ministries of places like Thistle Farms. We see it in the lives of women like Regina, who was one of the first women to join the Magdalene community. Like so many of the women who come through Thistle Farms, she had suffered severe trauma in her childhood and had been stuck in a life of addiction, prostitution, and trafficking. One night soon after Regina had joined the Magdalene community, Becca tells how she stopped by the home to check on Regina and found her dancing all by herself. She was dancing from sheer joy. It was an embodied prayer of profound gratitude to God, for she who had once been ensnared by the worldly powers of death and destruction, addiction and exploitation, was now experiencing new life. Now twenty-one years later, Regina is an employee of Thistle Farms and has helped over 200 hundred women get off the streets.
Friends, as we move through this Passiontide toward the cross, may we, like the Greeks at the Passover festival, seek Jesus. If we make that our prayer we are assured that we will indeed behold our Lord in his glory, not as radiant light or fire on the mountain but as one lifted high upon the cross drawing all the world to himself. We will glory in his cross. We will come and adore. And we will see Jesus.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.