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An Invitation to Discipleship: If Anyone Serves Me...
John 12:12 - 12:30
April 10, 2022
Reverend Jason Harris
Jesus uses the phrase “If anyone” to extend an invitation to become his disciple and explains what such a commitment entails. He offered one such invitation on the original Palm Sunday as he entered the city of Jerusalem among a large crowd. In this sermon, we take a closer look at Jesus' subversive entrance, his unexpected parable and his radical call.
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I don't know if you have noticed this, but there is something strange happening within our broader society. There is a surprising number of people who identify themselves as "Christians," and yet, if you probe a little deeper, and ask them questions about what they believe, they do not affirm some of the central tenets of the Christian faith. There's a surprising number of people who identify as Christians who believe that the Holy Spirit could tell you to do something that is forbidden in the Bible. There are even more people who claim that they are Christians, yet they do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God or that he's divine. They consider him to be merely a great human teacher—perhaps more in touch with God than any other human being—but a human being like the rest of us. It is kind of shocking how many people call themselves Christians, yet they seldom or never attend a church. Increasingly, we see that there are people who use the term "Christian," to signal not their religious beliefs, but their political commitments. The word “evangelical,” and even the word “Christian,” has come to carry political overtones rather than spiritual or religious ones.
What do we make of that? What does that tell you? That tells me that there is a difference between calling yourself a Christian and living your life as an authentic follower of Jesus. I've mentioned before that the word Christian only appears three times in the New Testament. The preferred term used to describe a follower of Jesus is the word “disciple.” During the season of Lent, we have been considering what does it means to be a disciple, a student, an apprentice of Jesus and his way of life. We have done that by focusing on those places in the gospels where Jesus employs the phrase, “If anyone.” More often than not, Jesus uses those two little words to extend an invitation to discipleship and to describe what such a commitment might entail.
On the original Palm Sunday, Jesus offered one such invitation, and that is what we will explore in this sermon. Surprisingly, Jesus addresses many of the issues that we ourselves face within our own culture today. I'd like us to take a look at John 12, and consider Jesus' subversive entrance, his unexpected parable, and his radical call. Let me invite you to open up a Bible to John 12. I'll be reading v.12-30.
12The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
15“Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey's colt!”
16His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
20Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
27“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.
Jesus’ Subversive Entrance
First, I'd like us to consider Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem. Many scholars believe that there may have been about 100,000 people living in Jerusalem at the time, and during the celebration of Passover, the city might have swelled to include as many as a million people. That's crazy to think about. Once news gets around that Jesus has arrived on the outskirts of the city, a massive crowd forms. Many of the pilgrims to Jerusalem would have come from Galilee, up north, where Jesus had already become famous. So this massive crowd comes out to meet him. And it must have been huge because even Jesus' detractors seem to resign themselves to the fact that there is nothing that they can do to stop the enthusiasm around Jesus. They say to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone after him."
The people cut down palm branches and use those to welcome Jesus. As they wave the palms in the air, they quote Psalm 118 by saying “Hosanna,” which literally means "Save us. Lord, save us now." They accompany Jesus as he makes his way into the city. If you've heard this story before, and many of you probably have, my guess is that you think of this as a great big parade, like a ticker-tape parade. But I want to give you a very different image to think about what's going on here in Jesus' entrance to Jerusalem. Rather than thinking of a parade, think about storming the Capitol—except that the people are not making their way to the Capitol Building but to the Temple.
What you need to realize is that this was a highly explosive, potentially dangerous, and extremely controversial political moment. Let me show you why. Two hundred years before this event took place, Jerusalem was occupied by a foreign oppressor—in this case, it was the kingdom of Syria. The oppression led to a rebellion under the Maccabean family. When the Maccabees took control of Jerusalem again, and then reclaimed the Temple, they used palm branches as part of the celebration. Then later, when Jews rebelled against Roman occupation in Jerusalem, the Jewish rebels minted their own coins. You know what they printed on those coins? The image of palm branches. What you need to see is that palm branches were a nationalistic symbol. What the palm branch was to them back then, is what flags are for us now. As Jesus makes his way into the city, and you picture in your mind's eye people waving those palm branches, imagine them waving flags. That is how they greet Jesus. They greet him as a nationalistic hero. It's interesting to note that when they quote Psalm 118, and say, “Hosanna! [Lord, save us.] Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” That little phrase there at the end, “even the King of Israel,” is not part of Psalm 118. They inserted those words. This is a highly charged political moment. The crowds welcome Jesus as a nationalistic hero. They want Jesus to make Israel a great nation again. They're hoping that Jesus is the one who's going to drive out the foreign oppressor, this time Rome, rather than Syria.
The question is, how will Jesus respond to this moment? Will he accept these nationalistic expectations? The answer is: No! Jesus most assuredly is a liberator and a king, but he's not a national liberator or king; and therefore, Jesus calls any at all nationalistic expectations into question. There's nothing wrong with loving your country. There's nothing wrong with being a patriot. But if your love of country becomes your greatest love or your highest hope then Jesus would suggest that you are no longer following him.
The New Testament commentator Dale Bruner puts it like this.
“Flags today are what palms were then. In every country the national flag should not be prominently joined to the honoring of Jesus, King of all nations. Patriotism itself is not to be decried; but the joining of patriotism with Jesus is questioned by this text. Some theologies have consistently united national-patriotic passions with spiritual-renewal desires. The ‘German Christians’ of the 1930s and 40s remain the clearest monitory peril [cautionary tale] of nationalistic Christianity.”
We might be seeing something similar in Russia today.
But Bruner goes on to say,
“At the most recent All-Staff Conference of Young Life in Orlando, Florida, the flags of all countries in which Young Life works worldwide were carried in procession down the various halls of the arena. I found this deeply affecting: When all flags are joined to the celebration of Christ, they are ‘palms’ that honor the universal Messiah. When one particular flag is associated with the Messiah, something is wrong.”
What I want you to see here is that Jesus subverts these nationalistic expectations in a rather deliberate way. How does he do it? Jesus does accept the title king of Israel. He is the "king of Israel," but he wants to make it abundantly clear that he is a very different kind of king.
Let me give you a little thought experiment. If Jesus were to enter into Jerusalem, and he wanted to play into these national hopes, what might he have done? He would have ridden into Jerusalem on top of a war horse. That would have been the equivalent of donning military fatigues and riding in on top of a tank. But v.14 tells us that instead, Jesus deliberately went and found a donkey. Instead of riding into Jerusalem on top of a war horse, he purposely rides in on top of a donkey in order to show that, yes, he is Israel's king, but he has not come to start a human war, but rather to establish God's peace. We often refer to Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem as the "triumphal entrance," but that doesn't really capture the spirit of what Jesus is trying to do here. A better name for it would be Jesus' "donkey entrance." This is Jesus' donkey entrance into Jerusalem. He is most certainly the king, but he is unlike any king the world has ever seen. That becomes clearer based on the unexpected parable that Jesus proceeds to tell to a group of people who are looking for him.
Jesus’ Unexpected Parable
That brings me to my second point. V.20, tells us, “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.” This is amazing. This is the celebration of the Passover—the Jewish Passover. Yet Greeks from the north—foreigners—come to Jerusalem for the Passover, and they want to see Jesus. Why here? Why now? I think God wants to show that Jesus is not just the king of Israel, but he's the king of the whole world—Jews and Greeks. If you had been there, and you had seen all this happening, you very well might have thought that a wave of enthusiasm for Jesus really was about to sweep through the whole world.
So these Greeks find Philip. I think it's intriguing to note that Philip and Andrew are the only two disciples with Greek names. John makes a point of telling us that Philip was from Bethsaida, up in the north, Gentile territory. So the Greeks come to Philip because perhaps they knew him previously. Perhaps they had something in common with him. They were from the same part of the world. And they tell Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
This is just an aside, but you might be interested to know that those words are actually engraved in the wooden pulpit of many churches. Those words “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” are engraved in the pulpit not for anyone in the congregation to see, but for the preacher to see. It's meant to be a reminder to anyone who steps into a pulpit that we are called to speak in such a way that people can see Jesus. I think that's beautiful. That's the essence of all true Christian preaching. We have to speak in such a way that we enable people to see Jesus. We don't have those words engraved in our pulpit, but whenever I step up here, that is certainly what I'm thinking about. How do I speak in such a way that Jesus can be seen?
These Greeks want to see Jesus. Do they ever get a private audience with him? We don't know. John doesn't tell us, but I tend to think not based on the way in which Jesus responds to this request. They're going to see Jesus all right, but not at all in the way that they expect. This is a very odd sort of moment. This massive throng has gathered around Jesus. They're greeting him as a king. It's a moment filled with enthusiasm, excitement, and energy. Even Greeks—foreigners—want an audience with Jesus. So Philip and Andrew come up to him, and they tell him about these people who want to see him. How does Jesus respond? He starts talking about a grain of wheat. They must have been so confused. Jesus, what are you talking about? A grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die? What is Jesus trying to do? These Greeks want to see a future king. They've heard the news about Jesus. They want to catch a glimpse of his glory. But Jesus proceeds to show that the path to glory is never straight. You can't draw a straight line from religious enthusiasm or intellectual curiosity to God and his glory. No, the path to God's glory is marked by radical discontinuity. That path is always broken up by death. So Jesus proceeds to explain that truth.
Previously, people had tried to make Jesus king in the Gospel of John, and he refused because the time had not yet come. But now in v.23, he reveals that the hour has finally arrived. He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” He's going to enter into his glory now, but not in the way that they think. He goes on to offer this strange, cryptic little parable. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; [it remains a single seed] but if it dies, it bears much fruit. We usually assume that death is always a defeat. There is no good that ever comes out of death. Death is always a defeat. But that's not always the case. There are a number of examples that we could draw from the natural world in order to prove that point. Jesus says that the seed, the grain of wheat, has to die. It must be buried in the ground or else it won't amount to anything. Nothing will ever come of it. But death is actually the precondition for a fruitful life. The seed's seeming demise is actually the key to its flourishing. The seed's seeming death is the key to its blessing.
As for the seeds, so for Jesus, what at first looks like perfect proof against Jesus’ claim to be God—namely, the fact that Jesus is executed in a way that is reserved for only the worst offenders—what at first appears to be perfect proof against Jesus claimed to be God, in the end turns out to be the strongest argument for God's unbounding love. It's only through death, that the new life that Jesus seeks to bring about will be unleashed. What at first looks like nothing more than a senseless tragedy, is in fact, the triumph of God's love.
Do you see what Jesus is trying to say here? These Greeks want to catch sight of a king. They want to see Jesus in his glory. But Jesus answers them by saying, If I were to leave the path that I'm on right now, and avoid the way of the cross, then I would be nothing more than a single seed—a single grain of wheat that perhaps you might hold in your hand or put in your pocket. I might be nice to look at, but if you don't bury me in the ground, I'm never going to be able to save you, or them, or anyone else. It's only if I go to the way of the cross. It's only if I die that I unleash God's new life in the world. That's why he'll go on to say in v.32, “And I, when I am lifted up”—literally the word he uses is "hoisted up"—when I am hoisted up, then and only then will I be able to draw all people to myself. John goes on to explain that by saying those words, Jesus indicated precisely what kind of death he was going to die. It's only as he is hoisted up on the cross, that he will draw all people to himself.
In the midst of the excitement of that original Palm Sunday, no one would have thought that that's the way that the week would end—that Jesus would end the week hoisted up on a cross. But death is the only way for Jesus to reproduce and multiply that new life that only God can bring. Here's the point. If you want to see God, in all of his glory, then you have to see him on his cross. Death is the way to life. The cross always comes before the crown. Suffering is the prelude to glory. Some things have to die before they can ever truly live. We've seen that even within our own church. If you know anything about the history of this church, you know that this church had to die before it could experience new life. Resurrection only comes after death. That's true for Jesus, but it's also true for us.
Jesus’ Radical Call
That's what brings me to my third point. There's no straight shot to glory for Jesus or for us. He takes this truth about himself, and he makes it a truth about us, too. No sooner does he reveal this path that he must take to the cross when he issues this radical call to all would be disciples. He says, beginning with v.25, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”
Through this radical call, Jesus has something to say about self, something to say about service, and something to say about suffering. First of all, Jesus has something to say about self. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” As we previously discussed, that's a Biblical idiom. Jesus isn't literally telling us to hate ourselves. But what is he telling us? He's telling us that we have to die to self, we have to die to pride, we have to die to our egos. We have to hate that aspect of ourselves that is dominated by sin. We have to turn from the idolatry of self centeredness. The early church theologian Augustine paraphrased Jesus' words here. He said that if you want to keep your soul safe forever, you have to hate it for a time.
Jesus isn't just telling us something about the self, he's also telling us something about service. “If anyone serves me, he must follow me.” If you're going to serve Jesus, you must follow him down the path that he takes—the path towards the cross and death. So what does that mean? You're not Jesus. He's not telling you to die for the sins of humanity—only Jesus can do that. But in a derivative way, what is he calling you to? He's calling you to sacrificial service. There is no Christ without the cross, and there are no Christians without crosses either. There is meant to be a cross shaped pattern to all of our lives if we claim to be a follower of Jesus. What does that look like in practice? It means that we need to die to our ego and to our obsession with self-preservation and self-advancement. In other words, if you're going to be a follower of Jesus, a follower of Jesus disadvantages oneself in order to advantage others. You disadvantage yourself in order to advantage others. What does that look like?
Think about money. Most of us use our money for the self: to meet our own needs, our own desires, our own wants, our own pleasures. But you can also give it away in radical proportions in order to meet the needs of those around you. That's what our Financial Assistance Fund is all about. That's why we take up this special collection every year during Palm Sunday. People within this community give in radical ways in order to meet the real needs of others, to help cover the cost of counseling, or groceries, or housing emergencies, or medical bills. Why do we do that? Because we want to be able to say, like the early church, that the people within our community have given according to their ability and even beyond their means, so that we can honestly say there is not a needy person among us. Mother Teresa was once asked, “How much are we supposed to give?” If our financial giving is meant to be sacrificial, then she came up with this rule of thumb, which was: Give until it hurts. I love that. If you have only got two pennies to rub together, then anything you give is going to be a massive sacrifice. On the other hand, if you're giving away big numbers and yet you're still not feeling the pinch—it doesn't hurt, it's not actually affecting your lifestyle in any way—then you've probably got to give more. Give until it hurts.
We can think about money, but we can also think about time. For many of us time is our most precious commodity, even more so than money. But the same rules apply. You can spend all your time on yourself or on your family (which is in a way nothing more than an extension of yourself), or you can give your time away. You can disadvantage yourself, your own comfort, your own ambitions, in order to advantage another. You could volunteer with our new tutoring initiative for elementary-aged children to help close some of the racial gaps which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. You could volunteer to visit the seniors in our congregation who are stuck in their apartments and need simply someone to talk to or to pray with. Or you could become a family friend with our ministry partners, Safe Families for Children. How will you use your time—for yourself or for others?
Think about influence. Some people say that you can divide the world between the powerful and the powerless. But I actually don't think it works that way because every single one of us has some power within our various spheres of influence. The only question is, how will we use the influence that we have been given? Will we use it to advance our own interests or the interests of our party, or our tribe, or our nation? Or will you use your influence to help open doors, to make connections, to offer an introduction? We can radically change the direction of a person's life if we were only willing to tap into our relationships, our resources, our influence for the benefit of others. Look, out there in the world, power is used in order to protect and promote the self, but that's not the way it works within the kingdom of God. No, within the kingdom of God, people use the power and the privilege they have not for self, but for service. Jesus has something to say about sacrificial service, if you're going to follow him down the path that he takes then we follow him in service.
Finally, he also has something to say about suffering. I wonder if you knew that the epigraph to the beginning of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, is taken right out of this passage. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov is John 12:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Why did Dostoevsky put that at the very beginning of his novel? If you remember anything from high school English, authors use epigraphs in order to clue us in to what the book is all about. It provides us with a hint about the book’s major themes. So what is Dostoevsky trying to say? It turns out that the hero of the story, Alyosha, has a mentor, a Russian Orthodox monk named Father Zosima. At one point in the story, Father Zosima quotes John 12:24. Zosima knows that it’s true, that suffering can often cause us to reject belief in God. We understand why. Perhaps you felt this way. Maybe you feel this way right now. "I could never believe in an all loving, all powerful God, in light of all the senseless suffering that I see in the world." But the message of Christianity is that God is, in fact, so loving and so powerful that he can bring good out of even the worst suffering. If you don't believe that, look at the cross. Look at the cross of Jesus. If you had been there that day, what would you have thought? If you had seen Jesus tortured, beaten, and hoisted up on a cross, you would have thought, what a waste. What a waste of a beautiful young life. What possible good could have come out of such a senseless, pointless suffering? Yet God in his providence is able to transform the cross, a vehicle of death and destruction for Jesus, into the vehicle of life and salvation for us. If God can do that with the hideous cross, there's no telling what he can do in and through you, despite the suffering that you might experience in life.
Rather than being an argument against God, suffering might actually be an argument for God. If you're suffering right now as Jesus did then it means that glory is on the way. It means that suffering is just the prelude to glory. The path to glory is never straight. It is always broken up by death. Some things have to die before they can ever truly live. Some things have to die in you before you can ever truly live. For that reason, when you suffer rather than being a sign of God's absence, a sign that he has abandoned you, suffering could be the sign that he is more present in your life than ever before. Suffering doesn't have to break your faith. Suffering can, in fact, build it. That's what Father Zosima wants Alyosha to understand. Suffering can cause us to reject God, but suffering can also be that seed that bears an even greater fruit of a robust faith. Why is that? Because through suffering, we lose our pride. Through suffering, we lose our ego. Suffering humbles us, and in our humility, we learn to empathize with our fellow human beings because we know that we're no better. We are not superior to anyone else. Suffering teaches us how to love and be loved, and through that suffering, we're connected to the mystery of God's unconditional love for his people.
Jesus has something to say about self. He has something to say about service. And he has something to say about suffering. But I'm not going to lie to you. This is really hard. Think about what Jesus is calling us to do. This call is radical. He's telling us that, like a seed, we must fall and die. We must hate our life. We must follow Jesus. We must serve him. How can we possibly respond to this radical call? Only if we hear his even more radical promises. Do you hear the promises that are attached to each of those challenging words? Yes, he says, that we have to fall and die like that seed buried in the ground, but if so we’ll bear much fruit. Yes, we're called to hate our life in this world, but if we do, we'll keep it for eternal life. We must follow him, but if we follow Jesus towards the cross, then he promises that he will be there with us. Then he assures us if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. You want honor? You want glory? This is how you find it.
Jesus said a servant is not greater than his master. It's enough for the servant to be like his master. If you want to follow Jesus, if you want to be like him, then look at the path that he took. When is it that Jesus enters into his glory? When does he experience the honor of the Father? In John's telling, Jesus enters into his glory, not when he sits on a golden throne, but rather when he hangs on a wooden cross. As for Jesus, so for us. Death is the way to life. The cross always comes before the crown. Suffering is the way to glory. If you're suffering now, if you're being crushed by the weight of the world, don't be afraid. All that means is that God's glory is on the way.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we thank you for this subversive entrance into Jerusalem, where Jesus rides in not on a war horse, but a donkey. We thank you for this unexpected parable that shows us that the path to glory is never straight. It's always broken up by death, and that some things have to die in us, and in our world, before we can truly live. Help us to follow you along this path of dying to self, of pursuing sacrificial service, and seeing the hope even in the midst of our suffering, so that we might respond to this call, this call to follow you in radical ways, because of your even more radical promises. We ask this in the strong and powerful name of Jesus. Amen.