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The Way to Follow

Updated: Mar 21


a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens

Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.

March 17, 2024

John 12:20-33 NRSV

20 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.

Hey God, it’s Bruce. No, not Springsteen, come on God you’re supposed to know every hair on my head.   Yeah, I know there’s fewer than there used to be, thanks.  Wait a minute, I have a question.  Jesus, you know the one you sent, is always talking about His way and His way is a cross and His way is to die.  I’ve been saying you are our GPS.  Can I get you to do a “recalculating” on that? 


What bad news?  There’s no recalculating?  Life means death?  There is no other way?  But, hey, what about resurrection?


Say what?  The way to that is a cross and death?  Oh.  Uh, can I get a different opinion?  No, I don’t necessarily mean a different God…


I’m not really trying to be a comedian here, but this is the problem with this passage.  This one and all the other “follow my way to the cross and to death” Scriptures.  It’s kinda grim.  I mean who’s signing up for that way of life?  I can’t sell that plan.  That’s no way to attract more members.  I have to “spiritualize” that to make anyone want to go along with that, God.

As I have mentioned each time we talk about John’s Gospel, it takes a different approach from the other three.  There are things we can explain and things we can’t.  I don’t know who what those “Greeks” represented.  I assume they were Greek Jews come to the Passover Festival, but John does not tell us.  I do not know why Philip had to go to Andrew to go tell Jesus or what it means.  I do not know why this request was some kind of sign to Jesus that the time was now.  I do know that when Jesus said it was time to be “glorified” that was the way John’s Gospel always describes Jesus’ crucifixion.  In John’s Gospel Jesus is almost never in doubt, and almost never weak.  In John’s eyes, Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s definition of “glory.” It seems God has a different definition of glory than we do, huh?

So here’s the problem I have with much of American Christianity.  It spiritualizes, personalizes, and reduces Jesus life and message to “personal salvation.”  The problem with that is it is too thin.  It ignores that Jesus’ Jewish heritage, the Hebrew Scriptures almost always emphasized our connection to one another.  It almost always showed a God reminding people as individuals that they were in this together.  And it continually called God’s people to put the community, the neighbor first.  And Jesus’ message, and his life, were a demonstration of this.  It was a living parable.  It was the fulfillment of God’s message:  love one another as I have loved you.  And the point of that love was more than saving souls from their personal sin.  That was part, but God knows we live in a world where the systems that control our lives can be unjust and sinful.

I was sent an article by a critic of “Progressive Theology.”  My response was its arguments characterized Progressive Theology to thinly and its fundamentalist, listeralist alternative is too thin.  What I mean by this is the writer argued that we don’t take sin seriously.  We say “I’m ok, you’re ok, just feel better and you won’t sin.”  I’ve never heard a Progressive Theologian say anything like that.  What we hear the Scripture teaching is that God cares about the whole community.  Scripture even teaches us to not only care about, but love and welcome the immigrant everyone wants to hate, the leper [ read AIDS sufferer here ], the person who understands their gender differently [ the Bible says you should welcome a eunuch who seeks to be faithful to God ].  We hear the Scripture calling for us to care about more than our own personal, private escape hatch to paradise, while we ignore the suffering of others.

Hence, when I hear Jesus call us to follow him, to die with him, I see him standing up to the powers of evil that cause whole communities to suffer.  And I see the political and religious and economic powers threatened.  And when threatened, power does everything in its power to eliminate the threat. 

We are getting down to brass tacks here.  This is the last Sunday in Lent.  Next Sunday is called Palm or Passion Sunday.  And Easter is the week after.  For some pastors this is a time to lean into the bloody, grim sermons about our sin, Jesus’ suffering and that the only answer is substitutionary atonement.  A lot of pastors just mutter about something to distract people and try to get to Easter to talk happy talk about resurrection.  I think that is both unfaithful and unhelpful.  Death is real.  Suffering is real.  We can choose to ignore it and focus on our own personal paradise, especially here, but if we look around, many are not living in paradise, even here.

Bob Cornwall, has written something much more faithful and helpful, I think [ Ponderings on a Faith Journey, 2015 ].  He says, “It is not that God has sent Jesus as a sacrificial victim, who is destined to serve as a substitute for punishment for human sin. There’s nothing of that here in John 12. But Jesus has come into the world to participate in a cosmic battle. He has come into the world to stand up to “The System.” He has come to face down the “ruler of this world,” but he chooses to do so through the vehicle of the cross. Jesus refuses to fight the battle on the terms dictated by the Ruler of this World (kosmos).

When he wrote these words it was the “fiftieth anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery, a march in which the evils of racism and segregation were clearly exposed to the world. It was the choice of nonviolence that enabled this to occur. The System seeks to bring order through violence. Jesus chooses to act through purposeful nonviolence, overturning the System. As we know, the conflict continues. The march goes on. But we also know that in the end, the Ruler[s] of the System will not prevail.”

The ancient civilizations worshipped gods who they assumed demanded sacrifices.  If we read the Hebrew Scriptures correctly we see that the God of the Hebrews did away with human sacrifices.  Then if we read the Abraham and Isaac story carefully we will understand that God did not want animal sacrifices either.  The Hebrew people continued to practice animal sacrifice into the time of Christ, but again, and again the prophets tell the people the sacrifice God demands is a changed heart and a spirit of commitment to God’s values, and God’s way.  Yes, a portion of Christan theology maintained a “sacrificial lamb” mindset.  That only means that was the one that overpowered the alternative understandings of the purpose of Christ’s cross.  An understanding that Christ was not sacrificed because of our sins is not new, nor is it apostate.  It was part of the earliest of Christian understandings, but it did not win in the battle for orthodoxy at the time.  Do I need to remind you there were at a dozen other “gospels” written at the same time as the four we have but they didn’t make it into the Bible?  Once decisions in the Christian movement were made based on power and privilege other thought and belief had to be excluded to maintain that power and privilege for the few.  Christianity became a “System” as powerful and ultimately more powerful than Caesar’s system.

Here's the good news.  God has a different system in mind.  Jesus came to demonstrate, to embody, to live out that system.  It was a system that turned all the values of the Ruling System upside down.  It was a system of loving our neighbor, even the weird, Samaritan, leper, eunuchy, liberal, conservative, rich, poor, Mexican, Cuban neighbor.  It was and is a system of dying to personal privilege with its false promises of “salvation.” Instead God’s way was living for serving, and loving every person and every part of creation because we are all connected by our Creator.  The sea, and the coral, the foreigner, and the old Conch.  These are all beloved by their Creator just like you and me.  And God doesn’t demand we be just like each other to be lovable.  Good news for weird people like me!

So, while our literalist siblings may continue to insist we are “out” we must continue to insist they are “in.”  They are in our circle of love and acceptance and grace.  The challenge of this is doesn’t guarantee us love in return.  The System doesn’t want us upsetting its boundaries, its limits.  And it can be deadly serious about stopping anyone who tries to challenge those limits.  Deadly serious.  Just ask Jesus.  But that was his way.  You and I may wish there had been another way, but that was his way.  He was determined to show the System couldn’t conquer the real, authentic love of God.  Even with a cross and death.  That’s good news, but we’ll get to that in a week or so.

But here’s a little more good news.  Jesus said,

“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.


I can’t GPS map to this.  I just trust it because that was His way.  The cross and death was the way to draw all people to him.  On this I will just take Jesus at his word and pray he will fulfill that promise.  I believe he will draw all people to himself in love and blessing.  That’s my prayer.  AMEN.

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