Our Gospel reading for this morning begins and ends by anticipating the global spread of Christ’s message.
It begins with “some Greeks”—that is to say, non-Jews—expressing an interest in meeting Jesus. The presence of these Greeks—I say again, not Jews—in the holy city of the Jews for the Jewish festival of Passover is already surprising. And, to this point, Jesus has mostly confined his ministry to his own people, which makes their interest in meeting Him even more surprising. But these Greeks have heard about Jesus and the amazing things he does and says, and so they come looking for Him.
The Church Fathers see in this encounter an anticipation of the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles. They see these Greeks as representing a kind of first fruits of a truly global Christianity, a Christianity that includes all peoples. They see the presence of these Greeks as a hopeful sign of big things to come.
Our reading ends the same way. The last thing Jesus says is, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Hopeful words about the future.
For those of us who live far from the holy land and for those of us who are not Jewish, this is all really good news. Even before Christ’s death and resurrection, we were part of the plan. Jesus was looking ahead to our inclusion in God’s covenant people.
So far, this sounds like an Easter reading, a story of Christ’s victory and the triumph of the faith that bears his name. But we are hearing this Gospel reading on the last Sunday of Lent. In this season, on this day, as we look ahead to Palm Sunday next Sunday and the two long readings of the Passion story that we’ll hear that week, we might expect a more somber tone. And we get that, too.
In general, the fourth Gospel, more than the other three, focuses on Jesus’ divinity, His power and His glory. Only rarely in John’s Gospel do we see Jesus’ vulnerability, His struggles, His human weaknesses. But one of them is here. In the middle of this hopeful passage, in between verses looking ahead to Christ’s ultimate victory, Jesus acknowledges that his “soul is troubled.”
When we talked about this passage at our vestry meeting last Tuesday, Carol noted that it is “heavy.” She’s right. It is not easy to think of Jesus being troubled.
But in another way, it is not surprising. After all, when this story happens, Jesus is less than a week away from getting crucified, as he well knows, as he hints at the end of our passage. John tells us that Jesus said he would be lifted up from the earth “to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
What we have, then, in our Gospel reading is a picture of Jesus holding onto a vision of ultimate victory, of His coming triumph over sin and death, of the eventual global spread of His faith. And, at the same time, Jesus knows that the road to victory will be hard, that He will suffer terribly along the way, that trouble comes before triumph, that death comes before new life.
Those are big themes. And I don’t want to lose sight of their bigness. But I also want see what we can learn from our reading about our lives, about the patterns and rhythms we experience, even though we are not likely to be crucified or to save the world.
We, too, look forward in hope even in the midst of trouble.
Start with the coming change of seasons in the Christian year. As we come to the end of Lent, as we look forward to Holy Week, as we look forward especially to Easter morning, we get a little taste of the pattern we see in our Gospel. I look forward to a joyful Easter celebration. But we can’t celebrate Easter resurrection quite yet. We look forward in hope even while we continue the somber tone of Lent. No Halleluiahs for us! Not yet!
This year a big part of my Lent, thankfully not mine only, has been our technology upgrades. This process began with the pandemic, a year ago, when I and others first began livestreaming services. At first, we were truly flying by the seat of our pants.
It has been a little chaotic at points along the way. Some of the chaos has been obvious to anyone joining us online. You couldn’t see some of the other chaos unless you actually came into the sanctuary, but for the last few weeks we have had boxes, electronics, and cords everywhere.
We’re not entirely done. But we are close. I am happy to report that it once again looks like a Church in here. So on this too, we can look forward in hope even if we have more work to do before we get to where we want to be.
But the big issue right now is the pandemic. We are not out of the pandemic woods. But there are lots of reasons for hope. Vaccinations have now passed the 100 million mark. Children are returning to school.
And, this is a big one for me even if it is not likely to make national news, we are about ready to start gathering as a congregation again. For the next two Sundays, for Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, our 9:00 service will be back in the parking lot. We can worship together as a congregation once again. And after Easter, we’ll start worshipping in person inside our building for the first time in more than a year.
That won’t be the end of the pandemic for us, of course. We’ll continue to follow the recommended restrictions like maintaining social distance and wearing masks for as long as we have to in order to stay safe. But our return to congregational worship is cause for optimism about the future. Troubles continue. And we look forward in hope to a better day.
But there is more, much more, to say about Christian hope that any of that. I look forward to the end of Lent and the coming of Easter. I really look forward to the completion, however provisional it may be, of our technology project. I really, REALLY, look forward to the end of the pandemic.
But our Gospel reading reminds us that Christian hope is still bigger, much bigger. Jesus was facing a brutal death in just a few days. And Jesus looked forward in confidence and hope to resurrection, to the global spread of the Church, to the coming of God’s kingdom. That hope didn’t mean Jesus was untroubled by what He was going through. But that hope sustained Jesus in his troubles.
And that is the big lesson here. We have our troubles now, and we look forward in hope to a day when at least some of them will be behind us. But as long as we are in this world, we’ll continue to experience troubles of one sort or another. Some of the troubles we experience may be horrible.
But always, Christ is with us. And always we can look forward in hope to the day when we will experience in full Christ’s victory over death, when we will experience in full God’s kingdom of justice and peace and love.
And so, on this last Sunday of Lent, I give thanks to God who blesses and sustains us with Christian hope, no matter what troubles we may experience along the way.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan