Seeing Jesus

John 12:20-33


Sermon Seeing Jesus

Good morning. Today we celebrate the sacrament of baptism for Aiden John Cavaliere. Aiden is the third son of James and Laura Cavaliere. A couple years ago, I baptized his older brother, Cameron, and a couple years before that, Nancy Conklin baptized his oldest brother, Dominick.


Without a doubt, celebrating the sacrament of baptism is the single best part of ministry. It is always a happy and joyous event—for the family of the one being baptized, as well as the congregation. It’s a reminder to all of us that we are participating in God’s work in the world. Jesus instructs the disciples—and us—to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

In our Gospel lesson this morning, some Greeks approach the disciple Philip and tell him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The Greeks are Gentiles, outsiders; they’re not members of the congregation of Israel. This is really important. In our lesson last Sunday, we heard the very familiar words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” That is the entirety of the created world, not just God’s chosen people, but everyone. The Greeks in today’s reading represent the rest of the world that God so loves.[1]


They’re not asking for proof of Jesus’ divinity. They’re not asking for a deep theological discussion, or a clever sermon. They just want to see. They’re not Jews, but they’re aware of Jesus; they know something special is going on. According to one scholar:

The request of the Greeks is critical for our time. They ask to see. They don’t request proof. They don’t ask for an argument. They don’t need an apologetic. They just want to see. They get what “come and see” is all about—an invitation to be. An invitation to abide. An invitation to relationship.[2]

“An invitation to be.” I love that description. The Gospel of John is the gospel of relationship. Those Greeks are outsiders, foreigners, but they understand that they don’t have to be anything other than who they are to experience relationship with Jesus. We’re not always so good at doing relationship without imposing conditions.

In 2019, we celebrated the sacrament of baptism for eight different children, including Cameron Cavaliere. It was an amazing year! That year, we also added nine new adult members. It felt like this congregation was turning a corner. I was so hopeful for 2020.

Yeah. 2020.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all bad. We had a couple baptisms. We learned some new ways to worship. We found ways to remain connected to one another, even when we weren’t worshiping in person. And I know more than one elder who prefers to have Session meetings over Zoom. That’s true. I’m not making it up.

Yes, one way of looking at our situation is to say that we made a lot of lemonade last year. We harvested a lot of lemons, but we made something good out of it. We survived in spite of the obstacles. We overcame a number of technical challenges and we have on online presence for worship, which we never had before. We can look at this as making something good out of something bad. But I’d like to propose a different way of looking at things.


In 2020, the First Presbyterian Church of Freehold died.

That’s right. This church died.


We died to our old self and we’re in the process of being reborn. And that is the essence of the Christian story.


Our reading today from the Gospel of John anticipates Jesus’ death and resurrection. In verses 24-26, Jesus says:


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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.


Jesus’ death will bear fruit. More than that, these verses suggest that the disciples will continue to bear fruit, continue to fulfill Jesus’ mission in the world, and even do greater deeds in Jesus’ name.[3]


This is a story about discipleship. And like the grains of wheat, the disciples must be planted in the ground; they must die to the lives they knew. This path began when the disciples walked away from the lives they knew to follow Jesus. But following Jesus is not enough because Jesus is going to die. So, the disciples have to abandon their identities as disciples, so that they can live into their calling to be apostles, so that they can build the Church and make more disciples.


If we are going to live into that call to be disciples—and even apostles—then we have to embrace the pattern of death and renewal. We have to let go of idols and practices that keep us stuck in the past. And I’m glad to say that you folks are pretty good at letting go of some old practices, especially around baptism.


I noticed this in 2019. About half of the children whom we baptized in 2019 were born to active members of this congregation. And all of the parents and grandparents of those children joined in 2019. I’m talking about Carol Morris and her granddaughter April. I’m talking about Melanie Bitette and her sons Lucas and Logan. I’m talking about Sean and Lauren Flanagan and their daughter Emma.


None of them were officially on our membership rolls on January 1, 2019. Yet our Session approved all of their baptismal requests, as well as those of other parents who weren’t members. I was pleasantly surprised by this. There was a time when most Presbyterian churches would have restricted the sacrament of baptism to the children of members.


I thanked the Session and told them that I was pleasantly surprised.


Barry Fitz said something to the effect of, “Jesus didn’t tell us to make disciples and baptize only the children of members, he told us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I don’t remember Jesus saying anything about membership. If that’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”


I am thrilled that we have a Session that is focused on this most basic of instructions: Make disciples, baptize and teach. It’s refreshing that we’re not fighting old battles of doctrine or denomination. We have to stop erecting unnecessary barriers.


I’d guess that about half of the kids in my generation were raised outside of the church. That number goes down with each succeeding generation. The people who were raised outside of the church don’t speak our language and they certainly don’t understand our doctrine. When people come to us, we have to greet them with love, not rules. Our first response must always be Christ’s love.


We can still have rules, but those rules have to be based in God’s love for all of humanity. And we can explain our rules after we have entered into relationship with people who have sought us.


We welcomed five new members at Easter, 2019. Scott Fox was one of those new members. Scott had been worshiping here occasionally over the years, while his wife, Robin, had been a member for many years. When I approached Scott about becoming a formal member of this congregation, his first question was, “I don’t have to take no test, do I?”


The Book of Order states that persons “may enter into active church membership” by a public profession of faith, “made after careful examination by the session in the meaning and responsibilities of membership” (G-1.0303). This doesn’t spell out the contents of a public profession of faith, nor does it define the content of a “careful examination” by the session. This means that we have a lot of flexibility in how practice love and relationship, while living into our doctrine and principles at the same time.


That’s how we have to greet the people who come to us. That’s also how we have to treat the people outside of our walls—and we need to go out and find them and show Jesus to them. I’m not asking you to raise Lazarus from the dead or heal lepers; I don’t have those powers, either. The power that we all have is the power of relationship. Relationship is the antidote to so many of the hurts in our world, including the hurts that have been inflicted by our churches.


We don’t practice relationship because we seek new members for this congregation. We practice relationship because we’ve seen and experienced Jesus, because we’ve felt the love of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit. We practice relationship because that is how we are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ—in relationships with all of our neighbors, those who are members of this congregation and those who are outside our walls.


I do believe that if we live into this calling more fully, the new relationships we form will bear fruit, and some of that fruit will surely be more people in the pews. We need to meet people where they are, build relationships, and then invite them into the places where we experience and share the love of God.


Certainly, that means we all need to invite people to come to church. It also means that we need to be actively engaged in doing the work of the Church: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners, welcoming the strangers, the outsiders, and the foreigners. And I know that many of you are already busy doing these things. That’s great! But if you’re already doing these things, that doesn’t get you off the hook! If you’re busy doing these things, invite some of your friends from church to join you in this work. Or better yet, invite some of your friends who don’t come to church to join you. Then build a relationship around the work that you share. Relationship is the method for making disciples. We are charged with going out into the world and making disciples. If we live into that responsibility, we will continue to live and thrive as a congregation. Thanks be to God. Amen!


Benediction

Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember to greet all people with the love of Christ. Then go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Karoline Lewis, “Seeing Jesus,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5114 [2] Lewis, “Seeing Jesus.” [3] Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), pp. 170-171.


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