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Text: John 12: 20 – 33
We once again find the disciples acting as gatekeepers to Jesus. The Greek people go to Philip, who goes to Andrew, and then they go to Jesus. Jesus needs secretaries, personal assistants to make sure only the right people get into see him. I don’t know, maybe his schedule is too busy.
But we see this time and time again in the gospels, as the disciples make an effort to keep children, the Syro-Phonecian woman, lepers, and really anyone else except the “approved” from Jesus. Sometimes Jesus rebukes the disciples for this, sometimes he doesn’t, but what he always does is meet these people.
The notion that Jesus the Messiah is only for certain people, or certain groups of people, is a pernicious one. One that is found right at the beginning, and one that is found in the church today. Jesus is only for the pure, the already perfect, the correct. The Pharisees wonder why Jesus spends all his time with prostitutes and tax collectors instead of with them, if he’s so important. The disciples try to direct Jesus, as if they were his handlers—you know how celebrities get handlers who control them while in public so they don’t do something that destroys their public image? But Jesus, as usual, is having none of that.
We often find religious people today trying to gate-keep Jesus. My Facebook has been full of lamentation, from people who thought the Catholic Church was becoming more inclusive and progressive, on a recent statement from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith that says that while the church doesn’t hate gay people, the church cannot “bless sin” in blessing same-sex unions.
If you don’t know, Marriage in the Catholic Church is a sacrament, part of full participation in the life of the church: Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick are the seven sacraments. One of these isn’t open to women. Three of them aren’t for LGBTQ+ people, at least nominally. Technically two of them are exclusive; you can either get married or take holy orders, but there are in fact ways to be married and be a priest; it’s just very uncommon.
What I mean is, when the church closes off full participation in the life of the church to anyone, and says who can take communion, who can be a minister, who can get married; the church gatekeeps Jesus, just as the disciples are doing. This isn’t just the Catholic Church, by the way. I’ve been in plenty of United Churches where I’ve felt unwelcome. Someone has made a comment to me that they “don’t agree with my lifestyle.” I’ve been in United Churches where if a person who is homeless comes in, you can hear the people wondering in their heads, “What are they doing here?” I’ve been in United Churches where people of other races and ethnicities have said they felt unwelcome because of how subtly the white congregation would talk over them, ignore their voice, shut them down. Every time, it’s challenged my perception of the United Church as being the one church that doesn’t gate-keep Jesus, the one where everyone is welcome.
“We love you, we don’t hate you, we just don’t think you deserve equal rights,” is something every queer person is used to hearing. It’s something every black person, every indigenous person, is used to hearing from self-appointed “allies.”
“Jesus loves you, but the church doesn’t.” What does someone’s experience of Christ’s love even mean when the church, which is the body of Christ, the way that Christ is supposed to be living and working in the world today, doesn’t love with the same self-giving, unconditional, radically inclusive love that Jesus had?
Now, “Greeks” were not an oppressed minority in the Roman Empire. These Greek men and women were in Jerusalem to attend the Passover festival, so they had the money and privilege to travel. As tourists, or were they converts to Judaism? Either way, they have heard about this famous preacher who’s stirring up trouble, so they go to see him.
Jesus’ response to them seems a bit of a non sequitur. They ask no question, and he starts going off about his own death. What is he trying to teach them? What is he trying to teach us?
Jesus, the person of the Christ, was the ultimate expression of God’s solidarity with us as human beings. God became a human being. God didn’t become just any human being, but became a poor member of an oppressed race. Jesus’s death represents God embracing everything we think is “wrong” about us. For millennia, humans have been struggling philosophically with the fact that we are mortal, and we think that makes us defective; that’s the theme of the oldest work of literature that we know, The Epic of Gilgamesh.
In the Christian story, God pushes all those doubts about our own imperfection aside and embraces us as we are. God lives with us, as imperfect a human existence as there is. God dies with us, crying out in pain for his mother just as many men do. God is a criminal, a low-life, the scum.
So when Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies it bears new life,” that is God embracing, even blessing what we think is a failing. It misunderstands exactly what happens when a wheat grain germs and sprouts, yeah, but the metaphor is solid. For us, who are so afraid of death, who don’t like talking about it, who push it aside and use euphemisms like “passing on,” “gone to a better place,” etc., this is God being found in the place we are so afraid of.
So maybe what Jesus is doing is trying to give these Greek people who want to see him a crash course in what he is all about. But he is being inclusive, when Philip and Andrew try to restrict access to him, he instead is open about exactly who he is. Not only do these Greek men and women get to meet Jesus, they get to hear the voice of God directly, booming from heaven, just as the ancient Israelites did at Sinai. They get to have the closest encounter with God anyone could have.
As we have once again witnessed this past week a racist, misogynist attack that has killed poor women of colour, because they were or perceived to be sex workers, we the church need to be clear that God’s love is for everyone. Therefore, the church, which must become the temporal expression of God’s love if it is to have any purpose, is for everyone. Not just the well-behaved. Not just the “reformed.” Not just the “respectable.” Everyone. No matter how unworthy we think we are, no matter how unworthy anyone else thinks we are, we belong, we have a right to meet Jesus, face to face.