Follow Jesus in Service

“Follow Jesus in Service”

John 12-26 serves, follow me

John 12:20-33 (12:26) – March 18, 2018

Following a leader can be a challenge. People follow all kinds of leaders, leaders in serious and not-so serious areas. People flock after leaders and trend-setters in fashion, certainly, purchasing the latest styles or shoes, or the newest fabrics and colors of the season. People follow charismatic leaders who convince their followers to diet or exercise or vote or meditate or do some other worthy cause.

But, what about here? What about now, in today’s Gospel reading from John? Our Lord Jesus says some pretty amazing things. Jesus wants us to follow Him with our actions. (Just as He said in weeks past. We are to follow Jesus.)

Let us take a step back. Where are we in the Gospel of John? The chapter before, chapter 11, concerns the raising of Lazarus in the town of Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Immediately after that comes the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. We know that well from our celebration next week, on Palm Sunday. This reading from John 12 comes right after that.

Remember, Jerusalem is jam-packed with observant Jews from all over the known world, coming to worship at this special time of Passover. Not only from all over Palestine, but from Egypt, parts of Asia, and Europe. Maybe even further away than that. Some Greek-speaking Jews who must have heard about this Rabbi Jesus want to see Jesus and talk with Him. Perhaps, they even would like to consider following Him.

This is exactly what Jesus has wanted from people all along. At the very beginning of His preaching and teaching ministry, Jesus said, “Follow Me!” At various times throughout His journey up and down the country, and as He turned His face toward Jerusalem, Jesus repeated His call to follow. “Follow Me!” And, during this final week, this Passion week, just days before He went to the Cross, Jesus again says “Follow Me!” But, follow, how? In what way?

John calls these people “Greeks,” but he is not specific. They could be Greek proselytes, or they could be Greek-speaking Jews from far away. Whichever it was, they were more comfortable speaking Greek, which was the international language of trade and commerce, and the dominant international culture of the time. As one of my commentators said, “These foreigners wanted to investigate the possibility of becoming disciples. They had heard about Jesus (i.e., His reputation or ‘glory’) and wanted to ‘see’ if they could follow Him.” [1]

When the disciples bring these Greeks to Jesus, He responds with what seems to be an analogy, only sort of connected to becoming disciples. Listen to Jesus’s words: “23 Jesus answered the disciples, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to receive great glory. 24 I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains. 25 Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal.”

Come on now, Jesus! How did Jesus get from becoming disciples to talking about grains of wheat? And then, wheat being planted and dying in the ground? Okay, I can see what Jesus meant about a single grain growing into one stalk of wheat which can produce many grains of wheat. But, does that really connect to becoming disciples?

My commentator Larry Broding is helpful here. “Those who gave their lives to others would die, but see others live and would enjoy eternal life. They would bear ‘much fruit.’ Notice those who gave up their lives unselfishly followed Jesus to his death.” [2] That is one way of seeing discipleship. Following Jesus, in a challenging, unselfish and giving way.

What a way to demonstrate becoming disciples of Jesus!

Sometimes you and I have a problem. Sometimes, we cannot accept what Jesus sets in front of us. Sometimes, we are unwilling to follow the guidelines and rules God places before us. On occasion, some of us are too stubborn to do what God wants us to do. Even though we might know what God wants, and how to follow, sometimes—we do not.

The Rev. Janet Hunt relates something that happened about a month ago at her Lutheran church in De Kalb. Let’s see whether this helps us to understand Jesus’s words better.

“A few weeks back [in February], 93-year-old Vivian suffered a brain bleed. The damage was great and irreparable and her family opted to bring her home on hospice care. For the next almost two weeks, her 94-year-old husband sat by her bed, held her hand, and prayed and prayed and prayed. He was utterly heartbroken. From the start, I knew that they were just shy of their 70th wedding anniversary. Over the course of the last few weeks, I learned that they had been together much longer than that. For Bob actually held Vivian’s hand as he walked her to kindergarten 88 years ago.

“As the vigil neared its end, Bob became ill as well and was taken to the hospital with a severe case of pneumonia. A day later, his family talked his doctor into letting him go home, for they knew he had to be there when she died. And so he was. A day later he was back in the hospital once more. And a day after that, with a full heart and clear eyes, he declined all invasive treatment. He told me he was tired. He told me he only wanted to go to Vivian. I will not ever forget standing with him and with his family, praying for their hope and trust in God. His eyes were open and comprehending the whole time. Moments later, his nurse turned down the oxygen. After saying good-bye to his children, a few hours later he died, three days after his wife had breathed her last.

“Yes, he was 94. And yes, his health had been poor for some time. And no, he could not imagine a life without his beloved Vivian. And so, in a world where our medical system is set up to sustain ‘life’ at all costs, Bob faced it down and chose something other, something more. I cannot help but believe that while he surely did it for himself, he also did it for her. For while there was nothing more he could do for her, nor nothing more he needed to do for her, Bob was imagining heaven as a place where he could still be and do for his beloved. Even as he had always done. And he was willing to die to be able to do just that.” [3]

Do you understand? Do you see? Jesus was willing to serve and to die, for each of us. He wants us to be ready to serve and to die, for each other.

That is where our reading from Jeremiah comes in. God doesn’t have the rule book on stone tablets any more, like the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain top. No, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the Lord will write God’s laws upon our hearts. We do not have to blindly follow rules, but instead enter into a relationship. A real, loving relationship with Someone who loves us more than anyone on earth possibly could. God writes guidelines of love, service and relationship inside each of us, on our hearts.

God loves us so much that God sent the man Jesus into this world, to communicate that wondrous love to humanity. Jesus is communicating that wondrous love and generous service to each of us, today.

Are you ready to follow Jesus? Let us follow Jesus in love, and follow Jesus in service. Who can you serve today?

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/b/5Lent-b/A-5Lent-b.html   “The Glory of the Cross,” Lent 5B, Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Catholic Resource for This Sunday’s Gospel.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/a-single-grain-dying-for-the-sake-of-life/ Rev. Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Hospitality + Service = Discipleship!

“Hospitality + Service = Discipleship!“

Deacons Greek Jews Acts 6

Acts 6:1-7 – July 5, 2015

I attended an Interfaith Panel discussion last Tuesday evening at the Muslim Community Center here in Morton Grove. The panel had representatives from five major faith traditions here in the Chicago area: Baha’i, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh. Each gave their religion’s basic approach to serving those in need. Charity. Service to those less fortunate than ourselves. I appreciated listening to diverse views on charity and assisting the needy.

I want us to focus on the New Testament reading from Acts on—surprise! Charity and assisting the needy! My recent evening with the Interfaith panel has an unexpected tie-in to the bible passage from Acts this morning. I planned and set out these passages and these sermon topics almost two months ago, before I was ever contacted by the Interfaith Outreach Committee at the Community Center. Was I surprised to find out that the topic of last Tuesday’s evening fit right in with today’s reading from Acts—and today’s sermon.

What is the situation for the group of believers in the Risen Jesus? The early church?

Let’s turn back to the beginning of Acts 6, and take a look at this particular Postcard from the Early Church. The first sentence of the chapter tells us a lot: “In those days, the number of disciples was increasing.”

That’s the situation. Everything seems to be going well for this growing group of believers! Attendance in services is up. Plate income is increasing. The apostles—the pastors of this growing flock—are busier than ever. Everything is on the upswing. When—a complication comes up.

I need to give you all some backstory, so you can get the full picture. (I appreciate the Rev. Bryan Findlayson’s concise explanation.) At this point, just a couple of months after that first Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, all the believers were Jewish. Jerusalem was a large city in that area. It was the time of the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, and Jews from all over the known world returned to the city of Jerusalem and settled there.

As Rev. Findlayson mentions, “The Jewish world was divided between Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine [Hebrews—home grown], and Greek-speaking Jews from the dispersion [or Hellenists—who had grown up outside Palestine]. Racial tension, often focused on religious purity, existed in the wider Jewish community and found its way into the New Testament church. [The tension] revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. The [Greek-speaking Jews] claimed that their widows were not getting a fair share of the church’s welfare budget.”

Do you hear the problem? Two separate groups of people in the early Church, and one group—a minority group, no less—claimed they were being overlooked. Discriminated against. Or, rather, that their poverty-stricken widows, who were part of the group of believers, were being left out in the charity distribution. Welfare budget. Or almsgiving to the poor. Whatever you call it, a group of people was getting left out.

I don’t think that anyone was left out on purpose. What I do know—by Dr. Luke’s report—is that the Church in Jerusalem was growing by leaps and bounds! This is a good problem to have! In a large group of people going through such rapid growth, unfortunate things happen. And, it’s inevitable that someone ends up getting overlooked. Some people’s needs just aren’t met.

What happens next? This is the perfect situation for a church-splitting conflict. Hospitality was huge in the Middle East, as well as in other areas throughout the world. Of course people opened their homes to friends and acquaintances, even strangers, invited them in, offered things to them of what they had. Listen to Chapter 6: “So the Twelve apostles gathered all the believers together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’”

These verses in Acts show us the first rumblings of church conflict. The Apostles could have gotten anxious and started to fret. Or, possibly started micro-managing and overseeing each little thing in the distribution of food. Or, called a board meeting, and appointed a task force to study and look further into the treatment of the Greek-speaking widows. But did they? No. The Apostles faced the conflict directly, and responded in a proactive way.

What about today? People have definitely not stopped being hungry. What about communication problems? What about the local food preferences? How should those be handled? What if several different faith traditions in our area have conflicting methods in the distribution of food? Are there any hungry or needy people—unintentionally—getting left out?

Let me tell you more about the panel discussion and dinner at the Muslim Community Center last week. I heard diverse views on charity and assisting the needy. Yet—they were not so diverse, after all. I saw in all five faith traditions a deep concern for those with less, and a desire to come alongside and help where possible. I also appreciated breaking bread with such a diverse group of friends, after the evening service.

Yes, Baha’i, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs do come from different faith traditions. Yes, the Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan. Yes, Muslims commonly fast every day during the daylight hours during this month. The Community Center invited a large group of people to join together with them for this discussion and for the Iftar dinner after sunset, to break the fast at the end of the day.

Back to Acts. True, these Aramaic-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Jews from the book of Acts were both of the same faith tradition. However, there were big cultural and language differences between them. So, what happened? How did they solve this problem? The Apostles had the whole group of believers choose seven upright, worthy individuals to be responsible for the distribution of food and goods to this minority group.

What I find the most interesting? The seven men all had Greek names. I suspect they all were Greek-speaking Jews, themselves! How awesome is that. The other believers showed great sensitivity in selecting seven servers, seven people who could oversee distributing of food. Seven men with Greek names. What’s more, one Greek man was even a proselyte, a convert to Judaism. Imagine that!

Paul Waddell, writing for the Center for Christian Ethics, tells us more about this calling, this service to the church: “Christian hospitality is a matter of welcoming, caring for, and befriending the stranger, the poor and needy, the homeless and destitute, the unloved and the unlikable, the weird and the strange, in gratitude to God and in imitation of Christ. For Christians, hospitality is not an occasional gesture but a whole way of being. It is not an interruption to our normal way of life but a habit, practice, or virtue that ought consistently to characterize our lives.”

Dr. Waddell asks: how do we become this kind of person/or these kinds of congregations in the Church and for the world today? Great question! We can start small, with a small act of kindness each day. A small act of hospitality, of welcome and greeting each day. Each one of us is called to be welcoming members of this church today. Each of us is an individual, true. However, Lone Ranger Christians are not a good idea. We need to support each other, be kind to each other, and support the wider community.

What about you? Are you going to be a welcoming person, both here at church, and at home, as well? No matter what the cultural differences, no matter where people come from, we are all called to be welcoming. Just as Jesus was kind and welcoming to all people, throughout the Gospels, we can all follow His excellent example. That’s what His disciples do, to the best of their ability, in the book of Acts. And, that’s what all of us can do, here in the church, and everywhere else, too!

Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)