Again & Again, We are Transformed

Sunday, March 17, 2024
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

John 12:20-33


Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and Jesus Christ who is lifted up so that all people may be drawn to him. Amen.

Let me begin with an assertion this morning…The church is what it is today because billions of people – like the Greeks in the gospel reading this morning – said at some point in their lives, “We wish to see Jesus.”

Maybe you had an experience like this when you were young and at a camp or retreat, or you went through a trial in life that tested you to the core that caused you to seek Jesus, or there was a time in your life where you felt an emptiness deep inside – even if everything on the outside seemed just fine. It may also be that Jesus has been so close to you all your life, that you don’t even realize you’ve said this or felt this before, it’s just always been there.

When this feeling or desire bubbles up in us, whether we’ve had faith for a long time, or we’ve felt on the margins of faith our whole lives, it’s something to pay attention to because Jesus is being lifted up in your life.

In John’s gospel, seeing is believing and believing is seeing. “Sir, we wish to see, to believe in Jesus”, the Greeks tell Andrew and Philip. “We want to know Jesus and keep knowing him.” To see Jesus is to be open to being changed or transformed by him again and again, as we walk the path of faith.

We don’t know who exactly these Greeks are in the Gospel. But John drops some clues throughout the gospel as to why they may have shown up at this Jewish festival worship of Passover.

In the very first verse of John it says, “He (Jesus) came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to ALL who received him, who believed I his name he gave POWER to be CHILDREN OF GOD.”

Just last week, we heard Jesus say, “For, God so loves THE WORLD, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

In other parts of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the light of THE WORLD.” These Greek visitors remind us that Jesus’ appeal is wide, and his embrace is broad enough for the whole WORLD to see him, to know him, to want to believe in him. It reminds us that Jesus is lifted up so the world will be transformed.

Several years ago, I was about to start worship one Sunday and I noticed a family sitting right in the middle of the center section of the sanctuary. I noticed them first because they appeared to be from India and the church didn’t have any South Asians that I could think of. After worship, I went and introduced myself. They told me they were neighbors to the Burns’ family, who attended the church. The Burnses had invited them to worship several times. Often, the family declined. They were Hindu, so worship in a Christian church might have seemed an unlikely place for them to go.  But earlier that week the mother, Sri, came over to the Burns and asked if they could worship with them that weekend. She recognized the kindness and generosity they had shown her family and was curious about their Christian faith. In essence, she was saying, “We wish to see Jesus.”

Raj, Sri, and their two boys came to worship week after week. Soon their oldest boy, Avi, a 5th grader at the time, would stop me after worship and ask big questions about Jesus and God and why we were doing what we were doing in worship. He started to read the Bible the church gave him and came with more quesitons. He wished to see Jesus, too. His questions and budding faith encouraged me to see Jesus differently. I had to think about faith and God in ways I hadn’t because Lutheran Christian faith was all I had ever known. Raj and Sri’s family were changed by Jesus and the church, and their presence in the church changed all of us too.

You see, Jesus has come to change us, and to change the world. He will be lifted up on the cross to show the world that there is life in death, and resurrection is always possible.

It is difficult to shed old notions of how the world works. But, we cannot see Jesus is lifted up if we are convinced that there has to be winners and losers in this world. We cannot believe Jesus is lifted up if we hate or refuse to understand those who are different from us. We cannot see Jesus lifted up if we are not willing to walk with those who need to be lifted up the most. We cannot see Jesus lifted up if we are not willing to be like that seed Jesus talks about and becomes – that must die and be buried, so that with him, we bear much fruit. Jesus is glorified in his death to become the Christ, whom God lifts up, not just so we as individuals can have eternal life, but so the world has new and eternal life.

You might have heard the story of Calvary Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis earlier this winter. They have been on the corner of 39th and Chicago for nearly 100 years. They’ve always been a church that sought to meet the spiritual and physical needs of their neighborhood. But like a lot of churches in urban areas, in the last 20 years, they were struggling to keep up.

Their big building had millions of dollars of deferred maintenance, their congregation membership was shrinking, and in 2020 their neighborhood had been rocked by the killing of George Floyd, just a block away from the church. By the world’s standards Calvary was losing and heading for defeat. They were short on options. They either had to be willing to be buried and die to what they knew so they could bear new fruit…or close.

They chose death so they could bear fruit. They knew that housing was a huge issue in the community. Many of the people who grew up in the neighborhood couldn’t afford to continue to live there, housing insecurity was a growing challenge for so many, and they knew that so many in the area were part of the collective trauma of the 2020 uprising. They saw an opportunity to help others find life again.

Last year, they sold their building to a non-profit housing developer – the whole building. The developer converted most of the building into apartments and built a new building on what was the church parking lot. The church building is now called Belfry Apartments and the company renovated the sanctuary and leased space to the church for worship and the food pantry Calvary has run for decades. The 41 apartments provide life and community for households who make 30% or less of metro median income, and 15 of the apartments are reserved for people coming out of homelessness or who are disabled. The people of Calvary saw Jesus lifted up and believed that only in dying to the ways the world judged them could they bear fruit and live.

When we see Jesus, we see him in all his glory. That when he is lifted up on the cross, when he is lifted up at the resurrection, and at his ascension, he will draw all people –  the whole WORLD – to himself. He shows us with his life that death is not the great separator, but the great unifier. When we see Jesus lifted up, we can’t help seeing God lift up the whole world out of darkness and decay, out of division and chaos, out of animosity and hatred, out of greed and power. These are the ways of the world Jesus hates and rejects and the world he tells his followers to reject as well, so that we may live. When Jesus is lifted up, this is the world he transforms, and we are transformed too. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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