Have you ever had the experience that you think the preacher, somehow, wrote his or her sermon that week just for you? That the preacher, somehow, is preaching to you and only you?
Now, if that describes your relationship with my preaching, trust me when I say, I have no idea who you are. But I can relate. I have sat in church thinking that somehow, mystically, the preacher was preaching just to me.
That was my experience where I went to church prior to becoming a pastor. At Martha Bowman as I listened to Jay Harris preach Sunday after Sunday, I felt that, somehow, Jay was preaching only to me. And that’s a big church. This was before Jay knew me or even of me. And yet, I felt like the sermon was tailor made for me.
Most Sundays, I walked into church a skeptic, irritable that I had to be there. Dana liked the contemporary service and I put up with the music, going through the motions. But then Jay would preach and, Sunday after Sunday, I left either convicted in my soul or, more often, with a deeper awareness of how much God loved me and desired relationship with me.
Sunday after Sunday, as the sermon spoke directly to me, I encountered God and found my faith strengthened.
St. Anselm defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” This doctor of the church, living some thousand years ago, gives us a definition still in use today. When we speak of God, we do theology, for we are speaking of our thoughts about God. When we say that God is for us, and not against us, intellectually convinced it is so from sources like the Bible, we do theology: faith seeking understanding. When we speak of God as Trinity, we do theology; our faith seeking understanding.
I have heard children talk of God a a giant; that’s theology. I have heard adults think of Jesus as like their best friend, trying to wrap their mind around how Jesus loves them. That’s theology. That’s faith seeking understanding. I have seen the look of love in an infants eyes and in that look felt like I caught a glimpse of God. That’s theology; faith seeking understanding.
And that’s what the Greeks appear to be doing in our scripture this morning. They’ve come to visit Jesus, to gain understanding about this astounding man who’s gotten fame around the eastern Mediterranean.
So hear now John 12:20-33
Just prior to our scripture, Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. Around the water coolers of old, the workers and merchants of the area have spoken about this most miraculous of events. Some may have already had some notion of Jesus, but now he’s gained stardom. Out from minor fame; he’s now a major star.
And so, he rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. The people lavish him with their praise. They’re so excited for this Jesus character to be among them, to be with them, to be for them. At the docks, at the trading posts, the Greek merchants have overheard their Hebrew trading partners speak about this amazing person named Jesus who can raise the dead. And they hear that Jesus is visiting Jerusalem in the lead up to Passover. So they head out to see what this Jesus character is about and who he is. They suspect he’s divine, or at least closely related to the divine, in some way. But who is he really?
Now, we must ask ourselves, having heard the scripture: does Jesus tell them who he is? He speaks of wheat dying to give life to many more stalks, he speaks of hating your life to keep it, he speaks of judgment upon the world, and he speaks of his own death as one that will draw all people to himself. But does this answer the question? Does it provide understanding?
In my mind’s eye, I can see them scratching their heads, wondering about this Jesus character: Is he divine, or related to the divine? Does have have a new philosophy to teach us? Perhaps a new teaching? Maybe he’s the new Plato, or the new Aristotle? What do these various teachings about wheat and judgment mean? Do they tell us who Jesus is?
They’ve asked to see Jesus. We can surmise that they’re curious, that they’re wanting to know more, and that they’re willing to be convinced that Jesus is special, that Jesus has some sort of direct access to the divine, that, perhaps, Jesus is even a god himself. They’re willing to have their minds made up by Jesus.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to help them make up their minds. He seems to talk around their question, around their curiosity. Why would Jesus do that when he could convert this crowd and convince them that he is not only a god, he is The God; the incarnation of the one and true God of the universe?
A few verses after what we read this morning, we learn that the Greeks have walked away unconvinced. Even with hearing the voice of God, one they understand to be a divine utterance even if they mistake the words for thunder or angels speaking, they are unwilling to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of Man. John tells us that they simply leave, mostly unconvinced and unconverted.
The Greeks sought understanding and left without faith.
At Berry College, there’s a small log cabin chapel called Barnwell. It’s one of my favorite places in the world; one of those places where I feel a deeper connection to God simply by being there. I find my faith strengthened, my soul deepened, and my heart warmed. There’s something magical about being there.
And when I’m not there, I have music that can whisk me away to a place in my soul that feels like home. There’s something that happens when I listen to the music of the Taize community, or when I’m streaming the renaissance artist Palestrina in my office, or when I turn on some modern contemporary music I like, such as Bethel Music. I find a feeling of home on the seventh floor of the library at Emory, in the chapel where I went to seminary, and in the chair in the corner of my bedroom; all places that I have powerfully encountered God. There’s something that happens in those places, those spaces where I find the presence of God easier to access; a space that tunes my heart to sing thy praise, that lead me to my true home with Christ.
Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you can think of places, spaces, and acts that lead you home. It’s hard to describe, but we know the feeling when we’re there. We experience joy that supersedes our current circumstances, we know peace that passes understanding, we experience hope that defies our reality. Some of you tell me that’s at Camp Dooley where the Walk to Emmaus is held, some of you tell me it’s a part of your property, many of you tell me there are spaces in this church that hold that power. I hope that, over time, the Prayer Chapel begins to have that kind of power.
For these are ways that our souls get connected to God, finding their way home no matter what our life’s circumstances might be.
It’s there, in that space that’s almost indescribable, that feeling of home, where Jesus’s words in our scripture begin to make sense. When we’re home, we start to hate the ways we run the rat race, trying to get ahead. We start to hate the material things we desire, we begin to hate the feelings of bitterness and resentment we hold on to against people in our lives. For in that space, we encounter the love of God that transcends our current circumstances and points us toward truth: the truth that ambition means nothing if it’s not God’s ambition for our lives, that material things have no real value, and that we are called to maintain, as best we can, healthy and loving relationships with those in our lives.
It’s there, in those spaces and moments where we feel at home with Christ, that we can understand the need to die, like the wheat, to the self that life might be born abundantly, like the seeds that are scattered. That when we die to our desire to be rich, God blesses us with financial wisdom to give to others; that when we die to our desire for fame, such as to be a big fish in the small pond of Dodge County, God blesses us with humility that inspires; that when we die to our disappointments, grief, and guilt, we become sources of hope for those in our lives faced with their own disappointments, grief, and guilt.
It’s there, in those spaces and moments that feel like home, where we experience union with Christ, that we discover the power of faith.
St. Anselm said that theology is faith seeking understanding. The Greeks came to Jesus seeking understanding but unwilling to take on faith. For faith defies understanding, which is the power of Anselm’s statement. Philip Yancey, the modern Christian author, defined faith as “believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” That means trusting God before we understand, that means giving God our lives and our hopes and dreams and cares and concerns before we know how, exactly, God will take care of us. Understanding will come, but faith requires that we choose God, choose relationship with Christ, before we have that understanding.
For our task as Christians is not primarily to do theology. It’s not even my primary task as a pastor. Theology is important; it teaches us understandings that help provide guardrails to faith such that we don’t lose our way. And we need to understand God to grow.
But to understand theology, to know about God, is not to know God. To know God is to have found your way home. Our soul’s true home, the heart’s true home, is in loving relationship with God, which begins not in the intellect, but in the heart as we reach back to the offer of unconditional love given to us in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Jesus speaks to the Greeks in heart language, not head language. Jesus speaks to the Greeks in a way that says, “follow me first, and understanding will follow.” It’s like the old kids hymn: seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you, things like understanding.
For faith is an affair of the heart, not of the head. We find our sense of home, where we truly belong, in the love of Christ, not by intellectually acceding to it, not by convincing ourselves that it is real, but by believing that it’s possible, trusting our hearts and souls to guide us toward Christ.
For Anselm didn’t say that being a Christian, is understanding seeking faith. He in fact said the reverse, that faith seeks understanding, because Anselm knew that, for us to have understanding of who God is, we must first have faith in Christ: believing that Christ is who he says he is, that Christ is for us and not against us, that Christ died for us and for the world.
Faith comes before understanding and faith can never be understanding seeking faith. But I submit to you this morning that many Christians, and perhaps some of us, act in just this way. We’re like the Greeks in the crowd: we will not commit our lives to Christ, nor to his calling on our lives, until we understand. And I submit to you this morning, if that sounds like you, your life will be like the Greeks: walking away from Jesus, unable to comprehend.
For faith is not an affair of the intellect. No, the intellect aids faith by providing it with additional understandings after faith has already taken root in the heart and the soul.
I have quite a reputation as an intellectual; I always have. But even though I’m an intellectual, faith took root for me because I found my way home. Sunday after Sunday, Jay Harris preached to me; well, really, the Holy Spirit preached to me. Day after day, the Spirit opened up the doors for me to know what it was like to find my way home, to experience the power of being in loving relationship with Jesus Christ. In moments in my life, I have had what many of you describe as Emmaus experiences: moments where the reality of Christ’s love for me and the glory of God are so palpable, so real, that the rest of the world fades away and I am left as nothing other than the beloved of God.
That’s ultimately what Jesus’s message is about in the scripture: knowing the deep, deep, love of God for us because of the work God did through Christ for us. Jesus declares that through his death he will draw all people to himself. Paul talks about that as finding your way to your true home in the Kingdom of God rather than in the kingdoms of the earth. John Wesley talked about that as the image of God, the one we carry around with us because God created us in God’s own image, being restored such that we experience union with God. I think of it as finding my way to God’s heart, to my true home.
And by home, I mean this: to know the reality of eternal life in this earthly life. Our lived experience gives us many reasons to despair. The downturns we experience, the disappointments, the grief, the anxiety, the fear, the hopelessness, the drama, the health issues. It becomes easy to simply live in that space of despair, believing that life stinks and then you die, for we experience lots of little deaths every day.
But when we find our way home, we discover that Jesus’s offer of eternal life is possible in this life. When we have found our way back home, back to where we experience life breaking in amidst the various ways we experience death, when we find that drama turns to healthy relationships, when we discover disappointments becoming sources of hope, when we find that grief has turned to joy, when we feel embraced by the love of God in the midst of our various deaths, that’s experiencing eternal life in this life; that’s home.
Home is not an intellectual pursuit; it’s not understanding seeking faith. No, it’s an affair of the heart, it’s a choice to trust that the offer of eternal life means life and life abundant today, not just in the next life. Faith asks us to believe that, even if we can’t explain it. It’s a call on our hearts to accept our need for Christ, for Christ is calling us home. Our faith seeks understanding, but we must begin with faith itself.
Perhaps this morning, you know what home feels like and you know how to find your way there. Keep going home, as often as you can, for that’s one of the ways we grow in holiness, becoming more and more like Jesus. \
Perhaps this morning, you feel Christ calling you to you, asking you too take risks. Don’t run away; accept the calling in faith, even if it makes little understanding at first.
Perhaps, this morning, you know what home feels like but you have trouble finding your way back. Ask God, with courage, to lead you back home. God will not let you down.
Perhaps, this morning, you have only an inkling of that feeling of home. This could be the day that you submit to relationship with God, either by rededication of your life or by giving your life to Christ for the first time.
Regardless of which of these apply to you, the Holy Spirit has been beckoning to you, calling to you, showing you what home feels like. It’s time to make the choice to go home. It may not make logical sense, but let us remember that faith is believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.
For home is where we belong. Life with Christ isn’t understanding seeking faith. Rather, understanding is the fruit of faith, a faith that’s chosen not because it makes sense, but because we have felt and experienced it’s power and we trust that Christ is who he says he is.
We can stand next to Jesus, peppering him with questions like the Greeks in our scripture this morning, only finding ourselves more confused and without faith. Or, we can believe that Christ came for us, that his death brought us into himself, so that we can find our way home. We’re called to choose faith first, believing in advance that Jesus is the son of man, that at his death he drew us to himself, and that in choosing his life, while we may die to ourselves, we will discover a life greater than we could have imagined; life eternal that makes a difference in the life to come and in life today.
Wherever you are this morning, come home.