Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; John 12:20-36
Tuesday in Holy Week is a kind of non-event. But we’re here anyway, because this is what we do every Tuesday at 5:30 (and today being a first Tuesday of the month, we have soup following the service). Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week are like the eye of the hurricane: a return to calm after the traumatic events of Palm Sunday and before the drama that begins to unfold on Maundy Thursday. We’re in pause, with two days distance from the visceral events of Sunday, and two days distance from the earth-shaking events that begin to unfold on Thursday–so perhaps this evening we can ponder things in a more reflective way.
The scriptures we hear this evening strike a note of universalism. Universalism in the sense that God is concerned with all of humanity, not just certain tribes. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” [Isaiah 49:6] In 1 Corinthians, Paul proclaims Christ crucified to all people: Jews, Greeks and all the other Gentiles. And Jesus himself in John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” As Christians, our understanding of how the people of God will be a light to all the nations and how salvation is to reach to the ends of the earth is through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ himself. Notice his choice of words. In the same sentence Jesus has referred to himself three times. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
This spells out for us, I think, our primary vocation as the Body of Christ: to lift up Christ himself. He was lifted up from the earth in his crucifixion; he was lifted up from the earth in his resurrection and ascension. We lift him up in our hearts and in our witness, in our proclamation. This is our primary vocation as Christians. I put the emphasis on “primary” here to clarify what follows. Our primary vocation as the church is to lift up the person of Jesus Christ himself—not Christianity, not Anglicanism, not Episcopalianism, not monasticism or any other -ism. Not a social agenda. Not a political platform. Not even good behavior. Not even good theology. Not even good liturgy.
All these things are vital and an integral part of our being the Body of Christ, but they are not our primary vocation. Once Christ is lifted up in our own hearts, much follows that has a bearing on how we live our lives, our beliefs, our prayer, our theology, our liturgy, our ethics–of course.
How can we, how shall we lift up Christ in our hearts and in the world? I think this is done most compellingly by keeping the focus on the person of Jesus himself. For example: as Christians we claim what we might call ethics of compassion. The way we live is given shape by love for others and compassion for their suffering and concern for their welfare. But most of the world’s great religions do the same. What is distinctive about Christian ethics of compassion is the person of Jesus Christ. Our love and compassion and concern for others are grounded in the person of Jesus Christ. We understand our love and compassion for others to have its source in the person of Christ himself—Jesus present and active within us. We embody or incarnate love, which has its source in Christ himself.
But there’s more: it is Jesus himself in the suffering we serve and the stranger we welcome. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing…” [Mt. 25: 35-36] “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” We serve Christ in one another—and we serve as Christ to one another, animated by the Christ who abides in us. Either way it is the person of Jesus Christ that is primary: the person of Jesus Christ within us, within others and at the same time so beyond us.
Jesus prophesies that all people will be drawn to him when he is lifted up from the earth. I wonder if we have too limited an understanding of what Jesus means by this. Does it mean that all people will eventually become card-carrying, Bible-believing, baptized Christians, as we understand the term? Might there be other ways that Jesus draws all people to himself?
I was intrigued a few years ago by George Steiner. Steiner is a Renaissance man with intellectual competencies across a wide spectrum—a polyglot and polymath. He is a prolific writer; his books are usually found in the literary criticism section of bookstores. Because of his enormous intellect and grasp of so many things he can be difficult to understand. His ethnicity is Jewish, but he is not religious in a conventional sense. A few years ago he gave a series of lectures on the subject of teaching. His springboard was two individuals he considered to be the greatest teachers of all time: Socrates and Jesus. For sheer impact on history, of course, it’s hard to beat Jesus. And, as Steiner pointed out, Jesus did what he did without ever writing down a word. He was also fascinated by the sheer inexhaustibility of many of Jesus’ sayings. “Before Abraham was, I am”.
So Steiner, a secular Jew, is drawn to Jesus of Nazareth. He is not drawn, it seems, to the Christian religion, but he is drawn to the person of Jesus as the greatest of teachers. This may strike us as not enough. But I wonder how it strikes Jesus. If, as Jesus said, all people will be drawn to him when he is lifted up, are we to say what this will look like? Are we to dictate the terms by which someone may be drawn to Jesus? Well, I don’t think we’re in a position to dictate any terms to Jesus, either when all people will be drawn to him or how. Jesus’ relationship with George Steiner is their business.
We could say the same about countless others who may feel drawn to Jesus in some way, but, for whatever reason, don’t meet our criteria as “Christians”. Muslims, of course, honor Jesus because he’s called a prophet in the Koran. Buddhists and Hindus are drawn to the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi once said: “I like your Christ”. He went on with words of tough love: “I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” So Gandhi was drawn to Christ, if not to his followers… Jesus’ relationship to Gandhi and the peoples of the world is his and their business.
Our business is, first and foremost, to lift him up. We get so distracted by secondary concerns. But our calling is to lift up Jesus Christ as a light to the nations, to the ends of the earth. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” We may have our druthers about how this should look. But our druthers may not be the divine druthers. Better, I think, to do our part and leave the rest up to Jesus. He knows what he’s doing.
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