When “All are Welcome” Isn’t Enough

Text: John 12: 20-33 Lent 5b

They just want to see Jesus! So, what’s the hold up? Why the delay? Why the layers of red tape? “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The Greeks in our gospel text first went to Philip, then Philip went to Andrew, then both Philip and Andrew went to Jesus. Jesus never says yes to their request, nor does he say no, but rather he infers that they must wait. They are too late. The hour of glorification has come, the betrayal and crucifixion are imminent, but their chance to see him is surely coming.
Jesus’ earthly ministry was primarily targeted toward the Jews of Judea and Galilee. Sure, he had incidental encounters with Samaritan women and Roman soldiers, but the main focus of his earthly ministry was his own people. But the seed of Jesus’ earthly ministry is about to die and germinate and bear abundant fruit to all the nations of the world!
Jesus is not focused on reaching out to the Greek Jews right now, their time will surely come after Pentecost! Jesus’ mind and heart are set on the cross that awaits him at the end of the week. Right before our gospel text, Jesus entered Jerusalem like a rock star, his fame had spread so rapidly since he raised Lazarus from the dead that even folks from out of town –like these Greek Jews- knew there was something special about Jesus, something they wanted to be a part of. But Jesus knew that his truest glory awaited him on the cross. While the world praised him for his signs and wonders, Jesus knew his greatest sign would look like utter failure to that same crowd. Jesus knew they’d all scatter like wheat chaff in the wind. And it would look like all was lost, like his death was the end.
And so, Jesus comforts his disciples and offers a word of hopeful expectation for those Greek Jews whose request to see Jesus was ill-timed… Jesus tells them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
This is the transformative power of the cross and resurrection. And this is the journey we enter into as we draw closer and closer to Holy Week. Christ drags us with him through death and into life, and not just any life but life abundant to be lived in community! Because the fruit Jesus is talking about is not just individual eternal life, but the fruit of inclusive community.
With Jesus’ death, the community will appear to die along with him. His followers will scatter. But following the resurrection and his ascension to the Father, the church will spread like wildfire. The church will indeed scatter to the ends of the earth and form communities of faith all over the world! Jesus’ followers will no longer include just Judeans, but Jews from the Diaspora (like the Greek Jews who wished to see him!) and even Gentiles from all around the world!
Through the death, resurrection, and ascension we as church are not only scattered throughout the world to continue Christ’s ministry, but we are also gathered together.
In this same passage, Jesus shares a word of hope to those Greek Jews who seemed to come too late. He says, “And I, after I have been lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”
Like moths to a flame, like lovers in a locked gaze, Christ draws us all into his loving embrace. He gathers us together and creates of us a new community. Because he didn’t say “all Jews” or “all Greeks”, he said “all people.” And a person is a person no matter their background or life circumstance. All means all. And we are all gathered by the Holy Spirit into this family of faith together!
We are all drawn to the One who is lifted up for our sake, and we are all drawn to the cross because we are all sinners in need of a Savior. It’s seems bizarre to be drawn to a crucified Christ, but we are because what we really need is not a far removed rock star Savior, but a Savior who knows what it means to wrestle with a difficult vocation, to suffer rejection, ridicule, and pain. We need a Savior who can relate, a Savior who doesn’t just wave a magic wand and take our pain away, but one who walks this joyful and brutal journey of life right alongside us! We need a Savior whose experience redeems and unites both the oppressor and the oppressed. And in Jesus Christ crucified, that is exactly what we have.
“And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”
Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are all drawn to Jesus and the reconciliation and forgiveness that his death makes possible. So many different people from different backgrounds today yearn to see Jesus. Like the Greeks in our gospel text today, many are not totally sure how welcome they’ll be. Many today have been hurt by the church and approach communities of faith with caution, not totally sure how welcome they’ll be to see and taste the lifted up Christ in our midst. Will the church embrace seekers as brothers and sisters on this journey of faith or will it keep them at a distance and treat them as outsiders, as ones who must wait just a little longer before they’re really allowed to participate in community?
Christ has already been lifted up.
Christ has already broken down the barriers that divide humanity.
Christ calls us to reflect his inclusive love to the world, and to be about his work of gathering and drawing in.
This is one of the many reasons why the new Welcome Statement that our Council and Reconciling in Christ Task force are currently exploring is so important: A welcome statement is a concrete expression of our desire to live as the open & diverse community Christ draws into his embrace.
While, of course, St. James is a welcoming and loving community, the people on the outside of this church don’t yet know that. Every church today SAYS that they’re a welcoming church…. Until a same gender couple with small children start coming to Sunday school. Then, like the Greeks in our gospel text today, some congregations say “wait just a little longer, we’re just not ready for that level of diversity.”
When you’re on the outside of the community of faith, how do you know who’s included in the “All” when the church sign says “All are welcome?” Does the church mean “All the people who look like us, live like us, act like us, vote like us, and believe like us?” OR, is it truly the ALL that means ALL: the ALL people from all backgrounds, in all circumstances, in all kinds of relationships, at every level of belief or disbelief who hunger to see Jesus face to face -All of “those people” whom Christ lovingly draws to himself and gathers into one diverse body.
For those who have had so many church doors slammed in their faces and malicious whispers and sideways glances from the next pew, it’s understandable that they’d be skeptical that a church exists that truly means the kind of All that Christ draws to himself.
So, our congregational council and Reconciling in Christ task force is working on a statement that spells out the inclusive kind of community Christ draws to himself here at St. James. Our welcome statement would be a kind of all-inclusive invitation to live in community as a diverse and beloved body of believers, all of whom need and wish to see Jesus together.
Three examples of what we’re exploring have been posted on the bulletin board for the last few weeks for your review, but I thought I’d conclude this sermon this morning by sharing one of them with you, and I hope you’ll read the others at your leisure:
Welcome to long-time Lutherans, Christians from every tradition, and people new to faith.
Welcome to all who have no church home, want to follow Christ, have doubts, or do not believe.
Welcome to new visitors and old friends.
Welcome to people of every age and size, color and culture, every sexual orientation and gender identity, socio-economic status, marital status, ability, and challenge.
Welcome to believers and questioners and questioning believers. This is a place where you are welcome to celebrate and sorrow, rejoice and recover. This is a place where lives are made new. Welcome on this day. Amen.

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