The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018
He’s one of the world’s most recognizable figures. All the world over people flock to his establishments to get a little taste, just a taste, of his magic. Once you see him, once you get a taste, you never forget him or what he stands for. I mean, with that white hair, the goatee, the horn rimmed glasses, and of course, that perfect bolo tie. Everybody knows Colonel Sanders.
I find this fascinating, because the phenomenon of the whole world recognizing one man is a modern innovation. Think of it – the vast majority of humans that have walked this earth have lived and died and no one has any idea what they looked like. Without cameras the masses were unrecognizable. And before then, only the richest few could afford to have their portraits made. Most people who have walked this earth have been completely unrecognizable.
Even Jesus. At the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem, some Greeks, some non-Jews were there to worship the God of Israel. This was uncommon but not unusual for non-Jews to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And like many people in Jerusalem, these Greeks have heard about Jesus and they want to see him. But notice, they probably don’t know what Jesus looks like.
These Greeks go up to Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples. Maybe they know him because they lived in bordering areas. Anyway, they go up to Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Jesus had no distinctive look, no bolo tie or recognizable mustache to set him apart. He blended into the crowd, he was part of that mass of humanity. This is also why, later on, Judas kisses Jesus to betray him. It’s because the soldiers and police would not have known who Jesus was. And I think that’s why the Greeks need Philip’s help in finding Jesus.
Imagine that. A man, one of billions of men, is the one that we all seek; this unrecognizable man is the one that we want to see, too. This is an incarnational moment, a little glimpse into how Jesus is not so different from us. He’s part of the anonymous crush of humanity. But if Jesus is not so different from us, we have to ask ourselves – what sets Jesus apart? If it’s not his appearance or his clothes or his hair, then what is it? Why did people follow him? Why do these Greeks want to see him?
Listen to what Jesus says to the crowd: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus will draw all people to himself. And, to be precise, it’s not exactly, “all people,” even though that is a beautiful concept. Rather, the technical translation is, “all.” That’s it, just “all.” Jesus is raised high up on the cross, in perfect love and in perfect agony. And in that moment, who and what is drawn in to Jesus? All.
All is a mind bending concept. All things – the things we like, sure. Your dog, your cat, your pet gerbil. But all also includes every mosquito and fire ant and scorpion and big, hairy, nasty, spider. And if there are aliens out there, I suppose them, too. All means all.
And all people, Jews and Greeks. All people – even the people who don’t think like you do, even the people who don’t look like you do, even the people who don’t worship like you do, even the people who want to kill you. Even the people who wanted to kill Jesus. They too will be drawn to Jesus. Who is drawn to Jesus? All. Yes, even Pontius Pilate, even Caiaphas, even Judas. All meals all.
And that makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Because there are some people that seem far, far from Jesus. There is the old reliable cast of evil characters – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, the slate of modern terrorists and autocrats. But beyond that, what about all the little anonymous perpetrators of evil? What about the plantation owner who owned humans and whipped them into submission? What about the soldier who indiscriminately massacred women and children at My Lai in Vietnam? What about the employer who refuses equal pay for equal work, who turns a blind eye to harassment? What about the human trafficker that continues to sell humans to this very day, not miles from where we sit now? Do we really mean that they, even they, are drawn to Jesus? Does all mean all?
As much as the words stick in my throat, yes. I believe that Jesus is even drawing them in. And that’s what makes Jesus different. That is what makes Jesus stand out from the crowd. I want to draw lines in the sand. From my perspective, you’re either in or you’re out. But Jesus, with his arms wide open upon the cross, gives us an image of the eternal, loving embrace of humanity. That’s why the Greeks want to see Jesus, and not just anybody else. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The love of God is so compelling, that all will be drawn in.
Now I want to be precise here. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that evil deeds will go unnoticed by God. I’m not saying that love is a wishy-washy, happy-clappy, kittens and butterflies sort of feeling. I’m not saying that. When Jesus is lifted up on high and draws the whole world to himself, it’s not for love only, it’s for justice, too. Justice, not necessarily that God will punish, but that will God will make things right.
And that is also what makes Jesus different. When Jesus is lifted high upon the cross, his arms outstretched, it’s not just an image of eternal embrace. It’s also an image of eternal justice. As if his outstretched arms are the scales of justice. Jesus has, and will call evil to account. The cross of Jesus shows us that God has noticed.
Make no mistake – evil deeds will be rectified. And it’s a word of warning – if you choose to inflict evil upon others, if you choose to turn a blind eye – then even you will be drawn in to Jesus. Those who suffered, those on the receiving end of evil will be restored. On the cross, we see a perfect image of why all people are drawn in. For the sake of love, yes, but also for the sake of justice.
Perhaps we can think of it as a divine subpoena. A notion we have all heard about recently. Jesus is so compelling, that eventually our hearts will be broken open to his incredible, radical love. Jesus is so compelling, that one day all the wrongs that have been perpetrated will be brought out of the shadows, and into the light. Jesus will make things right.
In the meantime, this is the work of the Church. It is to strike this finely tuned balance between love and justice. In our own past, here in the Episcopal Church, we have seen when the love and justice of Jesus have gotten out of balance. Sometimes we have preached love without justice. That’s a sort of, “anything goes” mentality. Sometimes we have preached justice without love. That’s when we condemn others without knowing their experiences. The task of the Church is to find the balance. As a church, as followers of Jesus, we must confront the sins that beset our modern world: racism, rampant greed, corruption, privilege, the exploitation of innocent people. We must love with the love of Jesus, so that justice can be accomplished. So that wrongs can be made right. It is hard work, but no one ever said that following the way of the cross would be easy.
The middle way, the path that holds together love and justice is the hardest of paths. It cuts through the old, tired divisions between conservative and liberal. It cuts through the dogmas of left and right. It calls into question the neat little worldviews we’ve made for ourselves. The cross of Jesus breaks open the tired debates between love and justice, and instead brings them together in perfect harmony.
And let’s be honest, it’s not just the work of the Church. It’s part of our own lives, too. You have overlooked someone’s faults and frailties because you loved them deeply. Or, you have refused to love someone because of their faults and frailties.
But remember, Jesus will draw even you in for the sake of love, but also for justice. We must not be so smug as to think that God will overlook the evils that benefit us. No, the mercy and reckoning is for us, too. As we enter the sacred time of Holy Week, I pray that we all pick up the cross and follow in this way of love and of justice.
And then, I tell you, people will notice. And that, I think, is exactly what this world is looking for. Just like those Greeks two thousand years ago; the people of this age want to know that God loves them, but also that God notices. We wish to see the God who loves us eternally, who calls us his own beloved brothers and sisters. We also wish to see the God who notices every evil deed done, who will make all things right.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.