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Edgar Moore: The limits of ordinary vision

The church emphasizes Lent as a time of penitence and self-reflection because it has inherited from John the conviction that perceiving the in-breaking of the kingdom in the midst of the ordinary is foundational to its proclamation of the gospel.

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March 20, 2012

Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. Edgar Moore prepared this sermon for Faith & Leadership for the fifth Sunday in Lent.

John 12:20-33

The story of Noah and the ark is one that some Christians feel they need to outgrow as they come to mature faith. The math, the buoyancy problems, the animal management issues and, frankly, the air quality challenges below decks make the account one of those easily consigned to the category of mythic fable.

A physicist friend of mine once remarked, though, that the rainbow God summoned up to serve as covenant sign for Noah was the most sophisticated part of the story. We see only part of the rainbow, he said, because of the limits of our human visual spectrum. There’s much more to the rainbow than we can imagine. In other words, God didn’t offer full disclosure to Noah -- that had to wait for the incarnation. Foreshadowings of Bethlehem on Mount Ararat.

The theme of the limits of ordinary vision runs throughout John’s Gospel. In John’s third chapter, Jesus tells Nicodemus he’ll never see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above. In the account of the dinner at Bethany in chapter 12, only Mary and Jesus see that he is on the way to crucifixion and death; everyone else is clueless. When some Greeks who’ve come to Jerusalem for Passover tell Philip they wish to see Jesus, the theme surfaces again: human vision, unaided by the refractive grace of the Holy Spirit, can discern only part of the truth.

This is why, when word about these curious Greeks reaches Jesus, he responds with what appears to be a non sequitur -- a lengthy discourse on glorification that culminates in a prediction of crucifixion: “And I, when I am lifted up, … will draw all people to myself.” Glorious theology, but what of the Greeks who wished only to see Jesus? Don’t they matter?

Yes, of course they do, and that is the point of the glorification narrative. To see Jesus as Lord -- to grasp what is beyond the immediate, visual spectrum -- is to discern the great purposes of God being worked out in the impending passion, death and resurrection, the drama John unfolds in his language of glorification. God is now doing full disclosure, through the Holy Spirit, for those willing to look beyond the immediate and apparent.

Absent the Spirit’s lens on these events, we see only one more Jewish troublemaker being declared redundant by the Romans. Cross? What cross? Who cares?

The Greeks who approached Philip may have wished merely to see Jesus of Nazareth; from John’s perspective, though, that is no longer possible. The drama that is incarnation has moved too far along the road to the new Jerusalem for Jesus to be apprehended apart from the glory unfolding amidst the apparently mundane. Jesus, cross, resurrection and kingdom are no longer separable. To “see” Jesus now, one must glimpse glory, too. Anything less is self-deception.

The church emphasizes Lent as a time of penitence and self-reflection, not only because the Christian year encourages it, but also because the church has inherited from John the conviction that perceiving the in-breaking of the kingdom in the midst of the ordinary is foundational to its proclamation of the gospel.

In feeding 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes, raising the dead, healing the sick and preaching good news to the oppressed, God has, in Jesus Christ, revealed the kingdom through the ordinary. During Lent, the faithful, their vision healed by the ophthalmology of the Spirit, are encouraged to grasp the implications of all of this for their own lives and the lives of the congregations where they are in ministry.

This is what John means by glorification: not only that Mary’s boy, born in Bethlehem, is now unassailably revealed as Lord and Christ, but also that the church now understands who and what it must be in response to this revelation.

Sisters and brothers who imagine church merely as a community awaiting the second coming, as a lifeboat to escape earth’s present sufferings, miss the point: the One the Greeks wished to see, himself glorified in what appeared to be ordinary events upon the stage of human history, asks the baptized, his body until his coming again, to carry on the work he began. There really is no question of what that work was; the question is whether the church has the courage to risk its own glorification, and the compulsion to mission that vision will disclose.