The following sermon was preached by Dr James Kellerman for the divine service in celebration of Holy Cross Day, 14 September 2022, in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel.
“We wish to see Jesus”. Don’t we all? He has fascinated people throughout the centuries—Jews and Greeks, faithful Christians and pagans alike. Even wicked Herod wanted an audience with him. We all wish to see Jesus. But how can we? That is the question we confront in today’s Gospel.
As a person who lived in Chicago for thirty-four years, I am tempted to see the situation through the historic practice that we called the “Chicago way”. Nowadays if you have a problem, you can go directly to city hall. But in the old days, if you had a problem with your garbage collection, you told the block captain. He notified the precinct captain, who got the attention of the alderman, who resolved the matter. Every Chicagoan knows the words of an old-time Chicago politician: “We don’t want nobody who nobody sent”.
Is it surprising then that the Greeks sought out a low-level apostle, Philip, who then went and told another apostle, Andrew, one who was related to yet another apostle, Peter, one in the inner circle? You need to know somebody to see somebody. It is the thinking behind the invocation of the saints in Roman Catholicism and other circles. You cannot get our Lord’s attention, especially now that he is no longer a mere wandering rabbi but is now the King of the universe. Nonetheless, you just might get through to one of the less important (and thus less busy) saints, who might send the message up the chain of command.
But with so many people crowding around Jesus, can we still get his attention even with the help of dozens of saints interceding on our behalf? Perhaps there is another way. Soldiers who are extraordinarily valiant on the battlefield sometimes get a personal visit from the king and a chance for a few words. Perhaps being a valiant soldier of the cross would do the trick. Did not our Lord himself say, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”? It seems then that giving up one’s life for confessing the faith is the best way to get our Lord’s attention.
But if we cannot be martyred, then maybe we can still do something heroic. We can be a hermit in the wilderness, or one of those barefoot monks who never speak a word, or a prayer warrior spending hours each day fasting and praying. Would not these acts of self-mortification earn us an audience with Jesus? You will find Christians of many stripes—from Pentecostals to Eastern Orthodox and even several Lutherans, too—who would say that this is exactly how we get our Lord’s attention.
However, this way of thinking gets it all backwards. We have been talking about how some Greeks—and by extension, all of us—can meet Jesus. But a remark our Lord makes at the end of today’s Gospel indicates that it is the reverse that is true. We don’t seek out Jesus. He seeks us out. After all, if he were not interested in seeing us, would he have said, “I … will draw all people to myself”? We don’t have to get his attention. Instead, he gets ours. He does so the way God has always gotten our attention: through his Word. But God never just speaks. He always has something to accompany his Word. In Eden, that word was accompanied by the tree of knowledge of good and evil, whereby he demonstrated the power of his word. And now it would be another tree—the cross—that would accompany the words of our Lord and demonstrate their power.
And so let us take another look at today’s Gospel with this in mind. Yes, some Greeks came to the festival, and they were interested in meeting Jesus. But where did this interest come from? Somebody had told them about Jesus. And those words had grabbed hold of them. I have heard more than one convert to Christianity describe how they were entranced by the words of the Scriptures read or proclaimed to them. The Word of God unfolded such love that they had never known. Even if they did not instantly become a Christian, the words tugged on their heart and would not let them go.
Similarly, it was some words spoken by Jesus or pointing to him that had brought Philip and Andrew themselves to faith in him. John the Baptist had said, “Behold, the Lamb of God”. And Andrew had dropped everything and began following Jesus that very instant. Meanwhile, Jesus said just two words to Philip: “Follow me.” That, too, was enough to get him to leave that instant.
The church is simply people who have heard and been captured by Christ’s words. “The word of the cross is … the power of God,” as we have come to know. Yes, it is naturally folly to us, for it is “folly to those who are perishing”. But God has done something remarkable. We who naturally seek wisdom or power—or both—were confounded. We were confounded by the word of the cross.
If we pursue all that is called wisdom in this world or prefer to spend our lives grasping for the power that the world celebrates, our Lord’s words make no sense: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”. Those who are wise in the ways of this world respond, “Whoever loves his life will want to preserve it, for whoever is negligent of it will lose it”. And those who are powerful add, “The dead have no power. At all costs avoid being one of the dead”.
But it is only when these words are applied to the cross that they make sense. For here we see one who did not love his life to such a degree that he would save it at all costs. In fact, if it came down to a choice between his life and the mission of saving the world, he would downright despise his life. But he was not throwing his life away for no good reason. He would die, but his death would do much good. Indeed, that single act did the greatest good for humanity since the day it was created.
The only way our Lord could explain the goodness in his death was by saying that a grain of wheat is only of use if it “falls into the earth and dies”. No matter what potential a grain of wheat has, it is not unleashed until it is buried in the ground and dies—losing itself but creating a new plant that will bear even more grains of wheat. In the same way, Christ abounds in goodness in himself. But that goodness would have been of no use to us unless he had been willing to die. For by dying, he set us free from death. By giving up his life, he gave us life.
These words are pure wisdom and pure power. They unfold a plan that only God could have come up with. They undo death and the devil in a way that the mightiest armies combined never could. And because these words are pure wisdom and power, it is good that God put them into effect—that our Lord sought us when we could not seek him.
So, through his words we have met Jesus and “have come to know him—or, rather, to be known by him”. But what should we do now? Wouldn’t we want to see him more clearly? Our Lord explains what he expects of us: “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also”.
Notice that our Lord does not send us off on a great quest or an arduous pilgrimage. Nor does he give us a list of worthy feats to accomplish. He simply invites us to be with him. If we truly count ourselves his servants, then we will be where he is. Thus, we simply live our whole lives in the presence of our Lord. It means that we pass through death and life with him. Indeed, in baptism we have already been crucified and buried with him and come alive with him. We have passed from judgment into life. And when our days in this mortal life come to an end, we find that death is but a shadow of its former self, for we are in Christ, and we now share his immortality.
For he has found us. We certainly “wish to see Jesus”. But—thank God—he wishes to see us even more. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
SOLI ☩ DEO GLORIA