Monday, April 13, 2009

Giving up Missional for Lent

I preached this sermon the opening night of the Missional Think Tank hosted my Church Innovations a few weeks ago. It's a sermon on John 12, the lectionary text for that day.

Giving up Missional for Lent
A Sermon from John 12

“Now when the great crowd who had gathered for the festival heard that Jesus was coming, they took branches from palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord
The King of Israel

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion,
Look your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt!

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they had heard he performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. The whole world has gone after him.”

Which they say to their dismay. They have, after all, been seeking to destroy Jesus. Twice John tells us that they sought to arrest him, but failed because “his hour had not yet come” (7:30; 8:20)

And now it appears, this has gone too long. The genie is out of the bottle. The road map has been unfolded. The whole world has gone after him. This is no longer a Judean thing, or even a matter for the diaspora. This thing has gotten too big. There’s no way to stop it or put a lid on it or hope it will simply lose steam. The whole world has gone after him.

And because the narrator knows that nuance is often lost on a listener, we are told in the text’s very next breath:

“Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.” Greeks!

And the Greeks found Phillip, who, in case we forgot his introduction in chapter one, is from Bethsaida in Galilee. Galilee! You can pick these guys out at the festival, these Greeks and Galileans. They’re the ones holding maps of the city with digital cameras hanging around their necks. The Greeks told Phillip they wanted to see Jesus. And Phillip found and told Andrew. And together Phillip and Andrew found and told Jesus.

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!”

Oh, we’ve been waiting for this line for a while. Ever since the wedding feast at Cana when Jesus questioned his mother, “What business of this is ours. My hour has not yet come.” And John has reminded us at strategic points throughout this story that there is an hour coming—an hour of glory. And now its here!

In this moment. When the Greeks have come to Phillip, and Phillip has gone to Andrew, and Phillip and Andrew have gone to Jesus, this story has changed lanes, crossed a rubicon. It’s crossed the tracks and is no longer controllable by the religious authorities. The whole world has gone after him! The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.


I am from a liturgically challenged tradition (Churches of Christ). But I am aware that John 12 is the lectionary text for today, and that today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. And I have practiced Lent with some regularity for a while now.

This year, I considered giving up missional for Lent.

It is just too hard. I’ve determined its no way to make a career.

It’s a little like that bit that Letterman does on his show now and then: Is This Anything? Have you seen the bit? There’s some act behind the curtain, no one knows what it is. The curtain is raised and between scantily dressed women—one twirling multiple hula hoops and the other creating sparks with what looks like a portable sander—you have a juggler or a fire eater or a guy doing handstands using an exercise ball. And the question Dave and Paul answer is “Is this anything?”

That’s what being a recognized advocate for missional church feels like—some kind of novelty act connected to the question “Is this anything?” (Perhaps it would be easier if we had scantily clad girls). There’s hardly a place I go where this isn’t the question. Is missional anything?

My spell checker doesn’t think so.

I spent six years teaching in a seminary trying with mixed success to convince my colleagues.
“The word mission’s not even in the bible.”
“This isn’t real theology.”
“It’s just the latest fad, like purpose driven church.”

And now I’ve come to Luther Seminary to get a PhD in missional, because surely if you can get a PhD in missional it’s got to be something. But I fear this will be only slightly more persuasive. Am I missiologist, a theologian, a systematic theologian, a Christian leadership prof?

And it gets only a slightly better reception in congregations. My Aunt Beth asks me, “I hear the staff at church using this missional church phrase. Can you tell me what this means?” And I try. And these conversations typically go one of two ways: My explanation is met with a blank stare, or they happily respond, “oh, then we’re already missional.” Either way, it’s not anything.

I’m willing to accept that I may not be a very good spokesman for all of this. Maybe its just that I can’t make a career out of this. I suspect, however, that I’m not alone. It’s a hard way to make a career.


The whole world has gone after him. Now that’s way to make a career. That goes in your tenure portfolio or on your list of faculty accomplishments. That’s a blurb on the back cover of your book, right between the endorsements from Oprah and Bono.

You’ve hit the tipping point. Big momentum is on your side. The crowd is behind you. Your enemies have conceded. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

The next line of this story holds so much promise.

“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. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

He missed the moment. He took everything he had going for him—palm branches, hosannas, public support, the resignation of his enemies—and buried it in the ground.


Look, we’ve been reading this text a long time. And I know that no matter how well I set this up this evening, you would not be surprised by what Jesus does with this moment. You expected him to say, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies… “ Most of you have preached sermons against triumphalism and know that Jesus’ hour of glory in the gospel of John involves his death. I would assume that you would hear Jesus’ saying as gospel tonight.

But this is a scandal nonetheless and we make peace with it at our peril. This is a saying about death, and not Jesus’ impending death, but an invitation to follow Jesus through death. “Where I am my servant will also be.” This is about our lives as well. And I fear that we’ve washed over these words so many times that they have become smooth stones with no more rough edges. And with that, they have lost their capacity to turn our lives in a new direction.

And so, I would invite us into their scandal again by focusing on two phrases in the text. The first is the phrase, “it remains just a single grain.”

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain.”

I have become increasingly aware in my life of the pressures toward the single grain strategy. How forces conspire to make my life a single grain, and how I associate single grain-ness with glory.

I mean by this that I think of my life as something I accomplish, sustain and maintain through my individual effort. I imagine that most of our strategies for glory are of the single grain variety—that is, an accomplishment perceived as my own doing. Something that makes me stand out from the crowd.

Some of these pressures are internal, pressures I place on myself. But some I’m squeezed into. And a lot of that for me revolves around this notion of career. Processes of tenure and promotion, the pecking order within a faculty, the specialization of knowledge, all push me toward seeing my life as a single seed.

And if I can turn the image a little here—they encourage me to see my accomplishments as fruit, not seed. As the finished product. As something to be admired and tasted by others. And I worry about the lasting benefit of my work, its capacity to remain fruit. These issues have come into focus for me because I’ve just turned 49 and I feel the pressure of making this next move count, not losing my momentum, not letting my work to this point fall to the ground and die. My life is all too explainable by the single seed strategy.

And Jesus has something bigger in mind. He knows that a single life—not even his—is adequate for the work of God related to the world. He tells his disciples a few verses later that it is better for him to leave, to no longer be present, so that the Spirit might come. Indeed, his followers will do greater things than Jesus himself becase of the multiplying impact of the Spirit. It’s better than the single grain strategy.

The second phrase hardly seems worth noting. It’s this business where Phillip goes to find Andrew. Why does Phillip go and find Andrew. Why not just take the Greeks directly to Jesus? Is Phillip not a self-starter? Is he afraid to take initiative?

This question is bigger than just a question about Phillip’s role. Look at the progression of this text. The crowd cuts palm branches and shouts hosanna and Jesus’ enemies give up, “Look the whole world has gone after him.” Why not right here? Why isn’t it in this moment that Jesus recognizes his hour of glory?

It’s in the next verse. The Greeks go to Phillip. Phillip goes to Andrew. Phillip and Andrew go to Jesus. It’s here that Jesus says, “Now has the hour arrived for the Son of Man to be glorified.” It is in relation to this connection of human lives.

I’ve looked for some deeper significance. I got my concordance out and did Phillip and Andrew searches in the Gospel of John. I read the commentaries. Is this some Andrew source that lies behind the gospel that insists he be recognized? I got nothing.

So, because I’m the preacher tonight, I’m just going to say that this is the way of the kingdom of God. There is no seeing Jesus that is not mediated by another. There is a necessary Phillip to Andrew movement that gets this is crucial to both relationship with God and mission with the world.


So, is this think tank on missional church anything? I hope so.

I have evidence that it could be. I wouldn’t be here tonight apart from some Phillip to Andrew movement.

But I also think it might be too early to say. The jury’s still our. We’re between the hula hoop and grinder girls, and Dave and Paul are still trying to decide.

Is this anything? It won’t be if it’s just another incident of a single seed strategy. If its just another way for us to make our careers or distinguish ourselves from others. If its just something in our tenure portfolios or books we publish or articles we author.

Is this anything? It won’t be if missional becomes a private little brand, a designation only for those who get it, a word whose meaning we control, a movement that we direct.

Is this anything? It won’t be if it becomes balkanized by the survival instincts of institutions where we’re always protecting our little piece of the action. If ACU or Princeton or Fuller or Luther or the GOCN or CI or Allelon become single seeds. It won’t amount to anything.

Is this anything? It could be if we learn to see our lives as seed and not fruit.

Is this anything? It will be if we see the other as the end of my project, as an occasion for dying, as opposed to seeing the other as someone I can absorb into my little corner of the action.

Is this anything? It will be if we learn to trust the Spirit of God, and the power of the resurrection. If we can let this moment and other like them be a burial so that much fruit might be born.

Maybe giving up missional for lent is not such a bad idea after all.


Anonymous said...

The Grinder girl... that's what we're missing!
Great thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this sermon and your play list. Both are thought provoking and inspiring.

Redlefty said...

Excellent; thanks for that!