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Seeing & Believing

Reverend Philip Stringer

John 12:20-30

LET US PRAY: Almighty God, we pray for your living, creating presence among us today; that the worship which we offer to you may be the work of your hands. Strengthen us in our worship, that we may be fed by you and have strength for our journey through the coming week. AMEN

There were some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. And John doesn’t tell us why. Were they believers -- were they seeking -- or merely curious? John doesn’t say.

The Greeks, of course, were famous for their learning and their insatiable thirst for knowledge. From them came some of the greatest philosophers the world has known.

Our gospel reading tells us that they said to Philip, “We want to see Jesus.” Consider the possible meaning of that statement -- did they merely want to look at him as spectators watching someone famous? Or were they meaning to “look” deeper to who Jesus was and what he was doing?

John makes it clear throughout his gospel that “seeing” is not the same as “believing.” There were many who saw the signs and miracles that Jesus did but didn’t believe.

Today, as you and I approach the end of the Lenten season nearly 2000 years after these Greeks came looking for Jesus, people are still looking for him — and just as they did 2000 years ago, they almost always start their quest by looking at his followers.

Just as the Greeks came to Philip to find Jesus, people look to us for answers. They look to us to see the effect that Jesus is having on us. They look to us because disciples follow their master’s teachings. They look to us to see the fruit of following Jesus. And today — because people look at Christians in an effort to see Jesus — I think it is important for us to recognize that Philip and Andrew and the rest of the disciples were also looking to understand Jesus.

Philip and Andrew were not who the Greeks were seeking. Philip and Andrew were merely the contact point — the access point. You and I don’t need to be perfect for others to meet Jesus through us. All that is needed is for us to point the way. Philip and Andrew didn’t respond to the Greeks by educating them about Jesus. Presumably, they connected them to Jesus by seeking him out themselves.

The Greeks were famous for seeking knowledge and reason. We don’t know if these particular Greeks were merely wanting to gawk at the local celebrity or if they were truly seeking something more. One thing we know, however, is that “seeing” and “believing” are not necessarily the same. Believing in Jesus involves something more than seeing what he does, and it goes even beyond seeing who he truly is. Believing in Jesus involves a change. That is a truth that a man named “Aurelius” came to see.

His father was not a Christian. His mother, Monica, was. And he was a problem almost immediately from his birth. As a child, he fell into a gang of students who loathed good behavior, and spurning the Christian teaching of his mother, he went deep into a life of sin. When he was in his late teens, he abandoned what Christian principles he had learned from his mother and took on a concubine, seeking to possess and control her. He stayed with her for 13 years, and had a son by her, before he abandoned her and embraced a religion call Manichaeism. It taught that there were several God's -- principally, a good god, and an evil god who balance each other -- Much like the "Yin and Yang.” He followed this system for about a decade, and then, discouraged, turned to Academic Skepticism and Philosophy. He attended church once but listened for philosophy and heard none. He then studied Platonism and Neo-Platonism in his search for truth, to no avail. He was deep in a life of self-service and self-gratification, with a horrendous history of sin and contempt -- But still unsatisfied and unfulfilled.

Aurelius knew the story of Christianity. He knew the story of Jesus. But “seeing” Jesus goes beyond mere looking and studying.

Then one day, he happened to open the Bible and read these words from Romans: "Let us conduct ourselves properly, as people who live in the light of day . . . take up the weapons of the Lord Jesus Christ and stop paying attention to your sinful nature and satisfying its desires."

In those verses he heard the Word of God speaking to his life. He was baptized on Easter morning at the age of 33. Shortly thereafter he entered a monastery, he became a priest, then associate bishop, and then bishop of Hippo, and later, bishop of All of North Africa. Aurelius is known to us by the name of Saint Augustine.

He was a powerful influence in the early church as a bishop, theologian, defender of the faith, preacher, and writer. Martin Luther and the reformers placed his writings second only to the Bible in their importance. And yet the first half of his life was despicable and wretched -- even by his own account.

Believing in Jesus goes beyond looking and studying. It involves more than knowing who he is and all that Christianity teaches. It involves a change.

When you say that you believe, what does that mean? What difference does it make in your life that you believe? What difference does it make for those around you that you believe?

Is it truly possible for someone to REALLY see who Jesus is and not believe? As a Christian, I find it amazing when I meet someone who has studied Christianity -- knows the Bible in-side-out and doesn’t believe. I’m sure you know such people. I usually comfort myself by saying that they don’t really have a problem with God -- they have a problem with the church. And that’s often the case... but sometimes, I’m not so sure. Sometimes, there’s someone who appears to really “see,” and yet not believe. And that is a puzzle, isn’t it. Why do some people not believe?

Perhaps a better question to ask is: Why do some people continue to believe?

After all of our praying and after all of our Christian efforts to proclaim the good news and to work for peace and justice throughout the world -- look at it! The Cold War ended, and people spoke of the new millennium as a remarkable opportunity for peace. The United Nations designated the first 10 years as a “Decade of Nonviolence for the Children of the World.” And look at things!

The stakes continue to rise from the war in Ukraine — threatening to spill over into Europe and the rest of the world. The war in Gaza is also sending ripples around the world that shake alliances and stability. Famine is once again threatening millions in east Africa. In our own country, people are polarized as never before and hundreds of thousands live with the emotional — and often physical— scars of gun violence.

A more important question for us today is, “Why do some people continue to believe?” Why do you still believe?

Answering that question isn’t always easy. In fact, giving an easy, pat answer may not be very helpful. I believe there’s a very good answer to the question -- but it must be thoughtfully given if we are to take seriously the complexity of the question. The truth is that a church that pretends to have easy answers probably is irrelevant to those wrestling with the realities of this world.

A Lutheran Church in Minneapolis got itself in hot water with other churches in town a few years ago. St. Paul’s Lutheran bought advertising space at bus stops across the city, and erected posters that asked, “If Jesus loves the little children, why do 30,000 of them die every day?”

The ad continued, “At St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, we won’t pretend to have the answers to all of life’s questions, but we’re willing to ask the questions, and to look for the answers with you.”

A number of churches across the city voiced their disapproval of the ads. They didn’t think it was appropriate to ask questions like that, but that is exactly the sort of question that many non-believers are asking.

I think that St. John, at least, would disagree with the critics. There is a popular belief system that is often referred to as a “theology of glory” -- the notion that God blesses the faithful with temporal rewards -- financial security, physical health and safety, good relationships and serenity of life. Paradoxes, disaster and suffering don’t have a place in such a belief system.

But for John, the cross is the place of Jesus’ glory. And many people have a hard time with that. They simply can’t see the cross as good news.

It is dangerous and frightening to admit that one doesn’t know the answers to everything.

But if we are going to take the suffering of the world seriously, -- and if we are going to be a church that wants to carry the good news of Christ into a world of uncertainty and suffering -- then we need to be a church that doesn’t necessarily have all the answers -- but points to the cross of Christ.

I don’t know why bad things happen. I don’t know why people flock to false messiahs who spew lies and hate and who destroy and divide. I don’t know why evil seems to run unchecked in the world. But what I DO know is that Jesus promised to be with us — even in the darkest, most broken places and moments of our lives. It is a promise made in the power of his love that even overcomes the power of hate and death. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

To believe in Jesus is to believe in the power of love. When all is said and done, we must all believe SOMETHING. Jesus says, “believe in me. Believe in the power of my love.”

To believe in Jesus doesn’t mean we have life all figured out. It merely means that we choose to side with love; it means that we choose to believe that in the end, somehow, love never ends. AMEN


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