Prayer of the Day: O God, with steadfast love you draw us to yourself, and in mercy you receive our prayers. Strengthen us to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, that through life and death we may live in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” John 12:21
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32.
Some “Greeks” are eager to “see” Jesus. Presumably, they wanted to meet him. Scholarly consensus seems to be that they were Diaspora Jews, that is, Jews living in areas of the Roman Empire outside of Palestine whose primary language was Greek rather than the Aramaic spoken throughout Judea and Galilee. But whoever they might have been, they were outside the scope of Jesus’ ministry. Like the magi, these Greeks were drawn to Jesus and we are not told what “star” brought them to him.
Andrew, the disciple with whom they first made contact, is at a loss about what to do. So he consults with fellow disciple, Philip, and together they decide to consult Jesus. At first blush, Jesus’ response seems like a non-answer. He goes off on what appears to be a tangent, speaking in cryptic terms of his coming crucifixion, the demands of discipleship and the potential cost of following him. But Jesus is actually going somewhere with all this. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” he says. Until that time, no one can fully “see” Jesus. The disciples themselves do not yet “see” Jesus for who he is. They will finally see him, but only in retrospect. John’s gospel is replete with examples of occurrences, the significance of which the disciples only recognize after Jesus was raised from death, (i.e., the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem John 3:22; Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem John 12:16; Jesus washing the disciple’s feet John 13:7). In time, not only the disciples, but “all” people will finally “see” Jesus and be “drawn” to him.
“All” is a big word. That is because the news about Jesus is big. It is not only for a select few. As I tried to point out in last week’s post, salvation and eternal life are intended for the entire cosmos. Thus, the missionary impulse to spread the good news to all people. That imperative was drummed into me from an early age. The Lutheran congregation of my childhood held “mission Sundays” at least annually at which missionaries on furlough were invited to speak and a special offering was taken up to support their work. I can recall vividly attending one such event with my parents on a Sunday evening early in the fall. We were sitting on metal folding chairs in the darkened church basement watching a grainy black and white movie filmed by one of our missionary guests. My recollection is that it was shot somewhere in Asia. It was clearly staged. A young, smiling couple stood with their two children in front of their modest home as our guest narrated. “Now this,” he said, “is what happens when Jesus comes into the home of a new believer.” The family turned and went into their house, promptly began collected artifacts of traditional worship set up on shelves and little stone altars in the main living area, placed them into a bag and threw the bag in the fireplace.
That image has haunted me all my life. Even at the tender age of eight or nine there seemed to be something “not quite right” about what I was seeing. The discomfort only grew as I matured and was exposed to other religious traditions through the people I met. Most memorable was a young woman I knew during my college years. I will call her “Min.” Min was an exchange student from Taiwan and a devout Buddhist. Still, she attended our chapel services regularly and showed a keen interest in Christianity. That, of course, attracted my evangelical soul like a magnet and led to my having a number of conversations with her. Even at that point in my life, I knew better than to think I could “convert” Min to Christianity. That was the job of the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, I felt it my duty to present Jesus in the most compelling way possible-just to give the Spirit plenty to work with.
The conversations I had with Min were sometimes enlightening, but more often frustrating and confusing. I was never quite sure we were even speaking about the same thing when we talked about “God,” “eternal life” and “heaven.” But during one of our last conversations, Min said something that always stuck with me. “You know,” she said. “There is a lot about Christianity that just doesn’t make much sense to me. But I think that knowing Jesus has helped me to become a better Buddhist.” At the time, I thought I had failed in my ministry to Min. She had not converted to Christianity, been baptized or rejected her Buddhist faith. But at the same time, I felt somehow relieved. There was something beautiful about Min’s religion, her way of being present to everyone she met and her deep compassion that I would not have wanted to destroy. Her conversion, it seemed to me, would mean snuffing out a flame “that shines forth…in unaccountable faith, in stubborn hope, in love that illumines every broken thing it finds.” Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings for the Seasons c. 2015 by Jan Richardson pp.47-48. It has taken me some time to reconcile these conflicting feelings, but I think I am now in a better position to make sense of them. Like the disciples in John’s gospel, I look back on my friendship with Min and recognize now that she was in fact “drawn” to Jesus, came to “see” him and was even tranaformed by him-just not in the way I was taught to expect.
The history of Christian missions is a mixed bag. In spite of the assumptions of white supremacy and colonial ambition that often accompanied the missionary enterprise, many of the missionaries themselves were caring and faithful witnesses with a deep love for the people they came to serve. There is no disputing that this effort, misguided as it often was, gave rise to thousands of lively, faithful and creative indigenous churches. Notwithstanding the dubious terms in which the gospel was often presented by Northern European and American missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the resulting churches have nevertheless managed to make the gospel their own and speak it to the world in fresh and startling ways.
Racism and colonialism are not the only impediments to proclaiming the good news about Jesus in lands where it is a foreign element. We have unfortunately been schooled to think of evangelism as a zero sum game in which a soul is either won or lost. Other religions are frequently viewed as competitors. Evangelism is a contest for market share. The endgame is conversion to Christianity with a repudiation of what has gone before. Where that is the prevailing assumption, it is hard for non-Christians to see missionaries, however courteously, respectfully and tactfully they may present themselves, as anything other than invaders intent on destroying their faith, to say nothing of imposing upon them a lot of unwanted cultural baggage. But what if being “drawn” to Jesus does not necessarily imply conversion to Christianity? What if mission work includes helping Muslims be better Muslims? Buddhists better Buddhists? Conversely, an openness to other religious traditions enriches our own worship, preaching and practice. Witness the profound effect Buddhism has had for contemplative Christians like Thomas Merton and Rowen Williams. For my own part, no Christian theologian has ever helped me appreciate the full implications of the Incarnation as did Jewish author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
By no means do I object to conversion, so long as it does not involve coercion or undue influence. Many of my friends in Christ have been “evangelized,” that is, drawn to Jesus and his church’s ministry along a path leading away from prior faith commitments or from having no faith at all. But I am not convinced that evangelism is a zero sum game with conversion to Christianity as the sole objective. I believe that Jesus has much to offer adherents of other faith traditions and that these traditions offer Christians fresh perspectives with which to understand our own faith. I don’t believe we must choose between rejecting or devaluing the faiths of others on the one hand or watering down all faiths to some trite common denominator on the other. All we need to do is “speak of what we have seen and heard,” “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” Jesus can be trusted to draw all people to himself in his own good time, in his own good way and on his own good terms.
Here is the poem/blessing cited above by Jan Richardson in full. This lyric piece illustrates the good news about Jesus, light which shines in the darkness and which the darkness cannot extinguish.
Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light
Blessed are you
Who bear the light
In unbearable times,
To its endurance
Amid the unendurable,
Who bear witness
To its persistence
When everything seems
In shadow and grief.
Blessed are you
The light lives,
The brightness blazes-
An altar where
In the deepest night
Can be seen
The fire that
Shines forth in you
In unaccountable faith,
In stubborn hope,
In love that illuminates
Every broken thing
Source: Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Richardson, Jan (c. 2015 by Jan Richardson; pub. by Wanton Gospeller Press). Jan Richardson is an artist, writer, and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. She grew up in Evinston, a small community outside of Gainesville, Florida. She is currently director of The Wellspring Studio and serves as a retreat leader and conference speaker. In addition to the above cited work, her books include The Cure for Sorrow, Night Visions, In the Sanctuary of Women, and Sparrow: A Book of Life and Death and Life. You can learn more about Jan Richardson and her work on her website.