Jesus and the Power of Yes

We wish to see Jesus. Today some Greeks make a request bigger than they know. Perhaps all of us do the same. Coming to church, week in and week out, making our way together on this pilgrim journey, we state with our actions if not always in our words: “We wish to see Jesus.” Do we know how that desire will change us? Do we understand that seeing Jesus, really seeing Jesus might ask more of ourselves than we’re ready to offer? Are we ready to see Jesus? Are we ready to offer our whole selves for the chance?

Throughout Lent the parish guild has been reading a collection of essays on the lives of saints. Some of these saints are official like Mary Magdalene who gave her wealth to the early disciples, and gave her identity to become the first apostle. Some of the  saints are in process, like Archbishop Oscar Romero who gave his church, his voice and his life to the poor of El Salvador. Some are more controversial figures like Dorothy Day, the Catholic lay woman who dedicated herself to protesting all war and who founded Catholic Worker communities that feed, clothe, and house the homeless. The title of the work fits well with our Gospel today: “Not less than everything.” These saints gave “not less than everything” for the sake of God’s kingdom.

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about the importance of saying “no.” In this Lenten season, this time of fasting, of slowing down, of giving things up, there is a value to learning to say “no.”

Today, I want to talk about the word, “yes.”

Some of you may hear a bit of fundamentalism in this statement, but I’m going to make it nevertheless. I believe Jesus wants you to say yes. I believe God wants you to say yes. I say there is fundamentalism, and to a degree that is true. Fundamentally I believe God invites us to a deeper life, a richer life, a more meaningful life.

Now don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to make your way down this aisle, to profess your faith before the congregation. We’re Episcopalians after all. We don’t do altar calls. Or is that true? Don’t we invite you to the altar each and every week? Part of being a sacramental Christian is to know that we come down this aisle again and again. Every week is an altar call, and the yes to Jesus is cumulative. Each week we make our way down that dusty track. Each week, each day, each moment, we say yes. God invites us to be a part of a movement working to bring health, justice, and wholeness. But we have to say yes. Consent matters to God.

There’s a danger in casting this decision as a simple yes/no. We are a very binary culture. We build a lot of black and white distinctions. We carry in our pockets little computers which endlessly process yeses and noes. All the constant this or that means that we think of choices in a very momentary way. The yes Jesus invites us to isn’t simple.

The church has sometimes portrayed the choice, “yes” or “no” to Jesus, as something you can say once, and be done. To a degree faith works like this. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. To a degree we can make momentary decisions to embrace the life of faith, to “let go, and let God” as some say. Christ does invite us in each moment to say yes.

But that kind of “yes,” the quick, the momentary, I don’t believe is the fullness of the “yes” God desires, the “yes” Jesus invites us to make. The “yes” we are invited to is deeper. As I said earlier, the yes is cumulative. God wants not less than everything, not less than our whole self, our whole life. The yes of Jesus is total.

Our culture is digital, but this tension between the simple “yes” and the deeper affirmation is as old as the church. There is a story of the desert fathers, the early saints of the first centuries after Jesus. In the story, a young monk comes to see Abba Joseph, a wizened old teacher,

and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?’ Then the old  man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

There is a reason Jesus talks today about “losing your life.” Jesus invites us to follow, and following Jesus is costly. As the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, Christ’s grace is free, but it is not cheap. Saying yes means knowing the cost of discipleship.

But the cost has benefit. I’m going to do something a little controversial now. I’m going to ask you to change the translation of the Bible. Take a look at the yellow insert, and take out a pen or pencil. In the penultimate sentence, the second to last, I want you to find the word “people” and cross it out. The word does not appear in the Greek original of John’s Gospel, and the word caries a great deal of meaning here.

If Jesus is saying that on the cross, when his is lifted up, he will draw all “people” to himself than the statement is pretty clear. Christ is concerned with the salvation of each and every last person on earth. While I believe that is true, I think Jesus has something even more radical in mind. “Pantas” the word  in Greek has a bigger sense than the “total number of people.” All here means all, the whole, the entirety.

“When I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself.” All. No qualifier. All. On the cross Jesus offers all of himself. On the cross, God offers all of God-self. All. And in that offering God draws the whole into the saving embrace of those outstretched arms.

How often in life do we hold a little of ourselves back?

How often do we keep some part hidden, tucked away? How often do we say, “if people knew this about me, they wouldn’t respect me, they might not love me?”

Church can be a particularly difficult spot because, even at a place like Holy Communion, church often carries a veneer of “presentability.” Even in a church where most of us don’t worry about putting on heels and pearls, sport coats or ties, in a space where we say we worry less about “wearing our Sunday best” maybe we still watch our behavior a bit. At least some of us swear a little less here than in other places, maybe. I say that to make you laugh, but also because church can be, has been, a fraught place, where we suppose we need to make ourselves presentable.

God has no interest in your presentable self. God doesn’t care about the version of you that looks like you have life together. Jesus says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw ALL to myself.” All. No part of you gets to stay hidden. As the collect for purity we often say has it, “to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” God knows it all. And God invites your whole self into the arms of mercy. God says yes. God looks at you, at your life, and says yes.

We went last week to see Ava Duvernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” The movie is not exactly the book, but both versions are worth your time, in my opinion. Madeleine’s book was one of the first science fiction novels with a young girl protagonist. Duvernay ups the ante, the casting is multi-racial. The most compelling moment comes toward the end. Don’t worry, this isn’t really a spoiler. To overcome the great challenge she faces the protagonist, Meg, has to learn to see her vulnerabilities as strengths This is what makes Madeleine’s story so different than most heroe’s journeys. Meg doesn’t need to transcend her flaws, she needs to embrace them. She is not her full self if she does not accept what makes her vulnerable. She has to show up to the challenge as her WHOLE self. In this way “A Wrinkle in Time” has some profound theology.

No bit of you is irredeemable. No part of your story needs to be left out with God. All of what brought you to this day matters, has shaped you, and all, all, all will help you to follow Jesus. That is the power of God’s yes.

The word “all” can seem intimidating and exhausting. To be asked for your “all” is a frightening concept, and it should be. In any other hands, for any other cause, giving your all would be a waster. But Christians believe that all of you already belongs to God. All, all, of who you are belongs to God. You come from God, and to God you will return. Your life is God’s. This is true for the whole Cosmos, the whole creation, every bit belongs to God and all will return to God. So in this sense saying “yes” giving your all, is a surrender to the deep rhythms of creation. Saying yes to giving your whole life, is to say yes fully, and deeply to who you were created to be. Saying yes still is not easy, but when we get this yes, it can be enlivening rather than exhausting. Saying yes to God is saying yes to the mystery of our own being.

We find ourselves today just a week from Palm Sunday. We are on our way to Calvary. In the days to come we will have the opportunity to march together through the streets, to dance with palm branches. We will wash feet, celebrate Eucharist, contemplate the hard wood of the cross. Together we will hear again the Easter proclamation: “Christ is risen.” I’ll say again what one of my priests once said to me, “your Easter joy will be in direct proportion to the amount of time you invest in Holy Week at church.”

As we begin this journey together, as we tell the story of Jesus’ last days again, today’s Gospel has a question. “Do you wish to see Jesus?” Do you trust that Christ sees you, all of you, your whole self, your whole story, has come within Christ’s saving embrace. God says yes. And God invites you to give your whole self, not less than everything, as you follow Jesus. It’s a big ask. Will you say yes?


Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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