Fifth Sunday in Lent – Year B
March 18, 2018
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. We will remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his Last Supper with the disciples, his arrest, trial, and death on a cross.
According to the gospels, Jesus saw the end coming and he spoke about it a number of times. Today’s account from John 12:20-33 is an example.
The scene is just after the Palm Procession into the city which was filled with visitors from many different places who had travelled to celebrate the coming Passover. Some Greeks approached Philip and said: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Then a surprising thing happened. Jesus doesn’t take the Greeks over to the corner bagel shop for a quiet, private conversation. He speaks to the whole crowd. We begin to understand that the request, “We wish to see Jesus,” is really a metaphor for, “We want to understand, to comprehend, to grasp what this person is all about.”
And what does he talk about? Death and the cross.
23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Then he goes on to say:
32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
The cross. We have crosses in our churches. We wear them as jewelry on silver and gold chains. But do we comprehend the power of the cross of Jesus? Do we understand, like Jesus was saying to the Greeks, if you truly wish to see, to understand me, then consider the cross.
Two stories I want to share with you. The first is from Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson’s award winning account of his work as a young attorney dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.
Herbert Richardson was on death row. All of his appeals exhausted, he asked to meet with Bryan Stevenson a half-hour before his execution. I read from the text.
“It’s been a very strange day, Bryan, really strange. Most people who feel fine don’t get to think all day about this being their last day alive with certainty that they will be killed. It’s different than being in Vietnam . . . much stranger.”
He nodded at all the officers who were milling about nervously. “It’s been strange for them, too.”
“All day long people have been asking me, ‘What can I do to help you?’ When I woke up this morning, they kept coming to me, ‘Can we get you some breakfast?’ At midday they came to me, ‘Can we get you some lunch?’ All day long, ‘What can we do to help you?’ This evening, ‘What do you want for your meal, how can we help you?’ ‘Do you need stamps for your letters?’ ‘Do you want coffee?’ ‘Can we get you the phone?’ ‘How can we help you?’”
Herbert sighed and looked away.
“It’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked in the years I was coming up.” He looked at me, and his face twisted in confusion.
I gave Herbert one last long hug, but I was thinking about what he’d said. I thought of all the evidence that the court had never reviewed about his childhood. I was thinking about all of the trauma and difficulty that had followed him home from Vietnam. I couldn’t help but ask myself, Where were these people when he really needed them? Where were all of these helpful people when Herbert was three and his mother died? Where were they when he was seven and trying to recover from physical abuse? Where were they when he was a young teen struggling with drugs and alcohol? Where were they when he returned from Vietnam traumatized and disabled?
I saw the cassette tape recorder that had been set up in the hallway and watched an officer bring over the tape (that Herbert had requested to be played as he walked to the death chamber). The sad strains of “The Old Rugged Cross” began to play as they pulled Herbert away from me.”
We wish to see Jesus.
William Willimon is a professor of theology at Duke University Divinity School. He recently shared the following story.
Right after I finished seminary, I was forced to take a quarter of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). That’s when a budding pastor is assigned to some clinical situation in a chaplaincy position. You work under the supervision of some experienced chaplain who guides you in ministry to those in need.
My first day, I was assigned as chaplain to a woman who was in the last stages of lung cancer. I entered her hospital room with a cheery, “Good morning!”
She cursed me and told me she didn’t want any blankety-blank-blank chaplain hanging around her. I left.
Then the head nurse told me, “She’s addicted to cigarettes. That’s how she got in this fix. She’s not allowed to smoke by herself. If you go back and tell her that you are willing to sit with her while she sucks on those cancer sticks, she will let you stay.”
I gulped but did just that. She let me stay, and I sat there watching her inhale the smoke that was causing her death. Between her gasps, she told me that she had been raised as a Catholic, but she despised the church and hadn’t been in a Catholic church in years.
In the subsequent weeks (I visited her and watched her smoke at least twice a day), she told me about her childhood. Her cancer seemed a sad way for her rather sad life to end. Repeatedly she told me about her anger at the church. No friends or family ever visited her, so far as I know. Each day she became weaker as the cancer made it more difficult for her to breathe.
Then one day, between gasps, she asked, “Can you get me a crucifix?”
“Er, uh, I guess so. I’m a Protestant, but I’m sure I can find a way to get you a crucifix. Why do you want a crucifix?” I asked.
“None of your damn business,” she gasped.
I got her a crucifix on a string of rosary beads and presented it to her. She took it without comment. In all my succeeding visits, I found her clutching that crucifix to her chest as her chest heaved up and down in labored breathing.
On the next to the last day before she slipped into a coma, she said to me unexpectedly, “You know”—gasp—“why I want this?” Gasp.
“I would really like to know,” I said.
“He, he has been there,” she said, lifting the tiny figure of Christ on the cross. “He’s been there. He knows.” Gasp. “There’s nothin’ that they done to me,” gasp, “that they didn’t do,” gasp, “to him. He knows.”
She died two days later with Christ on the cross clutched in her hands. I said that she asked me to go find her a crucifix. I think it’s more accurate for me to say that Christ on the cross, Christ the crucified, found her. 
Jesus said: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
It is so.
 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014, Spiegel and Grau: New York, p. 89.
 William Willamon, Ministry Matters: Pulpit Resource, found online at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8662/march-18-2018-the-magnetic-cross