Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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 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 honour. – John 12:20-26
Not long ago I had the privilege of leading a class on saints and mystics called “the Great Cloud of Witnesses.” When I start preparing for this kind of work I feel I know something about the subject — until I get into it and realize how little I know, how much there is to know and how feeble my brain power seems to be when I really want to remember everything I read about it. It’s an exercise in both pride and humility. I’m proud to be allowed to present the topic but humbled at the same time. Will I do it right? Will it be worth the time they spend listening to me and participating? There’s always something I could have done better, I’m positive, but how to make this time informative, interesting and somewhat entertaining at the same time is the trick. Still, teaching is always a shot in the dark: some will take away something, some will be bored and some will catch fire and do some digging on their own to learn more.
One of the themes that seems to come up through these sessions (all of which are on Christianity, church, Anglicanism/Episcopaliansm, discipleship, history, etc.,) is prayer and the role of prayer, especially prayer disciplines like Lectio Divina. There are several forms of it, but all are based on four steps: lectio (reading a scripture, focusing on an object, picturing a scene), mediatio (reflecting on the scene, putting oneself into the world of the reading, mulling over a word or phrase that jumps out), oratio (prayer for guidance and inspiration), contemplatio (resting in God’s presence and listening for God to speak). A fifth step comes with actio which means taking what we’ve been given through the process of lectio divina and making use of it in our daily lives. I found that to be very much the case in the lives of the saints and particularly the mystics.
Among the saints I studied I found the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early centuries of Christianity, ascetics who moved out into the wilderness or desert in order to pray, live simple, quiet lives, and be free to live with God and God’s messages as spoken in the Scriptures. They were considered local saints and were revered for their wisdom and discernment. Often visitors would come simply to ask the Abba or Amma, “Give me a word.” What they wanted was something to take with them to think about as they went on their daily lives, something that would help them in their religious growth, help ensure their salvation, or even resolve a problem. The “word” they would be given would be usually something short and pithy, a few sentences at most, but it’s easier to remember a proverb or short saying than a sermon. In today’s reading, Jesus gives us a “word” to think about and act upon.
“Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.” A lot of people will jump to the word “honour” but skip over the very necessary qualifier “serve.” Jesus isn’t asking for us to be Carson the butler bringing tea to the drawing room, he’s asking us to be of service to our fellow humans wherever we are and in whatever way we can. Serving Jesus isn’t necessarily a church job like consecrating the elements for the Eucharist, making sure the brass and linen are spotless, or welcoming people when they enter and inviting them to coffee hour as they prepare to leave. Serving Jesus, the way Jesus used it here in this passage, meant doing what he had so often preached and taught: take care of the sheep and lambs, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, care for the widows and orphans and people in trouble of any kind, tend the sick and comfort the dying. To get a halo in heaven one needs to wear one on earth, even if it is invisible.
Those who serve Jesus best are the ones who see him in every person they know or see or with whom they share life on this planet. As I learned with my study of the saints, most of the greatest were the ones who were the most humble and unobtrusive. Yes, many did very great deeds and left us a rich legacy of writings and examples, but they didn’t seek honour. In fact, most of them shunned it as a distraction from their real work. That humility and simply doing what needed to be done, though, gained them honour here on earth after their translation to a new and greater life as well as honour in heaven from God.
The church encourages us to look to the lives of saints as examples of living a Christian life. Often we look for the big stuff like miracles or exceptional bravery in the face of torture and imminent death, but what is more important is to look to the person quietly doing the things that may be distasteful or seemingly demeaning but who themselves simply see a need in the world and fill it as best they are able.
Maybe they can’t quote a specific passage of scripture that covers whatever service they happen to be doing, but they actually do better than just being able to snap out a Bible verse or passage. They may never have heard of St. Francis of Assisi or heard his statement of “Preach always, sometimes use words,” but they do that instinctively, preaching the gospel of Jesus through their care, concern and service.
I have to ask myself, where have I done a saintly deed this week or even just a kindly one meant to help someone else? Where do I need to try to stop trying to wear a halo and simply earn one? I think I have a job ahead of me this next week, trying to do just that. Honour here on earth is often very fleeting; God’s works on a much longer time scale. That’s something to work towards.