I imagine that the Greeks who came to Jesus’ disciple, Philip, and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” were somewhat baffled by Jesus’ response to them. They had heard of all his miracles, and his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem would have been the talk of the city, and his raising of Lazarus from death was a undeniable display of God’s power, and so they wanted to see Jesus for themselves. Who was this person whom God was working through, who seemed to be a channel for the glory of God? Would Jesus perform some of these miracles for them? Would they get a chance to see God’s glory firsthand? They were clearly already awed, and didn’t dare address Jesus directly, yet they wanted to see him.
And Jesus’ response was, as I said, baffling. In essence, Jesus responded by saying, “If you want to see how glorious God is, and how glorified God will make me, if you want to see the power of God over life and death, if you want to be with me and follow me to God... you need to watch me die. No more miracles, no more healings, no more water into wine, no more making the crippled walk, no more feeding the five thousand or walking on water, no more raising the dead. Just death itself. That is the final act of power, the final show of glory. You want to see what God is like? See me die.” Jesus completely rejected any expectations that God’s glory would ultimately be shown in acts of triumph and victory.
But we shouldn’t be too hard on those Greeks, because we do the same thing. We don’t necessarily look for miracles of water turning into wine, but we do equate success and power and victory with God’s glory. We say we are “blessed” when church membership grows or church giving exceeds the budget. We say, “God sure is with us,” when we pay off a church mortgage, or see the Sunday school outgrowing its capacity, or when visitors to church come more than one week in a row. We like to go to churches that are filled with people on Sunday morning, where it looks like a lot is going on, and the church is thriving. We seek out these places because we expect that we will see and experience God’s glory and Christ’s presence in these lively encounters. We look to these things because we, too, wish to see Jesus.
But this morning I want to share with you a story of when I saw Jesus, and experienced the glory of God, exactly where Jesus said we would––in the humiliation of death. It’s the story of St. John, the Lutheran congregation here in Calgary that closed nine months ago. And I admit that I debated with myself whether to talk about this, because it’s considered bad form to talk about a congregation one has served previously, kind of like talking about a former girlfriend or boyfriend when dating someone new, but I do believe that this story shows us that Jesus is truly seen in those who fall into the earth and die, and that God’s glory is experienced among those who lose their life for others.
So. St. John was, during its heyday, a congregation that we lift up as the epitome of what a church should look like. Sunday mornings, the worship space that holds 300 was packed without any empty seats, for multiple services. The Sunday school, also with hundreds of children, was overflowing. People walked to church, it was a significant presence in the community, there were programs every night, several choirs, and confirmation classes graduated at least 50 students a year. Easter Sunday was everything Easter should be - full of glory - choirs and packed seats and everyone in their absolute Sunday best. When the congregation sang the Easter hymn, the voices fairly lifted the roof right off the building and you could almost touch heaven. The glory of God, the presence of Christ, were there - impossible to miss.
Decades later, that glory had faded. By 2014, the hundreds had reduced to tens, the Sunday school had evaporated, along with the confirmation class. There were no evening programs, no neighbourhood presence, 40 people on a Sunday morning was a good turn-out, and the budget wasn’t being met. To the outside eye, it was clear that this was a church that was dying.
And it was. St. John was dying. The once great church had come to the end of its life. There really was no more energy to start new programs or to engage with the community. There truly was no more money to keep going. After more than 115 years, it was all coming to an end.
It was an awful time, to be honest. Nobody likes to think that they’re dying, least of all a congregation. The people of St. John felt ashamed, they felt that they had somehow failed but didn’t even know how, they certainly wondered where God was in the midst of all this. Sunday mornings were subdued, Council meetings were a chore, annual meetings were depressing. It was a time when it was very, very difficult to see the presence of Christ. They could see where Jesus had been with them in the past, but they couldn’t see where Jesus was with them in this.
But then a ray of hope began to shine. No, they weren’t gifted with a million dollars in someone’s will. Nor were they blessed with a pastor with a fool-proof outreach plan that drew in visitors by the hundreds. There were no miracles. There were no resurrections from the dead. Instead, there was the simple acknowledgement that all things die. This was the ray of hope - that all things die. It is part of the order of our world that nothing created by God lives forever. (It is, incidentally, the reason that in the Nicene Creed we say that the Son of God is begotten, not made. Nothing made lives forever, but the Son of God does, therefore he can’t be made, only begotten.) Humans die. Animals die. Relationships die. Congregations die. Even denominations die. Certainly something or someone may die before we are ready for it, and that death may come in ways far more painful than we would wish for, but, in the end, death comes to all. At St. John, their death was not a sign of failure, it was not a sign of God’s absence, it was not a punishment. It was, in its own way, as natural as life. As natural as seeds dropping from plants in the fall, right before the plant itself dies.
“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.” This was the hope, that in their own natural death, the people of St. John might bear glorious witness to Christ. And so they began asking, How might others, and particularly the church-at-large, receive new life from St John’s death?
It was in this acceptance of death and the questions that arose that the glory of God began to shine, and the presence of Jesus was so powerfully felt. Moved by the Holy Spirit to trust in God’s promise of life after death, the people of St. John made two momentous decisions. The first was to sell their building. Under their care, the building itself was dying. It needed major repairs, and even the minor repairs, like changing lightbulbs, were beyond their capacity. So they decided to sell it. Not for the most money they could get, which would have meant selling to a developer for upwards of $2.5 million. Instead, they decided to sell to another congregation. To a congregation that could in no way afford to buy or build a church in downtown Calgary, on prime land. Which meant selling for much less. But which also meant enabling a new group of Christians to build up their own congregation, so that their children and grandchildren and one-day great-grandchildren could come to love Christ in that space. The glory of God would continue to be shown in that space, albeit no longer amongst the people of St. John.
The second decision was that they would close. They would not take the money from the sale of the building and use it to keep going indefinitely. They would not use it to put death off for another 10 or 20 years. They would accept that their death was happening now, and they would embrace that death as the means to give new life to others. And so they gave all that money away. They gave it to CLWR, to the Seminary, to Campus Ministry, to the Mustard Seed, to Meals on Wheels, to you. They gave it to groups that would directly benefit from their death, around the world, within the Synod, and here in the city.
And God’s glory shone, and the people saw Jesus. You would think that after such decisions as these, that Sundays would be even grimmer, and the people even sadder. But that’s not what happened. In fact, it was the opposite. Sunday mornings became joyous, heart-felt experiences of thanking God for all the life they had been given, and the life they were giving in return. Council meetings were a blast - how often do you get to talk about how to get rid of money instead of how to get it? The recipients of the money came every week in the Easter season to share the ways in which the money they were receiving was bringing new life - providing job opportunities, spreading the healing message of God’s love to new people, giving new life to programs. The fruit borne from the single grain of St. John’s death was tremendous, and the people of St. John were blessed to see the growth of that new life. The glory of God was shown in their willingness to die so that others might have new life, and they saw Jesus.
Tellingly, though, when the people of St. John would talk to others about their decision, those others, including other Christians, would make that sad, I’m-so-sorry face that we all make when we hear someone is dying. And they expected St. John’s people to be sad too. Even in the church, we have a hard time truly relying on Christ’s promise of new life after death, or seeing God’s glory and Christ’s presence in the cross. But those who came to worship at St. John in those last days, they saw Jesus and they experienced God, and they understood. One of the things that astounded me was that there were at least two people who started attending just a few months before St. John was scheduled to close. They knew the church was dying, and yet, for some reason, they kept coming. Sunday after Sunday until the very end. And I can only explain it by saying that they must have experienced the glory of God in this death, and they must have seen Jesus. I have no other explanation, and I don’t look for any other explanation, because I experienced that glory and I saw Jesus in those last days as well. As the congregation made their choices about who to give money to, and as they sang their favourite hymns for the last time, as they celebrated Easter together for the last time as a congregation, Christ was there, in a powerful way I have not experienced anywhere else. As odd as it sounds, I wish that every Christian could have the experience of being in a congregation that handles its death so faithfully, so that every Christian could see Christ in death.
The Greeks came saying, “We wish to see Jesus,” and Jesus responded with, “And what should I say––‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Jesus knew that the new life his death would bring would cause others to see and glorify God far more than his continued life would. He would truly be seen in that death. It seems baffling to think that a congregation exists in order to one day die and give new life, and that this is what most clearly shows the Son of God to the world, and yet this is the story of St. John. Whoever serves Jesus must follow him, to the cross, and to death, and, in return, he is with them. Jesus was with the congregation of St. John as they followed him, and through the story of their death, we see Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.