"The Lois Lane Problem": Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

"The Lois Lane Problem": Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

Mar 22, 2015

Passage:John 12:20-33

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Lent

Category: Discipleship, Grace

Keywords: grace, lent, love, practices, redemption


In John's Gospel, we hear the story of Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Some Greeks approach Philip to take them to see Jesus--whose fame is now spreading. Philip and Andrew want Jesus to meet the Greeks, but instead Jesus begins to speak cryptically about his death and about the redemption of the world. We are left with the question: do we approach Jesus as if we are a "clueless sidekick" and only know about his fame? Or do we have an understanding of the bigger picture of our role in God's redeeming grace as part of the Body of Christ?


In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.


One of the things that's been a great pleasure for me this Lenten season has been the fellowship and worship many of us have shared in our Wednesday night Lenten Series. We join together for Holy Eucharist with healing. We dine together on wonderful food brought by, and a shared by, those who come. We then gather for an hour of thoughtful and often hilarious conversation and communion with one another.

The youth and children have been having a great time in the EYC room during that hour, looking at ways of treating one another with kindness and respect. For the adults, we have been using scenes from Hollywood films to lead us into discussion about different aspects of St. Benedict's Rule. It has been a fruitful and lively time.

What it has done for me--as it always seems to do this time of year--is that it really focuses me into paying attention to movies and television. I look more intentionally for themes and ideas that may be useful for the Lenten Series. In fact, I can hardly just watch a movie any more without analyzing it for its potential use in a future program!

But more than that, I also find myself reading about movies and television, trying to figure out how plots work, how characters are developed, and how themes are conceived. In all of this research and thinking about movies and TV, I've learned far more than I ever cared to know, or will ever be useful as part of a Lenten Series.

For example, I was reading in a recent edition of The Atlantic magazine about something known as "The Lois Lane Problem."[1] Essentially, what this article is referring to is this: many of the successful television shows of the past few years are adaptations of either comic books or graphic novels. The main character in these shows are archetypal heroes--but usually with a secret identity. They are regular gals or guys by day, and superheroes or spies or whatever by night... But then comes the problem: They all have a sidekick or love interest or similar best friend, who does not know their real identity. The author of the Atlantic article identifies this as the "Lois Lane problem" and argues that it's time for television to get rid of the "clueless" sidekicks. People are sick of that storyline, she asserts. People watching these shows are pretty convinced that someone close to the hero would know the true identity.

See, I told you that I have learned more than most would ever care to know about this stuff!

Having said that, I think there may be echoes of the "Lois Lane Problem" in our Gospel reading today.

Let's take a look to see what I'm talking about...

In the reading from John, we encounter Jesus and some of his disciples in Jerusalem. They are there for the Passover festival. It almost time for Jesus to be betrayed. It's almost time for his crucifixion.

Jerusalem is a Roman-occupied city. It is a Jewish city, but people from all over the empire would come through this crossroads location to trade or to pass through. But once a year, at the Passover festival, faithful Jews from all over Palestine make their way to the city to be part of the festivities.

But, of course, others would be there too. Curious Gentiles—merchants, traders, administrators, intellectuals—also would flock to the city. Jerusalem's dusty streets would be packed with people. The Roman guard would be on high alert.

It is into this setting, we hear in today’s reading, that “two Greeks went up to worship at the festival.”

I find these two Greeks to be fascinating. They were obviously not from Jerusalem, but from somewhere else. But they had heard about Jesus. His fame had spread to wherever they were from. So, if they were now tourists in the biggest Jewish city in the world, and they had heard about the "signs" being done by this Jesus, of course they wanted to see him. He would be one of the biggest tourist draws in the city for them.

So what do they do? They hear that Philip is one of Jesus' disciples. Philip is a Greek name. He's from Bethsaida, which is a Greek-speaking town. Philip is their man! They ask him if they can see Jesus.

Philip takes Andrew and they go to Jesus on behalf of these Greeks.

But what happens next is unexpected. What happens next makes me think of this "Lois Lane Problem."

Jesus does not say, “sure, I'll be happy to talk to those Greek fellows!”

Instead, Jesus gathers the entire crowd that's around him and launches into a rather disconcerting discourse about it being the time for the Son of Man to be glorified. He gives a cryptic metaphor about seeds dying and bearing fruit. He tells them that if they love their life they will lose it but if they hate their life in this world they will keep life eternally. And he goes on to even more astonishing conclusions.

I try to imagine the look on Philip 's face when all of this went down.

Philip approaches Jesus, his mentor...his rabbi...his Lord...and proudly comes with the request from these Greeks to see him. Philip knows that he is the disciple of a great man! And that's what the Greeks want to see. They have heard about this great man--Jesus.

Philip has to have felt pride when the Greeks first approached him. What a great honor for Philip to have been affiliated with this famous healer, preacher, and teacher named Jesus. It's pretty awesome being a side-kick to someone who is so famous.

But Philip didn't get it!

When Philip approached Jesus wanting to introduce these Greeks who were excited about his fame in this world, Jesus responds by saying: "this is the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified." And we hear that when Jesus said: “Father, glorify your name," a voice came from heaven, saying "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."

Jesus also foretells of his being lifted from the earth. Most importantly, he says that when that happens, “I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus is talking about fulfilling God’s covenant of redeeming the whole of creation!

What Jesus is doing in this statement is enacting the proclamation made by Jeremiah nearly seven centuries before. Israel had been defeated, and Jeremiah prophesied that a new covenant would come to Israel and Judah. This covenant would be so much a part of the people, it would be written on their hearts. The law would no longer be external. It would be part of them. “I am your God and you are my people” would now central to their very being.

Philip and Andrew excitedly arrive to tell Jesus that these Greeks have come to town and they want to see Jesus, the superhero. They are interested in the Jesus of the tabloids. They want to get their picture taken with the Jesus who was on TMZ. They want a "selfie" with the Jesus who sat on the couch of the Tonight Show. And Philip and Andrew are just as giddy to part of the entourage of that same Jesus.

As it turns out, Philip and Andrew are oblivious about what Jesus is really offering. Philip and Andrew are the clueless sidekicks in this story. Jesus answers them, ultimately, by going to the cross.

Now, I want to be clear in my analogies--because all analogies have weaknesses. I mention that this story has echoes for me of the "Lois Lane problem." This is not to say that I am comparing Jesus to Superman (or any other comic book hero, for that matter). Superman is the fictional "man of steel" and Jesus is our Lord and Savior...

But this is the question for us today. As we make our way through this last week of Lent, how do we approach Jesus? Are welooking to him as the great and mighty Jesus, vanquisher of all challengers? Do we see him only in light of his mighty deeds of power? Do we call on the name of Jesus as if we are seeking an audience with a great celebrity?

Or, do we understand that through our baptism, through our spiritual practices, through our love of neighbor, through our participation in Holy Eucharist, through our gathering together as the faithful, that we—like the seed—have died and have sprouted into the Body of Christ to bear much fruit. It is in these practices that we grow in the knowledge of the love of God. And we realize that we have been redeemed. And we share that knowledge and love with the rest of creation.


[1] Shirley Li, "The Lois Lane Problem: Enough With Clueless TV Sidekicks," The Atlantic, November 26, 2014, available at