We wish to see Jesus

Sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent
Hebrews 5:5-10 and John 12:20-33

“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.’”

The setting is Jerusalem, in the days leading up to the greatest of all of the Jewish feasts, the Passover. As John tells the story, right on the heels of Jesus’ entry into the city—riding on a donkey, and heralded by waving palm branches—a group of people identified only as “Greeks” ask if they might see him. They might have been what are sometimes called “God-fearers”—Gentiles attracted to Judaism and its practices, yet not full converts—or they might have been diaspora Jews, who had lived so long in the cities of the Empire that they were culturally and linguistically more Greek than Jewish. They’ve seen those waving palm branches, and heard some of the stories about this man Jesus, and they’d like to take a closer look. John tells us that they approach Philip, and here it might be interesting to note that “Philip” is in fact a Greek name. Philip turns to Andrew (another Greek name, by the way), and together they approach Jesus with the request.

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Notice first of all what Jesus doesn’t do. He doesn’t immediately go to meet with these seekers (or haul out the ancient world’s version of an iPhone and schedule a meeting for a more convenient time…), but instead begins to speak with the disciples along lines that at least at first seem to be a complete tangent.

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.’

What in heaven’s name has that to do with the seekers’ request? I mean, even if those Greeks are hovering in the background and overhear this response, wouldn’t it have seemed to them that they’d basically been ignored? As the text progresses, Jesus’ message of life and death, and of following and servanthood, continues and deepens. Where is he going here? And what about those Greeks? Do they ever get an answer?

According to the New Testament scholar John Marsh, “The reply of Jesus to the request for an interview was to the effect that the universality which he had come to restore to the Temple and to the whole religion and life of God’s people was not yet fully inaugurated, but waited upon his own death and resurrection.” As John builds his narrative, the message seems to be that the “Greeks” will not be able to truly “see” Jesus until they see him in his resurrection light. Prior to that, they might get a glimpse of a compelling teacher, but that view is partial at best. Of course that is true even for the Jews who have come around Jesus, including the disciples. All of them have but a partial view, and the partial nature of their view helps to make some sense of what John tells us happens next.

“Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus says, “And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” And then, John tells us, “a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’” A pretty direct revelation of what is going on, right? And if those “Greeks” are still hanging around on the margins, they must now have at least something of an answer to their request to see Jesus, right?

Yet John tells us that while “the crowd standing there heard it” they didn’t entirely get it. Some said that they’d heard thunder, while others speculated that, “An angel has spoken to him.” They see—or in this case, hear—only partially. And so Jesus offers an interpretive word: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The stakes are changing, such that the old ways of seeing are about to be overcome, and new possibilities about to be inaugurated. Jesus speaks of “the ruler of this world” as being “driven out,” which finally means that those things that keep us blind or caught in killing divisions will be overcome.

And he finally speaks of how in his being “lifted up” he “will draw all people to [him]self.” This is his answer to the Greeks who had asked to see Jesus, though perhaps not quite the one they’d been looking for. They’d come looking to schedule an appointment in his day-timer; a chance to have a good conversation and to get a close look at this dynamic teacher from Galilee. What they get instead—and here “they” includes not only the disciples and others who originally received all of this, but also us—is a proclamation that the old dividing lines are falling. He is drawing “all people” to himself.

It makes sense, then, that the lectionary also had us read that brief section from the epistle to the Hebrews, in which Jesus is proclaimed as the eternal high priest. The Epistle to the Hebrews is essentially an extended theological reflection on how Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole of the Jewish tradition, and as such is also the fulfillment of the hopes and aspirations of all of humanity. The language of his being “designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” draws deeply on the Jewish tradition. Melchizedek is somewhat shadowy figure in the tradition; identified as both the “king of Salem” and as “priest of the most high God,” in Genesis 14 Melchizedek offers to Abram both a blessing and a meal of bread and wine. The interpretive traditions of both Judaism and Christianity have had quite a hay-day making sense of this figure, offering all kinds of speculative interpretations into which I’m not even going to begin to dig. Just note that while identified as a “priest of the most high God,” Melchizedek is not a member of Abraham’s line; he is not in any sense a Jew or an Israelite, because at the point he appears Abraham’s line is yet a promise. There is not yet an Israel, and yet he is a priest of Israel’s God. This points to the truth that there was never a time when God wished anything but grace for the whole of the world. That is something we’re stilling anticipating will come in its fullness… and in the meantime, we’re still inclined to mistake the presence of God for mere thunder.

In John’s telling, we don’t again hear of those Greeks who asked to see Jesus. The narrative rolls quickly ahead to the final meal Jesus shares with his disciples at which he models servanthood for them by washing their feet, and then toward his being “lifted up” at the crucifixion. I’d like to think that maybe Jesus took a few minutes to speak with them; after all, in the gospel tradition he does keep making room for outsiders and other unlikely people. At the very least, I’d like to think that they remained in Jerusalem over Passover, that they heard the rumours of how that death on the executioner’s cross hadn’t been the final word, and that they again sought out Philip and asked if they might see Jesus. This time, they’d have the eyes to see.

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