MARCH 22, 2015
Psalm 51: 1 – 12; Hebrews 5: 5 – 10; John 12: 20 – 33
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Most of us have played the game, “If you were able to have dinner with anyone, who would it be?” The next question is always, “living or dead?” Then we go on to imagine an assortment of people – celebrities, heroes, spiritual leaders and persons of renown. No one ever says “Grandma” which is an insult to all grandmas everywhere. We zone in on people like Stephen Hawking, without thinking about how we’d keep up our end of the conversation; or Elijah, without considering what a perceptive prophet might tell you about yourself. Those with a dark side may choose a dictator or despot – bad idea. Not only will you spend a night with an evil person, but if they get excited they’ll spray saliva on your food. Meeting popular iconic figures is something we little people do dream of – at least from time to time.
Three years into Jesus’ ministry he had developed quite a reputation. He was a bit of a super star and many people wanted to meet him. One day a group of Greeks approached Jesus’ disciple Phillip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12: 21). We’re not told why they wanted to see Jesus – maybe they were curious about the newest celebrity in town; maybe they heard he was a healer; maybe they wanted to debate his teaching. Phillip wasn’t too sure what they wanted either. They weren’t Jews. They hadn’t made an appointment. They were a little pushy. He went to Andrew to seek advice. And then Phillip and Andrew went to Jesus to get his response.
That was pretty easy for Phillip and Andrew; their encounters with Jesus were face to face. If someone wanted to see him, they could produce him in the flesh. But imagine what you would say if some strangers came up to you on the street and said, “I wish to see Jesus”. What would you say? Would you tell them “sorry, Jesus is dead” – only to realize that’s not true? Or would you say you’d like to help but Jesus is invisible. Being a suspicious sort, I might wonder first what they want. Are they looking for an after-dinner speaker? A charismatic leader? A miracle worker? A revolutionary leader? Or a spiritual guru? Some Christians might suggest a human substitute. Maybe you’d direct them to a professional theologian such as a professor at one of our theological colleges or a minister. Or maybe this is a job for The PCC Committee on Church Doctrine. It’s a little harder for us than it was for Phillip and Andrew.
So where do we see Jesus today? Are there any good answers we could give? Are there any that would satisfy a hungry heart? The first and most obvious place is scripture. In the Gospels we read about the life of Jesus and many of the things he said and did. There we encounter Jesus “God with us” as a newborn lying in the straw on his first day on earth. We see Jesus as a boy on the brink of manhood, so impassioned about his relationship with his Heavenly “Abba” that he lingered behind in the temple, while his panicked earthly parents frantically retraced their steps to find him. We meet Jesus at the beginning of his ministry calling to the mesmerized crowds to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand. And it’s not just in the Gospels we see Jesus; Christians believe the whole of the scripture witness to and reveal Jesus. Of course to “see” Jesus in scripture is not quite the same as seeing him in the flesh; we need the Holy Spirit to inspire our imaginations and enlighten our thoughts so we can “see” Jesus in a metaphysical sense. Just as when we read a well written novel, the characters become “real” to us; the scripture brings Jesus “to life” for us – they are a place where we see him.
Another place we “see” Jesus is the cross. The cross must have been a shocker to the disciples who had heard God promise to “Glorify the name of Jesus again.” (vs. 28) Glorification implies conquest, victory, acquisition of power, authority, kingship but the cross was the opposite of all these things. The cross was weakness, suffering, domination, defeat and death. The disciples were expecting another transfiguration scene and instead they got something hideous and horrific. And with the cross came the death of their dreams and the demise of the most caring and amazing human being they had known. Yet in the suffering of Christ we see the fullness of his love for us. We see the depth of who he was laid bare for everyone who looks at it to see. Through his union with suffering, we see Jesus. Wherever we see suffering, we get a glimpse of the cross. Eli Wiesel in his book Night tells a disturbing story from his time in the Nazi concentration camps when prisoners were forced to watch the execution of their own by hanging. Among the murdered was a young boy who died in a prolonged and tortured way because his body weight wasn’t enough to pull him down. Watching this and unable to intervene, a man in the crowd cried out, “Where is God?” Wiesel says I heard a voice within me say, “God is here, hanging on the gallows.” The cross tells us that “here”, in the midst of the most unjust and horrible human suffering, is the only place God can be. To permit such suffering without intervention would make God a sadistic tyrant; a God who is so removed and remote from our human pain would be an indifferent demon. The cross allows us to see God, not merely moved or appalled by human injustice and suffering but willing to enter into it, share it and take it upon himself in an act of great sacrifice, identification and love. When we look at the cross we see through it to the very core of who Jesus is.
When Phillip and Andrew approached Jesus to relay the desire of the Greeks, Jesus replied, “…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 honor.” (vs 24f) This wasn’t strictly a reference to the afterlife. Jesus was also saying that where those who serve him are, so is he. In other words, we “see” Jesus through those who offer their lives to him in service. Put another way, Jesus is found with His people – the Church. We are inseparable. As we serve Jesus we show the world his Spirit in tangible ways. That’s not to say we do it perfectly; far from it. The Church at best is a mere shadow of the fullness of Christ. Often we live in ways that betray his presence. We all know people who claim to be Christians, who know their Bibles, who are good and pious people but who lack love and choose to do sinful, hurtful and often petty things. We’re an imperfect, wounded body but we are his body – people struggling to die to our self, finding our way in life and attempting to be faithful to Jesus. While much of what we do hides Jesus’ presence, a lot of what we do reveals his presence and some of what we do shines a light that reveals his fullness. When the Church behaves as the Church we are Christ’s real presence in the world and the world sees Jesus through us.
Now if Jesus is seen in the Church as a whole, then glimpses of him should be seen in each of us. Not that any of us are perfect, we are all “under construction” and fortunately God isn’t finished with us yet. As Paul so hopefully said, “I am confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6). At the same time we are unity with Christ and made holy in him. He is the vine and we the branches. Given that we’re to live in such a way that people can see the image of Christ in us. This often feels like a weighty responsibility. The image of seeds falling into the ground is a beautiful one in that the seed doesn’t strive to become a plant and bear fruit. Its growth just happens because God has ordered nature in this way. In the same way, we bear fruit – we serve Jesus and show Jesus – because the Holy Spirit is at work within us in a God ordered, mysterious, life-giving way. As we are transformed and grow, Jesus become more and more evident in us. What seems a weighty responsibility is really a joyful privilege.
When we return to our passage from John and read it carefully we encounter a sad and surprising omission. When Phillip and Andrew told Jesus there are Greeks who wish to see him, Jesus did not go out to meet them. Instead he responded, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (vs. 23) and as we’ve seen, he was referring to his death. Jesus had come to the end of his time one earth. From this point on, everything in John’s Gospel leads to the crucifixion. The Greeks had come to Jesus too late. The bell had rung; time was up. Fortunately, God has given the world another chance. Resurrection gives us more time to see Jesus. But even this time won’t last forever; it will end with our death or Jesus’ return. There are many ways we can help people who wish to see Jesus do just that. Let’s pray they will not wait too long to make their wish known and we will not hesitate to make their wish come true.