Lent 5

Sermon for Lent 5, Sunday, March 22 2015, 10:30 am
Fr. Bruce Myers, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51:1-13; Heb 5:5-10; Jn 12:20-33

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

That’s the opening line of some strangers who came up, seemingly out of the blue, to the apostle Philip. Apparently unsure about how to go about approaching Jesus directly, they went to a kind of middleman—one of Jesus’ disciples—to see if they could approach Jesus that way.

And Philip seems unsure, too—unsure about how to handle this request. So rather than taking them directly to the person they’re looking for, Philip instead goes with the strangers’ request to another disciple: Andrew. And then both Philip and Andrew go to Jesus with the request.

It sounds kind of like an apostolic form of bureaucracy: interview requests with Jesus must be filled out in triplicate before they can be processed, or something like that. Or like the disciples are running interference for Jesus, acting like gatekeepers. Or perhaps Philip and Andrew were genuinely befuddled by the desire of these strangers to see Jesus, and didn’t quite know how to respond.

Part of the disciples’ befuddlement may have come from the fact that those asking to see Jesus weren’t just any strangers; we’re told they were “some Greeks.”

Up until this point in the gospel story, it’s Jews (and perhaps the odd Samaritan and Canaanite) who have been following Jesus, seeking him out—and that makes sense, given Jesus’ own earlier articulation of his earthly mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But these Greeks asking to see Jesus are decidedly not of the house of Israel. Were they Hellenistic Jews just in town for the Passover festival, the gospel writer likely would have told us so. But instead we’re told they’re “some Greeks”—perhaps non-Jewish proselytes interested in becoming Jews, or maybe simply characteristically curious visitors from a Greek-speaking land.

Whatever their provenance and whatever their intention, the seemingly innocuous request of these Greek strangers marks (and perhaps triggers) a major turning point in the gospel story—one that turns us irrevocably in the direction of Calvary.

For Jesus’ response to the Greeks’ request to see him isn’t to accept or reject it, to invite them over or send them away. Instead he replies, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

On five occasions prior to this scene in Jerusalem, we’re clearly told by John (in some form or another) that Jesus’ hour “had not yet come.” And now, apparently prompted by the desire of these non-Jewish strangers to “see Jesus,” we’re told that the hour has arrived. Jesus’ reach is now extending far beyond the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Others from outside this in-group want in: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

The long-awaited hour for Jesus’ glorification has finally come, yet he inaugurates it in a way most of us wouldn’t recognize as particularly glorious. His response to being told of the Greeks wanting to see him sort of serves as a larger reply to what seeing—and serving and following—Jesus means.

The glory of Jesus is not in human triumph. Instead it’s like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, and in dying bears fruit. Discipleship comes at a cost—sometimes at the cost of everything we have, sometimes at the cost of our very lives.

We know it will cost Jesus his life, and he knows it too, and we get a brief glimpse into his own anguished, fully human response at the prospect of his imminent death: “Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus says. And yet knowing what lies ahead—knowing that it is only through the paradox of new life first requiring death of the old—he carries resolutely on, trusting in the Father’s faithfulness.

Death as a prerequisite to life, power exercised through surrender, exaltation accomplished by sacrifice—these are not something the world would recognize as the markers of glorification, let alone divine glory. Perhaps it’s small wonder then that when God’s very self speaks in affirmation of the path Jesus will take, the crowd doesn’t even recognize God’s voice. Yet this is the pattern God in Christ establishes for us: dying to power, privilege, possessions for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of the world for which he dies.

We don’t know if those Greek strangers actually ever got to see Jesus, as they’d asked. They kind of seem to have been kept perpetually on hold by Philip and Andrew; we don’t hear from them again. Perhaps their first and only opportunity to actually see Jesus was when, some days later, he was lifted up on a cross outside Jerusalem’s city walls, for everyone to see—a moment Jesus himself alludes to in today’s gospel: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

The universal implications of Christ’s saving act on the cross, prompted by “some Greeks” asking to see Jesus, are thus made plain. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once put it, “Christ, when he was lifted up, did not say, ‘I draw some people to myself.’ He said, ‘I draw all, all, all.’”

As we draw ever closer to Calvary, may we be drawn willingly to the cross of Christ, and pattern our lives according to its example, so that any who may ask to see Jesus may see him clearly in us.