We are at a turning point. Lent is drawing to a close; those of you who have been following Lent Madness are watching as the tension builds and the saintly competition comes to an end. If you’ve given up something for the season, you are probably counting the days to Easter and the end of your fast. Here in the office at Grace, we are preparing for Holy Week as you can tell from the notices in the service bulletin.
As we were reciting and chanting the verses from Psalm 51 this morning, I was reminded that we had said this same psalm on Ash Wednesday, after the imposition of the ashes. Then, I and you were hoping for a Holy Lent, a time when we might deepen our relationship with God in Christ, experience repentance and forgiveness of our sins and grow spiritually. Now, as Lent draws to a close, those verses remind me of all the ways my actions and discipline in Lent have fallen short of what I had hoped for, another missed opportunity. I am grateful again, and continuously, for God’s mercy and grace.
We are also at a turning point in John’s gospel. The Sunday lectionary doesn’t provide us with a lot of help in understanding the overall structure of John’s gospel, but our reading today brings to an end the first half of the gospel. In the first twelve chapters we are introduced to Jesus’ public ministry. We see him engaging with the Jewish authorities, with the crowds in Jerusalem and elsewhere, with the Samaritan woman. Today, we encounter Greeks. From this point on, however, Jesus will focus on teaching his disciples. In John’s gospel, the Last Supper extends for four chapters—from 13-17, with a lengthy Farewell discourse in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his departure from them. His only interactions with people other than disciples comes during his arrest and trial.
Even as this passage marks a transition in John’s gospel, it also returns us to the very first chapter; to the powerful and symbolic scene of the Jesus calling his first disciples. For Philip and Andrew appeared there as well, as the first two disciples mentioned by name. Now, Greeks come to them imploring them, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Back in chapter 1, when Jesus discovered Andrew and another disciple following him, he turned and asked them, “What are you looking for?” They replied, “Where are you staying?” To which Jesus replied, “Come and see.”
Now it is other seekers who come looking for Jesus, wanting to see him—Greeks, John tells us. It’s likely that either one of two possibilities are intended. Perhaps these Greeks were Greek-speaking Jews, having come from another part of the Roman empire to observe the Passover in Jerusalem.
It’s also possible that they were proselytes—among those non-Jews who were attracted to the high ethical standards of Judaism, and while they hadn’t undergone full conversion, they observed some of Jewish law and worshipped in synagogues. Either is possible, and either makes John’s larger point, that this is the moment that Jesus’ ministry and message is expanding beyond the Jewish community, to the whole world.
What’s curious in this episode is as we saw last week with the story of Nicodemus, it’s not clear whether the Greeks are present throughout the scene. They are never mentioned again. We don’t know if they saw Jesus.
But that’s not really the point. It’s another, a final opportunity for the gospel writer, and Jesus, to reiterate central themes of the gospel. And it’s also one of those few times in John’s gospel where Jesus seems to echo themes and language from the synoptic gospels. The saying about the seed and grain calls to mind all of the synoptic parables about seeds and sowers. And the sentence about loving and hating one’s life recalls similar sayings in the synoptics.
But even as those suggestive parallels with the Jesus of the synoptics draw our attention, there’s another aspect of what Jesus says here that is markedly different from the synoptics. Jesus begins speaking with language that is so common in John’s gospel, “The hour has come for me to be glorified.” As I’ve mentioned before, in John’s gospel “glorification” refers not to our notions of glory—of pomp, majesty, power—but in John, it always refers to the cross, suffering, humiliation, Jesus’ obedience to his Father.
And then, a little later, comes this. Jesus returns to his original theme, that his hour has come. He says, ““Now my soul is troubled. 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.” Of course, that prayer, “Father, save me from this hour,” is just the synoptic gospels report that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. There’s no similar scene in John’s gospel, if only because Jesus knows from the very beginning what is going to happen and accepts, even embraces this set of events. It is for this reason that he has come to this hour.
There is a final, important note struck here. The passage concludes with Jesus’ statement, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” This is the heart of John’s gospel, the heart of Jesus’ ministry and person. In the cross, we see Jesus, in the cross, on the cross, Jesus draws us and the whole world to himself. In the cross, on the cross, we see God’s love for us.
Did the Greeks see Jesus? In the gospel of John, “seeing” is a prelude to faith, at most, it is an inadequate, partial faith. It is a first step, an entrance and first exposure to the abundant life that is offered through relationship with and in Jesus Christ.
Do we see Jesus? Do we see Jesus in our shared life and worship as the body of Christ, do we see Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in the proclamation of the Word of God. Do we see Jesus in our outreach in the community? Do we see Jesus?
What do others see when they come to us? Do they see, in the quality of our relationships, in the way we support and help each other, in our interactions with each other and with our neighbors, do they see Jesus?
People come to us asking, sometimes overtly and openly, but more often quietly, leaving the question unspoken; they ask “We wish to see Jesus.” Do we even hear them? And if they are persistent, if they have the courage to ask the question out loud, what is our response? Embarrassed silence?
As we continue to explore our mission and ministry in this neighborhood and city, as we seek to reach out to our neighbors, I would hope that these questions are at the heart of our work and our reflection. To those who come seeking Jesus, wishing to see Jesus, I hope that we can show them in our common life and in our work, that Jesus is present among us fills us with life and love, and that through us, they may not only see Jesus but enter into the abundant life that comes through relationship with him.
And for those who do not come in search of Jesus, who are blinded or scarred, uninterested or opposed, are we able to show them that their assumptions are wrong, that among us, in us, through us, Jesus offers new life and hope.
Can we see, know, and share, that when Jesus is lifted up from the earth, his love draws all people to himself?