Sermon: "What Does it Mean to See Jesus?"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1-13; Hebrew 5.5-10; john 12.20-33
Last week we considered the nature of eternal life. Drawing from the work of N. T., Wright, we noted the ancient Jewish belief in two aions, or eons: the present age and the age to come. When Jesus was lifted up in death and resurrection, he ushered in the age to come – what we have come to call eternal life. Thus, eternal life is not to be understood as being outside of space, time, and matter; it is to be understood as life lived in Christ Jesus. On this view, God will not rescue people out of the world. To the contrary, God will rescue the world itself including people. As Christians, we are already living in eternal life (Wright: http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/lent4b/).
Today’s gospel reading begins by noting that some Greeks who had gone up to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover approached Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip relayed their request to Andrew, then Philip and Andrew informed Jesus (John 12.20-22; NRSV). We can only speculate as to the origin of the Greek’s desire and request to see Jesus. Given the honor-based society, it would have been customary to find an intermediary, such as Philip, to make the introduction.
Events which previously transpired may have led to the Greek’s request. John tells us that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (the last of the seven signs which the Gospel of John reports). On his way up to Jerusalem, Jesus stopped at Bethany and dined with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. This is the dinner at which Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with pure nard. Following this meal, Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem (an entry we celebrate next week).
One might ask, why does John insert this story of some Greeks who desire to see Jesus? The answer, I believe, is found at the end of our gospel reading where Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12.32; NRSV). Christ’s death and resurrection were not solely for the Jewish people. Their request to see Jesus leads Jesus to comment not only on his impending death and resurrection but also upon their significance. John’s account does not tell us whether the Greeks see Jesus. Some commentators assume so, and further assume that they heard Jesus’ response to Philip and Andrew. That may be an unwarranted assumption.
At any rate, their request to see Jesus prompted Jesus to observe: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” and then to declare, “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” (John 12.23-24; NRSV). This verse serves as an epigraph to one of the greatest works of literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The entire novel serves to demonstrate the significance of this verse as well as the verses which follow: “Those who love their life will 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” (John 12.25-26; NRSV).
If we choose to live for ourselves, to hang on to our own life, to claim it as our own, we lose it. Most of us begin life in this manner, but when we come to see Jesus, to see the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection, our life is transformed and we enter eternity, the age to come. When we truly see Jesus, we give our life to God. From that perspective, we hate the worldly life; we look back on our old life and its sinfulness with contempt.
When we come to see Jesus, to see the life of love he lived, we more readily identify with the words of King David in Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. … Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth … Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Vss. 1-3, 6a, 11; BCP).
Jesus further said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” He recognized what lay ahead, and he added, “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” (John 12.27-28a; NRSV). Then a voice came from heaven which said, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12.28b; NRSV).
What might this mean? When God’s name is glorified, the nature of God, God’s character, is revealed. “I have glorified it” means God has glorified God’s name through Jesus’ life and ministry, and “I will glorify it again” means God will glorify God’s name through Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we live in God’s spirit of love, we glorify God’s name, we reveal God’s nature and character to others.
The account further tells us that the crowd heard God’s pronouncement as thunder, while some said, “An angel has spoken to him” (John 12.29; NRSV). Jesus then said, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 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” (John 12.30-32; NRSV).
Let’s more closely examine Jesus’ statement, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Our world is characterized by violence which stems from desire. When we commit violence, we inflict suffering and pain on others. Our natural impulse is to answer violence with violence, to retaliate. As individuals we speak of “getting even” – “Since you have caused me to suffer pain, I will cause you to suffer pain.” In warfare, we speak of “retaliatory strikes.” When our attacks, or retaliatory strikes result in unintended consequences, such as the death of non-combatants, we deceive ourselves by euphemistically referring to such consequences as “collateral damage.” Such are the ways of the “ruler of this world.”
Jesus’ death and resurrection opened a new way. Instead of responding to violence with violence, Jesus absorbed the violence; he took the violence of the world upon himself. At the worst moment, in immense pain, he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34; NRSV). Jesus met violence with love and compassion. In doing so, the world has been judged and the ruler of this world has been defeated.
The ruler of this world would have us act in hate – we see examples of this in the daily news, e.g., this week’s senseless murder of Asian-Americans. Jesus shows us, invites us to, the way of love. Through Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit, we can transform our evil desires and pains. This is far from an easy task. As Richard Rohr says, “
I am sorry to admit that I first see my wounds as an obstacle more than a gift. Healing is a long journey.
If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative, or bitter. This is the storyline of many of the greatest novels, myths, and stories of every culture. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children (https://cac.org/transforming-pain-2018-10-17/).
What does it mean to see Jesus? It means to see Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection. It means to believe in Jesus, in his death and resurrection. It means to follow Jesus, to model our lives after his life, such that we might bring glory to God. It means to transform our pain lest we transmit it to others. When we clearly see Jesus, others should be able to see Jesus reflected in our actions and in our life.
It is Lent. It is time to ask if we see Jesus and if others see Jesus in our life. If not, it is time to repent and to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”