Today we keep the 5th Sunday of Lent, only two weeks from Easter.
Today’s Gospel from John ch. 12 is set in Jerusalem in the last week of Jesus’ life. It’s set between his triumphal entry and the Last Supper, between Palm Sunday, as it were, and Maundy Thursday. It gives us our last sight of Jesus’ public ministry.
“Among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.” They come as a surprise. They may have been what we call proselytes, that is to say, non-Jews (Gentiles) who were interested in Judaism, sympathetic to it, perhaps even converts. They are in Jerusalem because it’s Passover. Clearly, they have heard about Jesus. Quite possibly, this scene is set in what was called the Court of the Gentiles, an outer part of the Temple where non-Jews were allowed. They seem to be polite, respectful people. They don’t approach Jesus directly. They approach one of his disciples, Philip. Philip is from Bethsaida, the Gospel points out, a part of Galilee where Greek would have been commonly spoken. And Philip, like Andrew, has a Greek name. And it’s to Philip they present their request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This is the line to remember. “We wish to see Jesus”. Very simple, very good and full of more meaning than they knew. One can say many things about ancient Greek culture, but one of them is how that culture revelled in the visual. It cherished “light”, and therefore “seeing”. Take Greek sculpture or architecture or ceramics, the statues, the temples, the vases: such a sense of form and proportion and harmony, so shapely, always a delight to the eyes. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. It was a very Greek request. Practically, of course, it meant we would like to have a look at him, meet him, engage with him. But here another element enters. St John loves double meanings. And his Gospel is full of light and glory, and seeing and believing – right from the Prologue: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” At Cana, turning water into wine, Jesus, it’s said, “manifested his glory”, that is, made it visible, “And his disciples believed in him”. The great claim of the Gospel of John is that in Jesus, the glory – the radiance, the light – of the Father has shone out for the saving of the world. “Sir, we would see Jesus.” These Greeks, more than they knew, are on track, picking up the scent. They are moving in the right direction. They are being drawn by the Father (cf. Jn 6:44). In ch. 6, Jesus had said, “this is the will of my Father that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life” (Jn 6:40).
And here this incident becomes more poignant still. Ch 12 of St John is a parting of the ways. It is a kind of last chance saloon. The light of Jesus’ word is still shining, but the darkness is growing. The people and the leaders – of course with exceptions – are giving their no, their non placet, to Jesus. He is about to be excluded from the public square. Eyes are closing, hearts are hardening, faith is being refused. St John, just a few verses on, quotes Isaiah: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes and understand with their heart, and turn” (Is 6:10; Jn 12:40). And Jesus throws out his last appeal: “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you…While you have the light believe in the light, that you may become children of light” (Jn 12:35, 36). This is a dramatic moment.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. Imagine a board-room in a large house. Jesus has been meeting with the company directors, the Jewish authorities. There has been discussion, argument; it has turned into a full-scale row. The directors stand up, pick up their hats and walk out, the doors close behind them. Jesus is left alone. Then quietly, a little door at the back opens and a fresh-faced child puts its head round the door, and says, “Can I come in?” “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. These Greeks, unknown to themselves, are the children of light. They are the future in fact. They are to the end of the Gospel of John what the magi were to the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, a prophecy of things to come, pioneers of a host of new and other believers.
No wonder then that, when Philip and Andrew come with the Greeks’ request, come with the Greeks themselves perhaps (it’s not clear), Jesus responds as he does. Dare I say it, this is a light-bulb moment for Jesus. “The hour has come”, he says. This is a recognition. This is a solemn declaration. “The hour for the Son of man to be glorified” – to shine out. “Now is the judgement of this world; now will the ruler of the world be cast out.” Now the grain of wheat is ready to fall into the earth and die, so as to “bear much fruit”: the new-born children of light. No wonder, Jesus’ soul, in his own words, is “troubled”. The hour has arrived, and with it the Gethsemani moment, the struggle that is spelled out in the Synoptics as the prayer in the Garden and referred to in the “tears and cries” of today’s reading from Hebrews. “But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” “Thy will be done”. Christ goes on. The Father is to be glorified in his death and resurrection, and “I when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself”, the “scattered children of God” (Jn 11:52), the children of light, Jew and Greek.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The Greeks asked this going up to the Passover and it was answered beyond their expectation. We are going up to Easter – a small door has opened – and this surely can be our wish, our refrain too. Will Jesus be less generous now than he was then? They put their request to an apostle and he and his colleague took it to the Lord. We can think of that when we approach+ the church to book a place, or even when we click on the link. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. To see who he really is, to see the Father in him and him in the Father and ourselves made children of light. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. It’s the grace that awaits us at Easter.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 21 March 2021)