Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Our Lenten study on preaching is nearly finished, only the Great Canadian Preach-Off remains, along with a handful of random bits of content that come to mind between now and Thursday. One of those, which I will demonstrate this morning is recycling, where a paragraph or two is taken from one context (say, a preaching study) and recycled for another (a sermon, for example).

You can’t plagiarize yourself, but you can tire your first audience, so for those present for evening two, the next moments are time to go to your happy place, maybe plan out your own two-minute sermon, or simply sit back.

I begin, then, in the pulpit of the former Cliffcrest United Church, a congregation I was blessed to serve for a number of years. The sanctuary was built in 1954, and reflected the assumptions and aspirations of the post-war period—in the church and society at large. The oddest feature was the long corduroy wall of brick facing Kingston Road. This windowless wall was meant to block the sound of traffic, since Kingston Road was much like the 401 in 1954, a highway that was still on the drawing board. On the opposite wall, facing inward, was a long wall of clear glass windows, the legend being that they were salvaged from a demolished factory.

The architecture seemed to say two things at once: we are a shelter from the busy world passing our door, and we are a lantern, shining the clear light of the Gospel upon the neighbourhood that surrounds us. I think it achieved both.

Meanwhile, in the chancel, the outsized table shared the space with an equally outsized pulpit, the latter being a wide curved affair that the preacher could easily hide behind if need be. The table was inscribed with a traditional message for the congregation (“Do this in remembrance of me” if I recall correctly). Meanwhile, the pulpit was inscribed with an interior message—a message for the preacher alone—that said “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

Ignoring the erroneous assumption that everyone standing behind the pulpit should be addressed as “Sir,” the interior message functioned as a perpetual reminder, and a sort of moral imperative—that the congregation, like those Greek visitors long ago, are there to see Jesus.

It’s an odd little episode—Greek visitors take one of the disciples aside and ask to see Jesus—but it seems to send the signal that Jesus’ fame will spread beyond Israel and Judah. We’re not told why they wanted to see him or even if this backstage pass was granted. And as quickly as they arrive, our Greek friends disappear again.

What we’re left with—what we’re always left with—is context, and the place we find this passage in the larger picture of John’s Gospel. The immediate context, the passage that precedes this one, is the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, a story will visit next week. This alone might explain the request to see Jesus—with foreign visitors in the capitol witnessing the parade to mark Jesus’ arrival.

But the larger context is worth noting too, since the story that takes us to the edge of Jerusalem—the raising of Lazarus—casts a shadow over what is to come. The eleventh chapter recounts the story in great detail: the news of Lazarus’ death reaching Jesus, visiting his sisters and the recrimination that comes, moving to the tomb and the skepticism that follows, and finally releasing him with the words “Lazarus, come out!” and “unbind him and let him go.”

It is the remarkable nature of this resuscitation—including the controversy it generates—that may have caused word to reach these Greek visitors to Jerusalem. The city was abuzz with both excitement and concern, from those who wanted to see the wonder worker that everyone was talking about, to the religious officials and their well-founded fear of disturbing the Roman occupiers.

And that too is an important bit of context, as the story of Lazarus ends with a meeting of the religious council, and the decision to arrest Jesus. Note that we are at the midpoint of John’s Gospel—that the last of seven signs is complete with the raising of Lazarus and the book then turns of Jesus’ passion. Fully half the gospel will be consumed by it, and the outcome predicted at the beginning of chapter one will come to pass: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” (v.10)

And the shape of that prediction is now coming fully into view. The request to see Jesus may or may not have been met, but it prompts a response from Jesus, one of those statements that would grow in significance in the weeks to come:

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

This is what the Greek visitors will see—if they hang in a week or two longer—and perhaps they too will become the seeds of this new movement. At the very least they will see that this was never about a wonder worker and the crowds that inevitably seek out spectacle, but about the seed of faith that will grow in the most unlikely of ways—from cross to tomb to final glory.

In the meantime, we are learning about a new way of seeing, a lens that takes us back to that hidden pulpit message and the imperative to allow people to see Jesus. In effect, the Greeks are still speaking, still seeking to see, and the request that begins behind the pulpit extends to the rest of the disciples and beyond.

And what will they see? The gospels, as they develop, provide us with a template: it begins simply, with words of invitation, usually along the line of “come and see.” And then there are wonders to behold—a healing or a demon displace—and the words “you will see greater wonders than this.” He will speak to a woman at the well, and recount for her what troubles, and she will say “come and see this man who truly knows me.” The disciples will ask to see God and he will remind them that “anyone who has seen me has seen the father.” And when he finally makes plain all that will unfold he says “Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

What Jesus has introduced is a new way of seeing—that everything from invitation to teaching to healing grows this new sight, leading to the conclusion that St. Paul makes in Colossians: “Jesus is the visible image of an invisible God.” The Greeks came to see Jesus, but they ended up seeing God instead.

Of course it will be later, in the locked room, on the beach, on the road to Emmaus, that all of this seeing will come together. The words will finally make sense, and the events will meld to form a complete narrative. Only upon reflection, and in the telling and retelling, that the disciples will finally see. Only then will they come to understand that what so many cannot see—the light of the world—they can see in each other.

Like so many churches, this place is meant to be both shelter from the busy world and a lantern, casting light on a weary world. It is always reflected light: the light of Christ, the light that we have been blessed to see, cast from this place into the streets that surround us. We carry this light wherever we go—from seeing—to seen by all. Amen.


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