102 Fifth Sunday in Lent

"Sir, we wish to see Jesus" John 12:21

What a contrast there is between these Greeks and the religious hierarchy of the day. These Greeks, dare not to come to Jesus himself, but, cap in hand as it were, to one of the disciples. They come with a simple request to see and hear one they thought might have something of the eternal to say. They come to Philip, our patron saint, for Philip is (I would guess) a Greek name. They address him, our translation says "Sir", but it is actually the same word as "Lord".

The religious authorities however are already plotting against Jesus. Way back in the second chapter of the gospel of John we read of the cleansing of the Temple, and after the healing of the invalid lying by the pool of Bethzatha in chapter 5, he notes that the Jews started persecuting Jesus "because he was doing such things on the sabbath" (16) and because he was "calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God." (18)

John recalls Jesus saying some hard things to those not Jewish. In the discourse with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus states plainly that "salvation is from the Jews". Similarly the royal official at Capernaum whose son was sick was not immediately granted his prayer. Yet it is when Jesus hears that these Greeks wish to see him that he says "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified". So not only do the ancient people of the Jews have their role in the bringing of the saviour, it is the manifestation to the gentiles of the love of God that is the crowning glory of the life and ministry of Jesus - of which the cross and resurrection is the focus and crux.

In contrast to the hard things John remembers of Jesus in his relationship with non Jews, he recalls Jesus spending his time with those of the Jewish faith. No one would have even thought to ask Jesus to turn the water into wine at the marriage feast and Jesus spend time with Nicodemus - a leader of the Jews. The invalid I mentioned earlier at the pool of Siloam has a very unenthusiastic response to Jesus invitation "Do you want to be made well?", the 5000 are fed unbidden, the man blind from birth is cured without even consultation it seems, and no one asked Jesus to raise Lazarus - indeed Martha, his sister - expressed her revulsion at the prospect of even opening the tomb.

Jesus did everything possible to be a sign to those of his own country and household and yet that sign was rejected. John tells us such overflowing demonstrations were withheld from the gentiles, yet it was they who sought him out and who believed.

It is of course not just a case of the "grass is always greener". Why did those for whom Jesus did so much, most often without asking, turn against him so violently? Mark even suggests that the religious authorities themselves physically abused Jesus (Mark 14.65). In fact Jewish trials were notoriously fair and it is highly improbably that the members of the Sanhedrin took the initiative in maltreating Jesus.

I have forgotten where I saw it, but someone once wrote: "If Christianity was an illegal activity and you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" I have never been terribly keen on these sorts of smart sayings - they have a habit of putting all and sundry down. It seems a fact of life that those who need to take most notice of directions don't - and those who least need to take directions do!

But Archbishop William Temple once said: "Why any man should have troubled to crucify the Christ of Liberal Protestantism has always been a mystery". (Readings in St John's Gospel, New York: Macmillan, 1942 p. xxix) I have been pondering just what Jesus did that so offended the good and upright religious leaders of his day to have him crucified.

If Jesus was a charlatan (bad) then there was no point to having him crucified. Charlatans don't command followers for any real length of time, and they tend to want donations to go to themselves rather than the poor. (contrast Mark 10:21)

If Jesus had delusions of grandeur (mad - and Jerusalem is still the focus for all sorts of people making all sorts of claims to grandeur) then again there was no point to having him crucified. People don't follow someone who is mentally ill for any length of time. In fact, it is not as uncommon as we might initially believe, though with the closed mental institutions we have grown up with, we are shielded from such unfortunate people.

Jesus wasn't crucified for being a charlatan or unbalanced, nor was he crucified for being a man of prayer or healing people (even if he did so on the sabbath). Indeed he proposed no new religion, or did he add anything of essence to the faith of Israel. D. E. Nineham comments that the answer of Jesus to the question "Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed?" saying: "I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14.61,2) as not in fact blasphemous in the technical sense. ("St Mark" p408) If it were blasphemy, some scholars think that the Jews did have the authority to stone him in accordance with their law (despite John 18.31 ibid p403).

St John, in this gospel readings tells us "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also". (26) Jesus bids us follow him and if our following him doesn't stir up some controversy, perhaps Jesus isn't the person we think he is, or we aren't following him where he wants us to go. If we want to follow Jesus but we don't know what Jesus did that actually so enraged the authorities to have him killed, we can be excused for backing out if we too face opposition.

I want to suggest that the place where Jesus really touched the spark of the authorities anger was when Jesus accepted all people not just the orthodox religious ones. It is not that Jesus (according to John, but contrasting to the other gospel stories) actually sought out these people, yet come they did, and accept him they did.

The Greeks came, in the gospel story for today, to see and hear if Jesus had something of the eternal. It was precisely this acceptance that challenged the authority of the elders, the scribes, the pharisees (who were incidentally all lay people). Certainly the chief priests were involved too, but the bulk were lay people and they, despite all the efforts of Jesus to the contrary, failed to see the good in what Jesus was saying and doing. They only saw how it attracted people they had been able for so long to dismiss as irreligious and unclean. His acceptance of other people diminished their positions of authority and power.

My experience of life tells me that people really get angry when they perceive something has been taken away from them which they regarded as theirs by right. I find it curious that perhaps it was Pilate who perceived most accurately what was actually happening when it is said: "he realised that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over." (Matthew 27:18) Jealousy and anger that long held positions of authority had been taken from them.

However if anyone can come up with a better suggestion as to what Jesus did that so aroused the fierce enmity of the religious authorities, enmity enough to have him crucified, I would be pleased to know.

Jesus tells us "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also". (26) Jesus bids us follow him and if our following him - (by accepting one and all - which he did - not criticising others) - doesn't stir up some controversy, perhaps Jesus isn't the person we think he is, or we aren't following him where he wants us to go.

 

 

Links to other sites on the Web:

About the author and links.

To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.

To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.

Back to a sermon for next Sunday.