Hebrews 5: 5 – 10
John 12: 20 – 33
A stranger entered the church in the middle of the sermon and sat down in the back pew. After a while she began to fidget. Leaning over to a white-haired man at her side, evidently an old member of the congregation, she whispered:
“How long has he been preaching?” “Thirty or forty years, I think,” the old man answered.
“I’ll stay then,” said the stranger, “He must be nearly done…”
I wish I could say that was entirely relevant to what I have to say this morning but I can’t. I just felt the need to add some levity to what may otherwise seem a rather stodgy sermon. That’s for you to judge…
“We wish to see Jesus,” announce the Greek visitors in John’s Gospel. “We wish to see Jesus.” These are words which bridge the gulf of time between us and these figures from long ago. Because there is a sense in which this wish to see Jesus lies behind the presence of each one of us here this morning. We are here because, in some way, we wish to encounter Jesus – for reasons which may be numerous and diverse but it’s the encounter which is important. “We wish to see Jesus…”
Having gathered with that common quest binding us to one another and to our ancestors in the faith, we are faced in the letter to the Hebrews with the description of Jesus as a ‘high priest’.
Is this the Jesus we wish to see? What mental picture is conjured up by those words ‘high priest’? A sombre man with a long beard, white robe, sparkling vestments and maybe even a big pointy hat..? An amalgam of Aaron, Moses, Merlin and the pope..? In this costume, Jesus looks ridiculous. As images of him go, to us, good dissenting Christians that we are, high priest may be far from compelling.
But if we can set aside our Reformed prejudices for a moment, the image of priesthood can be a helpful one. The preceding verses of this letter to the Hebrews offer three aspects of priesthood and compare Jesus to other priests in relation to them. Priests have a particular function; they are ‘put in charge of things pertaining to God’; secondly, priests have certain personal characteristics; they are subject to weakness and must repent of their sins and, thirdly, priests are designated by God, they respond to the call of God.
Now in the context of the principle of the priesthood of all believers these aspects of priesthood are shared by us all – just as they were shared by Jesus himself! That notion of sharing of priesthood is one that bolsters our belonging together in the Body of Christ.
We may share in this priestly role but we are not all alike (thank God!) and perhaps, even though you long to see Jesus, you find the image of Jesus as high priest unhelpful. Perhaps that image obscures the picture you have to come to see. And when you hear, as we have just done, that Jesus has ‘been made perfect’ through what he suffered, perhaps that widens the gulf between his suffering and yours.
Let’s look a little more closely at these words and probe them a little more deeply… And let’s start with Melchizadek. Who is this mysterious Melchizadek in whose line of succession, according to the writer of this letter to the Hebrews, Jesus now stands?
Well, it is he, according to the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Genesis, who, as High Priest as well as King of Jerusalem, sets a feast of bread and wine before Abraham, who blesses Abraham and carries a tithe to the altar.
Let’s draw a veil over the fact that all this happens after a great military victory on Abraham’s part; it is the imagery here which concerns us just now, imagery which connects this high priest to the nourishment of bread and wine at Holy Communion. In our quest to see Jesus, we recognise him even when our journey is wearying and distressing, as he comes to us with broken bread and brimming cup and we receive these gifts in remembrance of him. The priestly characteristics Jesus bears – praying, anguishing, deepening his understanding of the divine through the agonies he suffers, are characteristics which, among us, we all share. In taking his commitment to love to the extreme, walking the way to the cross, Jesus goes beyond mere priesthood and becomes a medium of eternal salvation.
If we would see Jesus, let us accept the invitation to meet him in the peace of the sanctuary; at the font, at the table, and in the sighs too deep for words of the body, his body – this body of people – meeting together in God’s presence.
“We wish to see Jesus.” What is it the Greek visitors to Jerusalem are seeking? And why is this visit of a Greek delegation so worthy of mention? Crowds are always flocking to see Jesus, hearing him, interacting with him!
As well as the tens of thousands of faithful pilgrims who would flock to the temple from all over the Mediterranean – from as far away as Persia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome – to celebrate the Passover, making their sacrifices to God and paying their half shekel temple tax – as well as all of them, there are also others, probably people among whom Jewish folk live in other parts of the Roman Empire and who have come to Jerusalem because they are curious about this Feast of the Passover their neighbours celebrate. These ‘Greeks’ are a kind of advance party of “all the people” whom this Gospel writer is keen to see gather round Jesus in due course – but the time has not yet come…
Why do they wish to see Jesus..? Let me suggest two reasons… The first is curiosity, that simple human instinct, curiosity.
So first they home in on Philip, perhaps because he has a Greek surname and is from Bethsaida, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee where Greek descendents were numerous. They are looking for someone who is likely to be sympathetic to them to make the introduction.
The gospels often give too little detail and leave us to speculate – that’s not a problem; it’s all part of God’s plan to get us to use our minds and intellect. This story does not relate why these Greeks want to see Jesus but it may well be that they have heard about him and want to meet him face-to-face.
Perhaps they have heard rumours about some of the miracles attributed to him, calming storms, walking on water; healing the sick and bringing the dead back to life; about the man who had taken the old wine of the law strictly applied and turned it into the sparkling wine of the gospel of liberation. There’s no indication that they want to become disciples themselves or make any particular commitment to him. They are simply curious.
Now, curiosity is a good thing, is it not? It’s the motivating force behind research and discovery, the stimulus that pricks our complacency and prods us to look into things more deeply.
It may have killed the cat (!) – but curiosity also feeds that innate longing we have to solve mysteries, unlock secrets and broaden our horizons.
And let’s face it, for those who come across the threshold of Taunton United Reformed Church for the first time, I guess it’s often a sense of curiosity that leads here. Perhaps that’s what first brought you here… And so let’s welcome the curious, all who seek to know more about God and Jesus, the church and what we stand for, who want to know more about this covenant relationship that binds us together as one household of faith.
Let’s be open to the request those Greeks made long ago when they said to Philip, “We wish to see Jesus.” Like them, we, too, want to see Jesus because we’re curious.
But perhaps there’s another reason they and others down the ages wish to see Jesus, and that is that he is larger than life. By that I mean he breaks the rules of social convention and eats with tax collectors (a reviled occupation at the time) and all kinds of people who are regarded as outsiders. He defers to no one, not even Herod. He dares to touch lepers and walks quite happily among people of different faiths.
He has compassion for the poor – and challenges the wealthy yet without showing contempt for them. He puts down the religious leaders for their false piety and, by contrast, holds a child in his arms and says, “Those who become simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s New Age.”
A religious leader hands him a coin and asks him whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus says ‘no’ he’s in trouble with the state; if he says ‘yes’ he’s in trouble with the religious authorities. But he knows what they are up to, and so he says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s – and to God what is God’s.” Make up your own mind!
The religious leaders, again seeking to catch him out, bring a woman to him who’s been caught in the very act of adultery, an offence punishable by death by stoning. They want to know what he thinks they should do to her. If he shows mercy, they can accuse him of not upholding the law; but if he condemns her, he’d prove to be one of them. Instead, he scribbles in the sand, almost ignoring them, and says, “If you’ve never done anything wrong, you throw the first stone.” And, one by one, they all slip away…
These are the sorts of stories our Greek visitors have heard and they want to meet this larger-than-life man who is willing to stand up to authority and speak out for justice.
Now, of course, we know very little about Jesus, actually. There may be all sorts of things he got up to that we can never know – but you never hear of Jesus going back to apologise for something stupid he said or did; you never hear of Jesus wishing he had a better job, a bigger house, a nicer robe or a new pair of sandals.
What we do know about him leads us to believe that, in some mysterious way, he is as close to God as any human being could be – and it is that closeness to God to which we can all aspire.
“We wish to see Jesus.” But there is a catch. Did you notice that their wish to see Jesus is never granted? They express their wish to Philip; Philip tells Andrew and they both approach Jesus together. And, just as on previous occasions he says neither yes nor no. Instead Jesus ignores the poor Greek visitors who are waiting for a reply to their request and launches into a theological discourse, beginning with the words “I am telling you the truth”, a favourite signal from this gospel-writer that something important is coming up.
In his odd and cryptic way, John takes our curiosity and our admiration and elevates them to something more significant and transforming. For the writer of the fourth Gospel, all will be revealed at the Resurrection. The significance of that event over-rides all others and these Greeks – and indeed all humanity – will – at that point – see Jesus for who he really is, a Saviour offering humanity a way to live, generously and sacrificially.
To see Jesus is not simply to look at a historical figure, impressive as he may be, but to see the Christ, the one taking love to its ultimate extent, and in so doing becoming a signpost pointing to God and to a life of self-surrender in love and service to others. To see Jesus is to look upon a herald of a New Creation calling us to a life of commitment and compassion. And this is his message in a nutshell: “Anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life; but if you let it go, reckless in your love, then you will have real life.”
That is what is so vividly symbolised not just every time we share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Every time we gather together as the Body of Christ, we share in the mystery of faith, we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we remember the one whose body is broken, whose life is poured out to show us that way to live.
And, being renewed in faith, we go out, by grace, walking the way of Jesus to be the body of Christ in the world today, being signs of his presence along the way.
Thanks be to God.