“We Wish to See Jesus”

+ A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on March 21, 2021 +

Text: John 12:20-33


“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

On the face of it, it’s a simple request.
But those simple words contain such poignancy.
Our entire faith journey, all our spiritual longings, all our hopes when we come to worship can be summed up in that simple request: “We wish to see Jesus.”

I wonder what these Greeks are looking for.
What have they heard?
Did they hear about Jesus’ preaching and parables and are longing to learn more?
Did they hear about his feeding the multitudes and want to taste this heavenly bread?
Did they hear about his acts of healing, even raising people from the dead, and are seeking wholeness and life?
Did they hear about his challenging the Empire and the religious authorities and are seeking solidarity or liberation?
Did they hear about his proclamation of God’s love for the whole world and are hoping to experience that love?
What have they heard?
What are they looking for?
We don’t know for sure.
We just hear their humble and bold request, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

And it’s so interesting to me that they make this request to Philip.
You may remember how we heard about Philip a few weeks ago, way back at the beginning of John’s gospel.
We heard how Jesus found Philip in Galilee and how Jesus invited Philip to follow him.
And then how Philip rushed to his friend Nathanael and invited him to come follow Jesus with the words, “Come and see.”
And today we hear that these Greeks come find Philip and ask to see Jesus, but Philip doesn’t respond in the same way.
He doesn’t really respond at all.
Philip goes to Andrew and Andrew goes to Jesus.
And the Greeks seem to be, well, left behind.
Left out.
We don’t hear whether their request is fulfilled or not.

I am left wondering: Why did Philip respond like this?
Why didn’t he just bring these seekers to see Jesus?
We don’t really know.
But I’ve been wondering this week if Philip was hesitant to bring these Greeks to see Jesus precisely because they were Greek.
Up until now, Jesus’ ministry has been primarily among his own Jewish people.
Sure, there was some major stretching of the boundaries by reaching out to the Samaritans, but they’re basically long-lost cousins to the Jewish family.
Unlike the other gospel accounts, there is no mission to the Gentiles in John.
But somehow, these Greeks have shown up and are looking for Jesus and, well, they don’t really belong in the story.
They’re outsiders.
Fundamentally different culturally, ethnically, and certainly religiously.
Even the Greek language they speak was that of the ruling Empire, not the Aramaic that Jesus and his followers would have been conversing in.
But because they are so foreign, because they are outsiders, the presence and request of these Greeks show that the good news that is proclaimed in Jesus and his ministry has started to spill out into the world.
That these Greeks have taken notice and want to hear more.
And they seem to embody a fulfillment of the promise that we heard last week—that Christ’s stated mission is to proclaim God’s love for the whole world.

But are the disciples ready to embrace such an expansive love?
Sure, it sounded great when Jesus was talking like that—who doesn’t like to hear that God loves them?
But when they’re actually faced with the question of whether God’s love really extends to these people, too?
Well, maybe we should run this request through the church hierarchy, make some official statement on whether Jesus really meant that these outsiders can experience the fullness of God’s love among them.
Even with Jesus among them, I wonder if the disciples can’t comprehend the true meaning of this good news, the implications of God’s love for the whole world.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that just in the past week there were two major stories about Jesus’ followers failing to understand what God’s love means.
Not surprising, maybe, but it’s certainly heartbreaking that these self-professed Christians would use our Lord as an excuse for division and hateful violence.

On Monday, millions of people around the world were told once again that their holy and beautiful love was a sin when the Vatican confirmed that the Roman Catholic Church would not allow the blessing of same-sex unions.
That the Church had determined that the LGBTQIA+ community was somehow outside the fullness of God’s love, unworthy to live into their God-given identities.

Then on Tuesday, domestic terror struck Atlanta as a man murdered eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at two massage parlors.
This act of violence sent shockwaves through the Asian and Pacific Islander communities who have been facing increased discrimination and violence for more than a year now as they found themselves the undeserving scapegoats of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the shootings, news stories quickly emerged wondering how this person who was so involved in his church could possibly develop such hatred.
That this couldn’t possibly be a result of racism, but rather the shooter’s own urges that he wanted to purify in the name of his Christian faith.
That because the shooter was a Christian, this couldn’t possibly be a hate crime.
As if we haven’t seen Jesus’ ministry of love twisted to fit an ideology of hatred before.
As if Jesus hasn’t literally been whitewashed at the hands of white supremacy.
As if the words of the gospel have never been distorted to justify slavery and segregation, racism and violence, dehumanization and supposed moral purity.

Is that really the Jesus that we see?
A Jesus who decides that the love of two people is wrong, that it is outside the boundaries of God’s blessing?
A Jesus who views our Asian siblings as less than human, mere objects of fantasies and symbols of disease?
Because looking at the news during the past week, scrolling on social media, it would be easy to assume that’s who Jesus is—someone who preaches division and hatred, racism and violence.
Someone who’s love is contained, confined only to a certain few with contempt towards those outside of its strict boundaries.
And if my reading of today’s gospel text is correct, even Jesus’ disciples struggled to understand how far Jesus’ love could truly extend.

“We wish to see Jesus,” those Greek seekers said to Philip.
But rather than bringing them to see Jesus right away, Philip found Andrew and they went together to find Jesus.
And when they find him, Jesus responds with a haunting and powerful message: “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.”
We are told that this lifting up means Jesus’ death on the cross, his execution at the hands of the Empire—the ruler of this world that is so bent on division and subjugation, dehumanization and violence that a message of pure and unbounded love is an existential threat to its survival.
Jesus himself says that he will drive out the powers of this world and has already shown how the kingdom that he is bringing will flow with abundant life and love.
And on that cross, we see the powers of this world face off against the kingdom of God.
We see what happens when these two ideologies collide and the Empire tries to supplant God.
And on that Friday we dare to call “good,” it may seem pretty obvious to the world who has won.
Jesus dies.
His ministry is at an end.
His hope for change has been vanquished by the status quo.

But we also know that Friday was not the end at all.
That on the third day, Jesus would burst forth from the tomb, declaring that it was not he who was defeated by that cross, but the very powers of this world themselves.
Because as much as they tried, they could not overcome the perfect, selfless, life-giving love of God.
And when Jesus is lifted up, lifted up on the cross, lifted up in his resurrection, lifted up in the ascension, he will draw all people to himself.
He will forever blur the lines of race and creed, ethnicity and sexuality, gender and age because God’s love refuses to be bound by any sort of borders or limitations because God’s love is for all people and brings abundant life and wholeness to the whole world.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to bear the fruit of this love.
To draw close to the cross where the powers and systems of this world are found wanting when compared to the astounding, limitless, and everlasting love and grace of God.
To proclaim to the whole world through our lives and actions that racism and hatred, division and violence, all the systems and institutions that seek to dehumanize us or keep us from God’s love have been nailed to the cross of Jesus and are forever driven out of Christ’s resurrection life.

But this is a love that cannot rely on mere platitudes.
It cannot be defined by official statements or determined through dogma.
It’s a love that demands to be embodied, that yearns to be experienced.
It’s like how, though I have seen the Aurora Borealis many times in my life, my explaining the Northern Lights to you, or even showing you a picture, will never be able to fully explain the beauty and majesty of actually seeing them in person, of experiencing their awesome glory.
So too our proclamation of God’s love for the whole world can never be adequately articulated or sufficiently explained, it must be experienced.
And Christ has told us that he is drawing all people to himself to do exactly that.

“We wish to see Jesus,” those Greeks say, perhaps speaking the words of our own hearts as well.
Those of us who have not come to see Jesus as a result of our own merit, but through Christ drawing us in.
But I wonder, who is the Jesus we wish to see?
Is it the one who fits in our preconceived notions?
Who puts up barriers to the love of God?
Who affirms our suspicions of who’s in and who’s out?
Of who’s blessed and who’s cursed?
Of who’s loved and who’s left out in the cold?
Or is it a Jesus who will trample all of our human boundaries, who will overwhelm us with abundant grace, who will confound us with radical love?
A Jesus who inspires us to help our neighbors experience the fullness of that love in their lives.
A Jesus who will drive out the ruler of this world.
A Jesus who will remind us that no one is less worthy than we are to experience the fullness of God’s love—and no one is more worthy either.
Because when Christ is lifted up, he is drawing all people, including you and me, to himself.

How will we see this Jesus?
How will we experience him?
And how will we show Jesus to the world that God so loves?

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