I think if Jesus had been running for political office and we had been on his campaign team, there would probably have been times when we would have taken him aside and said, “Lord, you need to be more careful what you say to people. Take that rich man who showed an interest in following you – he would have made a very useful member of our team! But why did you have to challenge him right from the beginning to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and come and follow you? Why couldn’t you have introduced that subject more gradually? And what about the man who told you he wanted to follow you, and you said, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but I haven’t got anywhere to lay my head?’ Why couldn’t you have kept that information from him for a while? If you had, he might still be with us! If you keep shooting yourself in the foot like this, Jesus, you’re never going to get elected!”
Today’s gospel reading is another example of this sort of straight talk from Jesus. In the Gospel of John it comes right after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. He and his disciples have come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival; Jesus has climbed onto a donkey and ridden in procession through the city gates like a king coming into his capital, with his disciples waving palm branches and the crowd cheering and shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). It must have been an impressive sight.
And so we come to today’s gospel. Why don’t you look it up with me?
It begins with these words: ‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (12:20). Greeks? What were they doing there? Passover was a Jewish festival, celebrating the ancient story of how God had set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt. It was the most nationalistic of all Jewish festivals; in this story, Gentiles were the enemy, and you wouldn’t expect Gentiles to come as pilgrims to participate in it.
But here’s the thing: all over the Mediterranean world in New Testament times, there were little pockets of Gentiles – Greeks and Romans – who had become attracted to the religion of Israel. They were disillusioned with the Greek and Roman gods and they were hungry for something more, something real. In the faith of Israel, they found the story of one true Creator God who wanted his people not only to worship him, but also to live a moral and ethical life, and many of them found this attractive. So they adopted parts of the Jewish religion – they joined in the worship of the synagogues, and tried to follow the commandments – but without going all the way and being circumcised, which was more of a challenge to them! These people were known in New Testament times as ‘God-fearers’, and they were fertile ground for the Christian message as the missionaries took it out into the Gentile world.
What’s this got to do with us today? Well, I sometimes think we live in similar times. For generations our society has been offering traditional idols for our worship and satisfaction. Advertisers have been telling us if we just buy their products, we’ll be happy and healthy and young forever. Politicians have been promising that if we just elect them they’ll build the new Jerusalem and we’ll all be happy together. National leaders have demanded our allegiance and told us we’re either for them or for their enemies. We’ve been told that if we just worship the idols of money and possessions or fame or success or beauty or youth or popularity, we’ll find the satisfaction we’re looking for. But we haven’t found it, and more and more people are beginning to question these popular idols. More and more people are looking for a spiritual dimension to their lives. Some are even willing to name that spiritual dimension as ‘God’. They may not be ready to join an organized church, but they’re coming to believe that without God there are no ultimate answers to the questions they’re struggling with.
However, there are barriers they face. Christianity’s been around for a long time so they don’t expect to find anything new and relevant in it. Church has all kinds of puzzling traditions that are precious to the insiders but very confusing to outsiders. There are words and phrases we use all the time that people just can’t wrap their heads around. And there’s the fear factor, too; I don’t know if church people are really aware how scary it is for someone who hasn’t been to church for years – if ever – to cross the doorstep. These are just a few of the barriers spiritual seekers face if they’re going to look for answers in the Christian church.
The Greeks in today’s Gospel reading faced some barriers, too. When they got to the temple they would have found themselves relegated to the outermost court, the court of the Gentiles. Gentiles were forbidden from getting any closer to the God of Israel, on pain of death. And this court was where all the money changers and animal sellers plied their trade, so it wouldn’t exactly have been a quiet place to pray.
But then along comes Jesus. Perhaps the Greeks have seen his procession into the city with the crowd around him. Perhaps they’ve heard about his miracles and his teachings, and they want to know more.
So they come to one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip of Bethsaida. ‘Philip’ is a Greek name, and Bethsaida is an area of Galilee where a lot of Gentiles live, so perhaps these Greeks feel a sense of connection to Philip. They go to him and say some of the most beautiful words written in the gospels: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21).
I love it when people say that to me! Perhaps not in so many words, but the meaning’s clear: “I want to learn more about Jesus! Why do you think he’s so special? Why do you follow him?” Of all the jobs I get to do as a Christian, that’s the one that thrills me the most – helping people get a clearer picture of Jesus!
But Philip isn’t quite so sure about their request – we aren’t told why – so he takes it to Andrew, who has a reputation for introducing people to Jesus. In fact, the first person he introduced to Jesus, his brother Simon Peter, has already become the leader of Jesus’ band of followers. True to form, Andrew has no hesitation; “Let’s go and tell Jesus about it”, he says.
Spiritual seekers need their Philips and their Andrews – someone who can help them get to know Jesus better. Usually it will be a friend – someone they know and trust.
Michael Peers was a student in Ottawa in the late 1950s; he had been raised in a totally non-Christian household, but he had a growing curiosity about God. A student friend invited him to a service at a local Anglican church; Michael was attracted to what he saw there, and eventually he decided to become a Christian. He went on to become a priest, and in 1986, like Simon Peter, he became the leader of the band of Anglican followers of Jesus in Canada – the ‘Primate’, as we call it – a position he held ‘til his retirement. But it would never have happened if his student friend had not invited him to church. Michael had his ‘Philip’ or ‘Andrew’, and he often told that story in gratitude for what his friend had done for him.
Back to our Greeks. At this point in the story, if Jesus had been a fisherman and we were giving him advice about reeling in a fish, we might have said, “Go gently, now, Jesus – don’t jerk the line too fast, or you’re going to lose your fish”. In other words, “Don’t hit these Greeks with a bunch of demands right off the top. Tell them all about how you’re going to enhance their lives. Keep the issue of the cost ‘til later, when they’re already on the hook and just about landed!”
But Jesus is incapable of doing that; he’s honest and straight in his expectations of those who want to follow him. You can never accuse him of hiding the cost or making the small print too small to read. Follow his reasoning with me here:
He starts by telling the crowd what’s ahead for him. At first it sounds good: he says in verse 22, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. But then as he goes on, we become uncomfortably aware he has a different definition of glory; his glory’s all bound up with his suffering. He uses the illustration of a grain of wheat falling into the ground. It looks as if the farmer’s throwing it away; it falls into the soil and it’s buried there, which is a kind of death; you think that’s the end of it. But a few days later a shoot springs up, and then a plant, and the plant begins to bear fruit, and suddenly the grain of wheat that died has multiplied.
Jesus is taking about his death on the Cross. He’s going to be rejected by the very people he came to save: the world will throw him away and bury him. But three days later a new resurrection shoot will begin to appear, and then the message will go out, and people will begin to turn to him. In verses 32-33 Jesus says, ‘“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. He said this’, says John, ‘to indicate the kind of death he was to die’.
For Jesus, there could be no ducking the Cross. The Cross was not a tragedy; it wasn’t a derailment of God’s plan; rather, the whole story from the very beginning had been leading up to this moment. As God has been rejected by people all over the world, so Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, would be rejected and nailed to the Cross. The people of the world put him there, and as he says in verse 31, ‘Now is the judgement of this world’. The best the world had to offer – the Roman empire, the Pharisees, the high priests and Sadducees, the Jerusalem crowd – all combined together to reject Jesus and kill him.
But in an extraordinary turnaround, that moment of defeat and death became a victory for the love of God. Jesus refused to strike back; he offered only forgiveness and love from the Cross. And so he embodied for the whole world the fact that love is stronger than hate, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Anger and rejection were turned on him, but he responded with mercy and forgiveness and grace. This is what God is like. This is what Jesus’ death on the Cross demonstrates for us.
So there’s good news in the Cross! But there’s also challenge, and Jesus wants to be up front with this challenge to these Greeks who think they might want to follow him. So in verses 25-26 he says, “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour”.
In other words, the way of the Cross isn’t for Jesus only; it’s for his followers too. Those who choose to give their first loyalty to Jesus will always be an offence to earthly leaders who demand absolute obedience. The early Christians experienced this when they refused to offer incense to Caesar as a god; this wasn’t just a harmless religious ceremony in those days; it was a pledge of allegiance. To say, “Jesus is Lord” always carries the corollary, “and Caesar is not”. Whether Caesar is our political leaders, our employers, the media, the global economy – whatever it is, people who want to follow Jesus need to realize from the get-go that not everyone will be jumping for joy about this; there will be a price to pay.
Throughout Christian history there have been people who have willingly paid the ultimate price for their allegiance to Jesus. But those of us who aren’t asked to do this are not ‘off the hook’. We’re all called to ‘die to self’ – in other words, to be willing to let go of our desire to have everything we want, to have a comfortable and easy life with ourselves at centre stage. It’s a happy coincidence that in the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ at the centre of it; when I’m at the centre of my own life, that’s what sin’s all about, because the throne at the centre of my life rightfully belongs to God. Those who want to follow Jesus must be prepared to face this challenge.
So Jesus is calling his followers to a different kind of glory. Today, all over the world, crosses are emblazoned on church buildings, which is a bit weird, if you think about it – imagine if we all started wearing little silver electric chairs on chains around our necks? And yet, it’s true that the Cross is Jesus’ moment of glory. The one who called people to love their enemies and do good to those who hated them did just that himself, accepting the worst the world could do to him and responding with forgiveness and grace. The one who called people to trust God did just that himself, trusting that if he allowed himself to fall into the ground like a grain of wheat, the Father wouldn’t allow him to be trodden underfoot and forgotten. And so it was; the Father raised him from the dead, an act that gripped his followers and sent them out to spread the good news of his victory all over the world. Today, two thousand years later, we are still telling the story – glory indeed.
So what’s this gospel telling us today?
First, it’s telling us to be on the lookout for those spiritual seekers. They’re all around us, if we’re prepared to listen. They may have all sorts of intellectual questions about God, or they may just feel like God’s a million miles away from them, and if there’s a way to get closer, they want to find it. The conversation’s not going to be a short one – not nowadays, when people have so little cultural memory of what Jesus is all about. We can’t be in a hurry. But if we’re willing to engage on their turf – not necessarily expecting them to come to church, but being willing to go where they’re comfortable and take their questions seriously – amazing things can happen.
Second, this gospel is giving us some guidance about those conversations. We may start in all kinds of interesting places, and it might take a long time to get to the point, but as Christians we do have to get to the point sooner or later, and the point is Jesus. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Jesus is the unique son of God who has come from God to show us the way to God. He’s the clearest picture of God we can find. And that picture is clearest of all at the Cross. At the Cross we see, not a God who tortures and kills his enemies, but a God who’s willing to endure torture and death at the hands of his enemies rather than stop loving them. The face of Jesus on the Cross is the face of God for this world today: a God who isn’t far from us, but suffers with us.
Third, we dare not downplay the difficulties. Evangelists in the past have told a lot of lies about this. They’ve talked about how being a Christian makes them happy all day long, but they haven’t talked about their struggles to follow the hard teachings of Jesus, or the times their friends have ridiculed them or rejected them. People need to know right up front that it’s not always easy to be a Christian. We owe them that.
Fourth, we in this church need to make this a priority for our ministry. All kinds of organizations can do all kinds of good in our city, but not many can show people the way to Jesus. We need to make this a priority: to know Jesus and follow him ourselves, and to make him known to others. The Jesus we follow began his ministry by calling people to follow him so he could teach them to fish for people. He ended his ministry by sending them out to lift him higher, so that he could draw all people to himself. This was obviously a priority for him. It should be for us too.
Be excited about Jesus. Be connected with people who don’t know him. Be on the lookout for spiritual seekers. Take their questions seriously. Help them understand what Jesus shows us about God. Tell them the truth about the challenging bits. Walk in the light of Jesus yourself and shine that light for others. That’s what today’s Gospel is calling us to do.