Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
The 2017 movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” describes a mother, Mildred Hayes, in her quest for justice – bordering on vengeance – in the rape and murder of her daughter. Feeling that the local police and especially Bill Willoughby, the police chief, aren’t putting enough effort into apprehending her daughter’s killer, the mother puts up three billboards outside town – one describes the crime; the second says “And Still No Arrests?” , and the third says, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The billboards are intended to embarrass the police chief into doing was Mildred Hayes considers the right thing. As the storyline plays out, the billboards turn the police and many of the townspeople against Hayes, and in the end the crime still isn’t solved, though Hayes and one of the police officers who had earlier opposed her efforts drive off together in search of someone who they think may have been involved. The script was supposed to have been inspired by an actual case of a grieving father who in 2001 put up similar billboards to bring attention to his daughter’s unsolved murder ten years before. And since the movie’s release, several community activist groups have targeted various corporations they oppose by putting up billboards similar to those in the movie to bring attention to their causes.
Last week’s gospel reading and this week’s gospel reading are like bookends, between which is most of the public ministry of Jesus. In last week’s Gospel reading from the 3rd chapter of John’s gospel, near the beginning of the book, in which Jesus referred to a story from the book of Numbers in which a bronze serpent was put on a pole to bring healing to those bitten by snakes, Jesus said that he would similarly be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him would have eternal life. In this week’s Gospel reading, from the 12th chapter of John’s gospel, about 2/3 of the way through the gospel, Jesus makes a similar statement that when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. Between these two bookends or brackets are most of Jesus’ teachings and healings, highlights from Jesus’ public ministry which the writer of John’s gospel uses to lead his readers to understand who Jesus is. Last week’s reading from John’s gospel provided foreshadowing of things to come; this week’s reading marks a transition from Jesus’ public ministry to the events of Holy Week.
But I’d like to back up to the beginning of this week’s reading. We’re told that Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem several days before the Passover festival. We’re also told that, quote unquote, “some Greeks” were in town. We’re not told much about these Greeks, except that presumably they’re not from Jerusalem. And, if an old song from the Eagles is right, the Greeks don’t want no freaks. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Anyway…..These may have been Greek-speaking Jews, or more likely were Greeks who, while not Jewish, believed in the one God and admired the ethical and moral teachings of the Jewish faith, even though they did not convert to Judaism or follow the Jewish kosher regulations and or sacrifices and such.
We’re told that these Greeks identified Philip – a disciple of Jesus’ who had a Greek name – and came to him with a request: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew, and the two told Jesus. And Jesus’ reaction was odd, very odd indeed. We’d think that Jesus would have been pleased that his teachings had gotten so much attention that he was attracting Gentiles. But seemingly, for Jesus, the arrival of these Greeks was like an alarm clock going off. Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man” – meaning himself – “to be glorified.” And again, to be glorified sounds like a good thing, like something he’d enjoy, no? But then, as Jesus goes on, we learn he’s talking about something very unpleasant indeed: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life 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 honor.” In this talk about seeds dying and losing one’s life, it’s clear that when Jesus talks of being glorified, he’s speaking of his own death. And by the end of our Gospel reading, it’s clear that Jesus is not just talking about dying, but about being killed, about being crucified: ‘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.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” So Jesus is using words such as “glorified” and “lifted up” with a double meaning – he will be crucified, but ultimately this will lead to his being exalted, and to God’s being glorified. And for Jesus, the arrival of the Greeks was a signal that the hour had come for all of this to unfold. In saying, “the hour has come,” it’s as if Jesus had said, “The time has come for me to take on the evil powers that control this world. Let’s do this. Game on.”
We’re never told whether the Greeks who came to Philip ever got to see Jesus before he was crucified. Very shortly after today’s Gospel reading, we’re told that Jesus essentially shut down his public ministry and made preparations for a last supper with his followers, where for several chapters of John’s gospel he summarizes his teaching and his life’s work for his disciples. And then Jesus and his followers went out to the garden to pray, where Jesus was arrested. We do know that Jesus ultimately wanted everyone to see him, but in a particular way….lifted up on the cross.
A word about the cross: We’re told that Jesus was crucified with two other criminals on Good Friday, but they were hardly the only three people whom Rome had crucified. Crucifixion was a common method of execution for criminals considered to be a serious threat against the Roman empire. The person crucified was forced to carry the crossbeam – which might have weighed 100 lbs – to the place of execution. The person was usually crucified in the nude – those little loincloth coverings in sculptures and paintings are only an artistic device - and death could take anywhere from several hours to several days, depending on how the person was attached to the cross and the person’s physical condition. It was meant to be an incredibly painful, drawn-out, humiliating death. Theologian James Cone, in his book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”, draws a direct line from crucifixions in ancient Rome to lynchings in our own country. As with lynchings in our country, crucifixion was meant not just to torture one individual, but to terrorize an entire community. In effect, the alleged criminal was turned into a gruesome billboard, a gory sort of public service announcement, if you will, a warning from those in power: If you defy us, this is what we will do to you.
Why would Jesus want everyone to see him in that way? Remember that Jesus connected his crucifixion to the judgment of “the ruler of this world”. And while from a political standpoint the rulers of his world were the Roman emperor and the Jerusalem religious establishment, Jesus knew that the emperor and the religious leaders were just puppets used by the powers of evil in the world. Essentially, Jesus’ strategy was to flip the script on the Roman empire and the Jerusalem religious leaders, and the evil powers that backed them. What Rome and the religious establishment did with the intent to discredit Jesus, Jesus turned back on Rome and the religious establishment, in effect allowing Rome and the religious establishment to discredit themselves by executing an innocent man. And from a perspective of Christian faith, when Rome intended to use Jesus’ crucifixion as a gory, bloodstained billboard to terrorize a population, Jesus flipped the script to use it as a way to announce the height and depth and breadth and power of God’s love for humankind. And so Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”
“We would like to see Jesus,” was the message from a delegation of Greeks to Jesus’ disciples. And, in essence, it’s the message from anyone who comes to visit a church for the first time, be it Emanuel Church or any of the other churches in Bridesburg or elsewhere. They may use different words. They may make more specific requests – to ask what time worship starts, or if there’s Sunday school, or they may ask for food or to rent the social hall, or for a baptism, or if their wedding can be held there. But there are other places that give out food and lots of places that rent space, and weddings can be held in a judge’s chambers as well as church. Beyond the specific request, there’s a desire for connection to the divine, a desire to be loved, a desire for a caring community. They wish to see Jesus.
When visitors come to Emanuel, what will they see? They’ll see a 150+ year old building containing a small congregation. They’ll hear beautiful organ music, and some hymns…..which may or may not be familiar depending on the visitor’s religious background. If they come on the first Sunday, they can taste the bread and wine or grape juice of communion – we offer both. They’ll hear words of Scripture, and may even speak some words of Scripture themselves during the responsive reading of the psalm of the day. And, yeah, they’ll hear a sermon, or if they nod off during the sermon, hopefully someone will wake them up before the final hymn, or at least before we lock up the building for the day. In some churches, inside of the pulpit, where I stand, there’s a plaque mounted that says, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” It’s a helpful reminder to the preacher to stay on topic.
But will they see Jesus? Or when people interact with us in our lives outside the church, will they see Jesus? That part’s up to you and me. When people outside the church hear the word Christian, often the words that pop into their heads are “judgmental” and “hypocritical”. Not words that are apt to attract a lot of people our way. And yet people like the Jesus they read about in Scripture, who showed great compassion and cared about the last, the least and the lost. They just don’t think church folks act much like him….in fact, more often, we act like the religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes, who opposed Jesus, who loved God but had a funny way of showing it in their interactions with other people. And beyond that, sometimes our own human brokenness and weakness and tiredness – compassion fatigue, you might say - gets in the way. It’s part of the human condition.
Churches often get caught up in side issues – matters of doctrine, matters of governance – but what Jesus taught was love – love of God, love of neighbor. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” In Jesus’ time as now, relationships were and are often transactional, based on what one person can get out of another. If you can do something for me, I’ll be nice to you; if you can’t, I won’t. But that’s not the way Jesus wanted his followers to treat one another or others. Real, unconditional love is what Jesus lived and taught, and real, unconditional love is what Jesus asks of us.
May the words of those Greeks, “We would like to see Jesus” remind us who we are, and whose we are, and why we’re here. May we love as Jesus loved. May all who come here seeking Jesus, find what they’re looking for. Amen.