“We want to see Jesus!” The peculiar thing about this passage is that we don’t find out whether these Greeks ever got to see him! The request gives rise to a declaration to the disciples about his death, and then to a conversation with the crowd. I like to think that Philip took the Greeks to Andrew, who then took them to Jesus, and that the Greeks were standing with the disciples when Jesus told them about his forthcoming death. John’s primary interest isn’t in the Greeks, but in the words of Jesus to which the request gives rise.
Witnesses and believing
Given that the Greek enquirers function almost solely to provide an occasion for Jesus’ words to his disciples, why does John bother with them at all? It seems a clumsy narrative device, doesn’t it, and particularly with the “handing on” that happens between Philip and Andrew? Is this about the internal bureaucracy within the community of disciples? Or is it purely and simply a case of some not-very-good storytelling?
I don’t think either is the case. Moreover, I think John has a particular point in the “handing on” sequence. John’s gospel is written for a very particular purpose: “These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name” (John 20: 31). John hammers the theme of “believing” time and time and time again in the gospel. Jesus performs “signs” – signs that make clear who he actually is. “Believing” is John’s equivalent of “following” in the Synoptic tradition.
John, we must remember, constructs his gospel very differently from the Synoptic evangelists. Mark, Matthew and Luke take us back into the pre-Easter events, reconstructing the “road” they have followed so that we as readers, like them, might come to discover what they discovered in Jesus. Their gospels are almost Lenten journeys in themselves – they get us to insert ourselves into the pre-Easter events of Jesus’ life, so that we are brought to Easter as the disciples were, taken through its horror and into the unimaginable joy and new life of resurrection.
John narrates differently. He begins after Easter. He writes after years of deep reflection on the meaning of it all. His interest isn’t so much in how they came to believe what they did, but in telling us the content of mature, post-Easter faith in Jesus. John effectively says, “Let me tell you about the life that is to be experienced in Jesus!” And so, like Maria in The Sound of Music, he starts – not at the beginning of the story of Jesus’ birth, but at the very beginning: with God, before creation. So John’s Jesus talks constantly about “coming down” from heaven, and about oneness with the Father, in ways that have no parallel within the Synoptic tradition but yet make perfect sense to us readers who know from the outset that this is a story whose beginning is older than creation itself. There isn’t anything “hidden” about Jesus’ divinity in John’s gospel. We are not given tantalising glimpses of it, as in the Synoptic tradition, but it is there, open and full-blown. The question is only whether we will recognise it.
Here’s the point, then, about the strange “handing on” of the people who “want to see Jesus”. It’s all about witnesses. There is no direct, unmediated access to Jesus because Jesus is no longer walking among us. Yet it is still possible to “see Jesus” – through the witness of those who have “come to believe” and have experienced the Life that Jesus gives. Mediated access is no less access to the “true” Jesus, as John is at pains to point out: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21: 24). In 1 John (I take the author to be the Fourth Evangelist, and if he isn’t, for the writing to be so faithfully Johannine that it makes no real difference who the actual author is), “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life: this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1: 1-3). The Greeks “want to see Jesus”, and have to come to see him through the witnesses. In other words, John’s gospel is the content to the Christian witness to Jesus Christ – the witness (the Truth) that enables others to “see Jesus”.
True vs false witness
There is a second emphasis in John’s gospel that is important here: the difference between true and false witnesses. The truth about Jesus is never obvious. Those who had direct access to Jesus during his lifetime didn’t necessarily “get it”. It was possible to see Jesus and remain blind. It was possible to hear Jesus and misunderstand, just as it has been possible to dragoon Jesus into the service of the Inquisition, Apartheid and Nazism. So John’s concern is to “tell the truth” about Jesus – to sort out the “true” Jesus from the “false” Jesus, so that we might believe and have eternal life. And, as John makes clear in the epistle just quoted, eternal life is nothing other than Jesus himself (1 John 1: 2).
Losing life and finding eternal life
We find the eternal life of God in the crucified Jesus. This is where God’s love – the love and grace that saves – is to be seen most clearly. It is literally (in John’s gospel) “raised up before our eyes” as Jesus’ cross is raised into position. This moment of utter abasement is, ironically, the moment of glorification and coronation (as we discovered last week). This is Jesus’ “hour”. Time and again throughout the gospel, Jesus has told them, “My hour has not yet come”. Now, at the moment when he explains his forthcoming death, Jesus announces that it has come (12:23). It is his crucifixion, and it is his glorification – not because of what actually happens, but because of what it achieves: it bears fruit in the form of the believing community (12:24).
In vv 25-26 we hear the Synoptic tradition echoed clearly: there is no way to find eternal life (Jesus) other than by “losing one’s life”. Just as his death is the means by which Jesus is able to bring Life, so “losing our lives” and following Jesus through faith and self-sacrifice (or, as John puts it, the way of Love) is the means by which we discover and experience the Life God has for us in Jesus Christ.
Gethsemane and Transfiguration (John 12: 27-33)
12: 27-33 is John’s version of Gethsemane and Transfiguration. John clearly knows the Synoptic tradition and is quite deliberately recasting it. In v27 we have the troubled Jesus in Gethsemane. Jesus, John wants to affirm, is not blasé about what is in store! Yet he quite explicitly refuses to ask for deliverance in John’s gospel. John’s point here is to emphasise that Jesus knowingly and willingly lays his life down. It is a sacrifice – he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (cf 1: 29). John strips the events of their ambiguity. This is the “truth” about Jesus’ death, viewed in the clear light of Easter Sunday: Jesus died willingly. He did not need to. He laid his life down as a deliberate, willing act of sacrifice. He could have asked for deliverance, but chose not to escape the cross.
John hammers this point home with his second appearance before Pilate, after Pilate has sentenced him to death. Pilate asks, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus states absolutely clearly, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above” (19: 10-11).
Similarly, in 12: 27b-28, the crowd (note that it a far bigger group than the select band on the mountain of transfiguration in the gospels) hear God’s voice: “I will glorify your name!” And Jesus goes on to make it clear: this is about his “lifting up” and “drawing all people to himself”. This is possible because Jesus’ death is also about the defeat of the Satan – the ruler of the world who holds it in an iron grip, just as the White Witch held Narnia in the slavery of perpetual winter (“always winter, and never Christmas!”).
This is the testimony of the witnesses: it is possible to think that Jesus is merely a man, or maybe a man of God: the truth is that this is the Word made flesh – God incarnate. It is possible to think that Jesus had his life ripped from him: the truth is that Jesus willingly, knowingly laid it down in love. It is possible to think that Jesus was the victim of powers beyond his control: the truth is that Jesus quite deliberately confronted and defeated all the powers that are ranged against God and which enslave us. This is the power of love.
Jesus, the “one like us” (Hebrews 5: 5-10)
One problem with John’s portrayal of Jesus (ie of concentrating on the meaning and truth of it all) is that we lose the human Jesus. John’s Jesus runs the risk of only appearing to be human. Stripping away the ambiguity and recasting the story of Jesus in post-Easter light is a risky enterprise. It may help us to see clearly that Jesus is indeed none other than God as a man, but there is the real danger (particularly in John’s version of Gethsemane) of losing sight of Jesus’ humanity, so that we despair and say, “But what use is this to me? How can I possibly live as Jesus lived, with all the pressures I face, when I am simply a fallible, weak, terrified human being? Jesus is asking too much! He doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a mere mortal!”
With today’s epistle, we parachute into precisely this sort of response to the call to follow Jesus and find Life. The writer here wants to tell us, “No, you’re wrong! Jesus does understand! He’s been there – and struggled and suffered just as you do! When he calls you to live as he did, he’s not asking more of you than he asked of himself!”
Jesus, says the writer, is our high priest. The point about a high priest, who intercedes with God on our behalf, is that he is like us, and so “deals gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this, he must offer sacrifice for his own sins, as well as for those of the people” (5:2). That, says the writer, is true of ordinary high priests. The rouble with Jesus is that he is no ordinary mortal! Unlike the human high priests, Jesus does not need to offer sacrifices for his own sin (7:26), but in fact offers himself as a sacrifice for sin (9:12)! Which is all well and good, but it makes relating to Jesus a bit more difficult, doesn’t it? Put starkly, sinlessness may be very admirable, but sinless people are hardly going to be sympathetic to us, are they? Sinlessness threatens to destroy solidarity between Jesus and sinful human beings, and to undermine any confidence in the promise that we have a high priest who is “just like us”.
I don’t know how you conceive of Jesus as “sinless”. The most common reading is that Jesus was like Adam before the Fall – perfectly free to choose either right or wrong, and without the bias towards rebellion that the Bible calls “sinful flesh”. In other words, when we look at Jesus on this reading, the most striking thing is that he is not like we are! This is not what Hebrews tells us. The sinlessness of Jesus is something far more radical. Jesus, the writer tells us, was “tested (tempted) in every respect, just as we are, yet was without sin” (4:15). In other words, Jesus had every tendency towards rebellion that we have, was as “fallen” as we are, and yet remained faithful. He had to wrestle with the drags and draws of temptation that constantly threatened to seduce him away from his devotion to God and to his mission. He was like us!
And so the writer goes back to Gethsemane to show how Jesus knows exactly what it’s like to be human! Here is the Synoptic Jesus, agonising in the Garden, in mortal dread of what is to come: “…prayers and supplications, loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” (5:7). Isn’t that how we cry to God in our most desperate moments? Well, says the writer, so did Jesus! Being the Son didn’t exempt Jesus from humanity and all our struggles.
To a community struggling with persecution, under enormous pressure to give up or compromise, the writer to the Hebrews sends a letter encouraging them with the very humanity of Jesus – the Son who had to undergo struggle, suffering, fear, and the supreme pressure to “give up”. The writer talks about this as “learning obedience through his suffering”, and “being made perfect”. This is not about the sort of spirituality that sees suffering as “good for one” (as though the suffering makes up for and drives out the bad). This is about being truly human. To be truly human is to be a child of God, as Jesus was. It is not to be exempt from the struggles and agonies of trying to flesh out Spirit-life in a fallen world, but rather being immersed in them and changed by them to become more and more Christ-like. Being human and being a child of God only has meaning in the concrete, day-to-day living out of the life of the Kingdom. It is incarnational, in other words. That is what is meant here by “being made perfect”: it has the sense of “being true”, insofar as it becomes a “lived reality”.
The new community of the Spirit (Jeremiah 31: 31-34)
We have focussed so far on the fact that “seeing Jesus” post-Easter is only possible through the witness of those who have already experienced eternal life (in other words, Jesus). Moreover, there is such a thing as “true” and “false” witness, or true and false Jesuses. It is possible to get Jesus wrong. So how do know which Jesus is the true Jesus? In John’s theology, this has everything to do with the work of the Spirit – the “other Advocate/Comforter” (or “other Jesus”) who is the Spirit of truth (John 14: 16-17). The Spirit establishes congruence between the testimony of the witnesses and the Jesus who is proclaimed, so that we are “led into all truth”.
This is the Spirit of the new covenant, promised in Jeremiah 31. The Spirit is the content of the new covenant. Remember: this is a promise to a community that has failed signally to keep covenant. The covenantal relationship between Yahweh and Yahweh’s people has been so abused that it is broken and unfixable – hence exile. It is to this community that Jeremiah speaks the words of Yahweh – the promise of a New Covenant.
This is a covenant that is “written on hearts” (31:33). It is nothing less than the indwelling of God’s Spirit. It is a covenant that cannot be broken because Yahweh has made it and Yahweh effectively “keeps” it. There is nothing that the people are required to do, because the covenant is about God’s Spirit dwelling within people. And to this new community that recognises its own shortcomings and failings, and feels itself cut off from Yahweh by sin, Yahweh promises, “I will forgive their iniquities, and remember their sin no more”.
Sin, grace and forgiveness (Psalm 51: 1-12)
This is a psalm, traditionally attributed to David as a prayer of repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah. The psalmist is a man overwhelmed by guilt and awareness of sin (vv 3-4). As he gazes in the mirror, he sees himself shot through with rottenness. In fact, he is so bad that there cannot conceivably have been a time when he wasn’t sinful and terrible – even were he to go back to the moment of conception! (v5)
There are two dynamics about sin in the Bible. The first is the refusal to take it seriously enough. This had been David’s story. It is only when Nathan visits him and tells him, “You are the man!” that he realises just what he has done. That experience can be annihilative. I remember only too well what it was like to realise what I had done as a member of Ian Smith’s Special Branch – ten years after the event. Guilt and self-disgust become overwhelming. Like Macbeth’s wife, one wants to wash and wash and wash – and yet never gets clean. When we can’t see anything worthwhile in our own reflections, we cannot imagine God feeling about us any differently.
This is when the second, opposite dynamic kicks in: we treat sin too seriously, and can no longer imagine that grace is possible. Then we are deaf to the promises of forgiveness and new life that God utters. We forget that God is a God of steadfast love, who is rich in mercy, yearning to forgive more than we yearn to be forgiven. We reduce God to our own size, and imagine God can see only what we see in our own reflections.
Yet the story of the cross is, as we saw last week, simultaneously the story of the deepest depths of human sinfulness and the revelation and means of God’s love and forgiveness. That is what John works so hard to tell us! “Look up at the cross and see sin. But keep looking, and watch it eclipsed by grace, mercy, forgiveness and salvation!”
The psalmist gets it right. Aware of his sin, he knows where to turn: to Yahweh, who can create a clean heart and put a new and right Spirit within (v10). Here is the freedom of grace! It is not that sin either disappears, or somehow doesn’t matter: it is that God elects to forgive sin and deal with it. Guilt and despair may cut us off from God: grace means that it doesn’t cut God off from us!
Witnesses to the life-giving power of grace and forgiveness
Jeremiah tells us God is like this. The psalmist encourages us in the same truth of God. Supremely (as both John and the writer to the Hebrews remind us), we see the truth about God – that God is Love and Life – displayed in the cross. This is the true God and the truth about God: God wills Life! Eternal life has been sent into the world and we are invited to come and see. And when we truly “see”, and believe, we experience that Life here and now through the Spirit.
We are called not only to be followers but witnesses. We are called to bear witness to what we have ourselves seen, heard, and handled, concerning the Word of Life. There is no other way for people to “see” Jesus today. Yet John reminds us of a sobering aspect of being human: to see Jesus, and to see God and experience the invitation to Life, is not necessarily something that brings joyful celebration! We look at Jesus, who is the Light, and see God. Yet the truth is also that human beings are capable of preferring the darkness. We can only witness faithfully – not legislate how people will respond. Yet there is a deep hunger for the Truth about Jesus Christ; a deep hunger for eternal life. Our task is to witness to that Truth – not a series of doctrinal formulae, or “facts about God”, but about our encounter with the Eternal Life that became flesh and makes a difference every day and in every way to life as a human being.