A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 22 March 2015:
In last week’s gospel reading, we heard how Nicodemus, a ‘teacher of Israel’ sought out Jesus at night. Jesus had first come to his attention when he entered the Jerusalem Temple at Passover, and swept away the tables of the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. Fascinated by this sacrilegious intervention, Nicodemus had come to talk with Jesus. Concerned about his status as a Temple leader, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night. As they spoke, Jesus challenged him to shun the darkness that hid his actions, and instead ‘come into the light so that his deeds may be clearly seen’ (John 3.21). And explained to him that the Son of Man would be lifted up so that all would have life, just as Moses lifted up a serpent to ward off death in the wilderness.
We heard how, at the end of the story of Jesus, how Nicodemus stood at the foot of the cross on the eve of another Passover. How he saw Jesus lifted up on a cross in the darkness of the eclipsed sun and moon. How it was there that he came to understand Jesus’ challenge, and recognise Jesus to be the Light and Life of the World. We saw how Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, left behind the certitude of his former beliefs. How he decided to step into a future shaped, not by his status in the temple hierarchy which once had compelled him to seek the anonymity of darkness, but rather by his newly-found faith in Jesus as the Light of the World, whom the darkness would not overcome, and the One who by dying would bring life to the world. How he left behind his former identity and became part of a new community of faith and belonging.
Today’s gospel reading continues the contrast of darkness and light, death and life. Again, Jesus is in the Temple at Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Again, Jesus had just caused much notoriety by his actions: this time he had been greeted by the people of Jerusalem in a royal progress with palm branches held high. Seated on a donkey, Jesus had made his way across the Kidron valley to the Temple Mount, the people hailing him as their king. This will be the last Passover Jesus celebrates. As he teaches in the Temple precinct, Jesus again challenges his hearers to shun the darkness that already encroaches: ‘walk in the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, Jesus tells them (John 12.36). And promises them, ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ (12.32).
This time, Jesus’ hearers are not only faithful Jews, like Nicodemus, but also outsiders. We read in today’s gospel reading that ‘some Greeks’ came to ‘the festival’ (John 12.21). The ‘Greeks’ who attended the Passover festival were very likely proselytes. Our English word is a literal rendition of the Greek. And that, in turn, is the word used to translate the technical term for ‘resident alien’, used by the ancient equivalent of the immigration office, in Hebrew ‘ger toshav’ (גר תושב). The Greeks, then, were gentiles who, in return for their right to live in or near the land of Israel, have accepted some of the key tenets of the Jewish faith. They do not yet fully belong to the people of Israel, but know of and share their beliefs. They have permanent residency, but are yet to pass their citizenship test.
The ‘Greeks’ encounter Jesus’ followers in the forecourt of the gentiles, and ask to see Jesus: ‘Sir’, they ask Philip, ‘we wish to see Jesus’. John is very specific about who it was that the ‘Greeks’ sought out, isn’t he? He explains the reason for their choice of go-between with the terse comment, ‘Philip was from Bethsaida in Galilee’ (John 12.21). Philip not only bore a Greek name, but was brought up in the cultural melting pot that was ancient Galilee: home to Greek-speakers who had settled there during the Hellenistic colonial days, home to Roman occupying forces such as that commanded by the centurion who would seek Jesus out to heal his slave, home to ordinary Jewish people, who tilled the land, fished the lake and, like Jesus and his father Joseph, built the edifices that made up the Greco-Roman administrative centres, or the Jewish cities.
Philip was a citizen of two worlds: a Jewish world and a Greek world. He was an ideal go-between for the Greeks who wanted to see and speak with the man who, only a day earlier, had been hailed by the citizens of Jerusalem as ‘king of Israel’ in his solemn procession to the Temple mount. Philip in turn sought out Andrew, another disciple bearing a Greek name – Andreas – and both went and told Jesus that here were people who had come to hear him.
Jesus does not acknowledge the strangers who had gone to so much trouble to see him. John doesn’t even tell us whether Jesus had even seen them. Instead, Jesus answers his two disciples that ‘now’ – at the moment that the gentiles from Galilee had sought him out – ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (John 12.23). Jesus had spoken of that hour before, and the arrival of his gentile hearers indicated to Jesus that his ‘hour’ had now come.
Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ ‘hour’ is a decisive moment in which barriers are broken. The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus breaks cultural barriers by sharing a drink of water with a Samaritan woman, and telling her, ‘the hour is now here when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, but … worship the Father in spirit and truth’ (John 4.21-23). The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus shatters Jewish religious expectations, by assuring them that it was he who would break the final barrier of death: ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (John 5.29).
Hour by hour, then, the story of the cross unfolds until, at last, the hour comes for Jesus to be arrested, condemned to die, and be crucified. Hour by hour, decisive moment after decisive moment: the Samaritans are brought in to worship God in spirit and truth; the Jews challenged in their beliefs about death and life, darkness and light – both openly and secretly; and now the gentiles are brought near: ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be to be glorified’ (John 12.23). The hour of completion was near as, moment by moment, the ancient and the new people of God were brought together to meet, hear and be deeply perturbed by the One who would call them to a new life altogether.
Not only those brought to Jesus were perturbed by their participation in those crucial moments, their living through these ‘hours’. Jesus himself was ‘deeply troubled in his soul’ at the realisation that ‘now’ was the moment that would – ultimately – lead to that other ‘hour’ (John 12.27). The hour when ‘all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5.28). That ‘now’ was the moment that would begin to set in train the inescapable process to save all people from condemnation, ‘for the Son of Man to be lifted up … that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3.14b-16).
‘Now’, then, was the hour, the moment in which Jesus would begin to be glorified by being lifted on a cross to die. A deeply troubling kind of glory, John’s glory. For Jesus tells his hearers that it is only by dying that he can bring life eternal, just as a harvest of wheat is brought forth only from buried grains; and that it is only by dying to this world, that they themselves will ‘keep their lives for eternal life’ (John 12.26). And as he challenges Jews and gentiles to strive for that new life, he pours out his own humanity in prayer: ‘what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “Father, glorify your name”.’ (John 12.27-28). As he denies his own life so that others may share life, and as he bends his own will in obedience to God’s, God speaks to him of another glory – ‘the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ – as God the Father affirms, ‘I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again’ (John 12.28).
The glory of being God’s only Son, ‘close to the Father’s heart’, had been first made known when ‘the Word became flesh to dwell among us’ (John 1.14). Soon it will be made known again, ‘when [he is] lifted up from the earth, to draw all people to [himself]’ (John 12.31). For now, there remain the Father’s words of glorification, spoken and heard by those who believe, or perceived as thunderous noise by those who do not yet have ears to hear. For now, another hour has passed on the way to the cross: some Greeks have been added to the growing group of believers that now include Samaritans, Jews and gentiles. And all of them are the recipients of Jesus’ challenge, to ‘walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, and to ‘believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.36).
What, then, is our part in this story of transformation?
I think that our part is two-fold.
First of all, we are called to be witnesses to the story of Jesus. People who understand and believe that glory can mean suffering, and death does not always mean the end of life. People who believe that faith in Jesus means changing our lives, dying to the life of this world, and serving and following Jesus, so that ‘where I am there my followers may be also’ (John 12.26). People who believe that Jesus was glorified in his death, and that he died to draw all people to himself, died that we may not be condemned but instead be granted eternal life.
Secondly, we are called to become people who bring others to Jesus. People like Philip and Andrew, who have ‘dual citizenship’, who know what it means to be both on the inside and what it may be like for those still on the outside. People who, like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, like the Greeks and the women gathered at the foot of the cross, have ourselves experienced the ‘hour’ in which Jesus was shown forth as he really was – the Son of God who tore down the barriers that separate and segregate, that keep people apart from people, and people apart from God. People whose own lives have been radically changed, and who now bring others to Jesus so that their lives may also change.
Jesus said to them: ‘The light is with you for a little longer. … While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.35-36).