If someone came up to you and said “I want to see Jesus”, what would you show them? If they said, “I want to know Jesus,” what would you point to? What story would you tell, what scripture would you read? What experience would you share, what practice might you suggest?”
In our first reading today, set in the sixth century BC, Jeremiah prophesies the day when people will come to know God. He calls it a new covenant, the beginning of new relationship between God and humanity. The old covenant had been given by God to the people of Israel through Moses. The law, the ten commandments, had been written on stone tablets for all to see, and by the time of Jeremiah it had broken into pieces. The temple was gone, the law had been breached, the promised land was in ruins, and the people were in exile. Into this brokenness, Jeremiah proclaims something different, something new: a new covenant. Rather than being something external, something written on tablets, God would place his teaching within his people, as something internal. Rather than write it on stone, God would write it on their hearts. Rather than being something that had to be taught, it would be based on each person having their own direct experience of the divine. The new covenant would be based on a relationship, based on knowing God. I will be your God, and you will be my people.
So let me rephrase the question and ask again, if someone came up to you and said “I want to know God”, how would you answer?
That’s the starting point for today’s gospel reading. There were some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, and they came up to Philip and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” In the gospel of John, “to see” means more than just a physical sighting. It means to experience, to understand, to encounter, to believe, to trust in, to be in relationship, to know, the kind of thing that Jeremiah is talking about when he looks forward to a new covenant.
Philip finds Andrew, and then he and Andrew find Jesus and tell him about the Greeks’ request. And Jesus recognizes the significance of what is being asked, a significance that goes beyond these particular individuals. Jeremiah had prophesied six hundred years before that the days are surely coming when God would make a new covenant with the people. Jesus himself had said that he would draw all people, Jews and Greeks alike, to himself. Now in today’s gospel, Jesus says, “the hour has come”. It is time for people to see what God is truly like, now is the time for people to come to know God.
So Jesus points, but not where you might expect: not to his birth, not to his teachings, not to the healings and signs, not to his parables, not to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He points to his death. If you want to know me, if you want to know God as I have come to reveal him, look at the cross.
Is that where you would have pointed?
The cross is not a pretty picture of God. It’s not a pretty picture of humanity either. But that’s where we get to know each other in this new covenant that Jeremiah promised.
That’s something we have to wrestle with. In today’s gospel, as Jesus stands in the Temple during the build-up to the Passover festival, following his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem where he was hailed as king and saviour, Jesus points himself, his disciples, and us towards the cross. And the cross is a crazy thing, “foolishness to the Greeks, and a stumbling block for the Jews,” as Paul later puts it in one of his letters.
As he stands there with his disciples, Jesus sees the cross in front of him. Jesus knows that the path he is on will lead to death on the cross. The Roman Empire did not take kindly to having a rebel hailed as king and acclaimed by great crowds as he entered the old Jewish capital of Jerusalem. And the Jewish authorities had decided to collaborate with their oppressors. It is better for one man to die, they reasoned, than to have the whole nation destroyed.
So Jesus, by bringing his mission right into the capital of Jerusalem, will end up on the cross. The cross was a public symbol of the might of the Roman Empire. Those who threatened the Empire were tortured to death on the cross, in public, where they would send a message to all not to mess with Caesar, because Caesar was Lord. The cross was a symbol of the victory of Caesar, a symbol of the Pax Romana, the peace established by Rome by crushing and violently oppressing all opposition. And for Jews, to die on a cross was a symbol of shame, for the one who hung on a tree was under God’s curse, as the book of Deuteronomy puts it.
Would it have made sense for Jesus to avoid this fate? To avoid ending his life in agony as a public display of Caesar’s victory? Jesus wrestles with this question in our gospel. “Now my soul is troubled. What should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?” Maybe it wouldn’t have been too late to leave Jerusalem under the cover of darkness and go into hiding somewhere in the desert. But for Jesus to have saved his life in that way would have been to lose his life. And so Jesus utters another of those paradoxical statements that kept confusing his disciples:
“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.”
That’s a hard saying. It might make sense for a grain of wheat, for a seed, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense for people. Nor does it make much sense for God.
This is the paradox of the cross. I’d like us to wrestle with this paradox this morning and in the 12 days to come as we move towards Good Friday. Lean in and wrestle with what it means for your life, and what it means for who we understand God to be.
Because if you struggle with what the cross means, with what the saying about the grain of wheat means for your life, you’re in good company. Jesus struggled with it too. I think it’s something that we’re meant to struggle with, and so you won’t be getting any easy answers from me this morning.
But let me make a few observations about this paradox of life, the paradox of the cross.
First, the reason that Jesus was able to struggle through this, and to point to the cross, and go to the cross, seems to have everything to do with his prayer life and his intimate relationship with the one he called Abba, Father. In prayer we come to know God, but equally important, we are sustained by God, and we come to know ourselves.
Secondly, I think this has something to do with vocation, with what God calls us to be and do, how that vocation is revealed to us through our relationship with God, and how the embrace of vocation means giving up other possibilities to follow a path that will be life-giving and bear fruit.
And finally, at least for today anyways, all this seems to have something to do with vulnerability, the vulnerability of Jesus on the cross, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough before God so that we too can be made part of the new covenant that Jeremiah prophesied, open enough that God can actually reach inside and touch our hearts.
Jeremiah points to a new covenant. Jesus points to the cross. When someone says to you, “I want to know Jesus”, where are you going to point?
Homily Yr B Lent 5 March 18 2018 St. Albans Church
Readings: Jer 31.31.34; Ps 51; Heb 5.5-10; Jn 12.20-33
Image by Sean Wolf (Creative Commons)