Preached March 18, 2018, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON.
Readings for this Sunday: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ (Jn 12:21)
Is there anybody here who wouldn’t want to meet their favourite celebrity in real life? I’m guessing that all of us have some sports hero, some musician or actor that we would hang out with and talk to. Maybe just meeting with that person would leave us speechless and slack jawed, or maybe we would have a hundred questions, or maybe we would just stammer out something totally stupid or ordinary, like “I just love your work”.
I think this desire to meet a famous person is perfectly normal. Perhaps it’s because we live in a celebrity culture, and we are encouraged to live vicariously through our heroes. We even elect celebrities to political office, which doesn’t always go well, but we seem to trust them more than other choices. Maybe its just human nature to project all of our longing, all of hopes and wishes on one well known figure, so that when they win an Oscar or a Nobel Prize, or become President or get married, we somehow feel better about ourselves because we are so invested in that person?
Do you ever wonder though, when you think about meeting a celebrity in real life, what it would be like if that person disappointed you? What if we actually met our hero and that person turned out to be boring, or a self-centred obnoxious jerk? Wouldn’t you be at least a little bit crushed or disillusioned? Perhaps you might even start to wonder why you ever got so caught up in the cult of celebrity culture, you might even feel lied to about people you once thought deserved to be famous.
In today’s gospel we briefly meet some people who might have been celebrity seekers. John tells us that “some Greeks” who happened to be in Jerusalem came up to Philip the disciple and said that they “wish to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21). We aren’t told why they wanted to see Jesus or what they were hoping for. It wasn’t uncommon for non-Jews to be interested in Judaism and to attend the great Jewish religious festivals, so they may have been spiritual seekers hoping to meet Jesus in the way that people today want to meet the Pope or the Dalai Lama. They may have been converts to Judaism hoping to hear some teaching from the famous rabbi that everyone had heard of. By this point in John’s gospel Jesus has already made his entry into Jerusalem on the donkey, the story we will celebrate next week as Palm Sunday, so perhaps these Greeks are just celebrity seekers wanting to meet the man of the day.
Whatever the reason for their desire to see Jesus, its interesting that Jesus doesn’t seem to care about the Greeks. He has no zero desire to play the role of celebrity. He doesn’t invite them backstage or off them his autograph. As N.T. Wright observes, he instead “goes off into a mediative comment about seeds and plants, about life and death, about servants and masters” (Wright 29). Jesus talks about how “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23) but he’s not talking about the sort of glory that fans give to their celebrities. Jesus rather is talking about God’s glory, a glory which has nothing to do with fame or fortune or power. Jesus, you might say, is talking about himself as the anti-celebrity.
Jesus is clearly looking forward to his own death, as his comment about the seed suggests: “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” (Jn 12:24). The second half of John’s gospel gives us a series of Jesus’ teachings and teachings in the last few days between his entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion. Many of these teachings focus on the idea of servanthood, the idea that we find true life when we give up on serving our own egos and reputations and instead start serving others in the spirit of the Father’s love. For those who are invested in ego and status, giving them up can feel like death, but this sacrifice is actually the way to life.
Then as now, this is a difficult message for humans to accept. Our desire for affirmation and importance, even the kind of secondary, vicarious importance that we get from attaching ourselves to celebrities, works against Jesus’ message that we truly become ourselves when we let go of ourselves. Perhaps this conflict explains the confusion after the voice from heaven affirms the words of Jesus. Not everyone understands the voice, and some just think it was thunder. As always in the gospels, not everyone understands what Jesus means or who he is. Not everyone gets it.
Going back to our fascination with celebrities, I wonder if our fear of being disappointed by our heroes is because we would rather make them into what we want them to be. We want them to be our ideals of masculinity, or femininity, or style, or heroism, or whatever we are looking for. We don’t want them to be real. I wonder if the same thing can sometimes be true of our relationship with Jesus. Someone once said that we tend to see the Jesus we want to be, as if we were looking down a well and saw our reflection in the water at the bottom. We tend to assume that Jesus looks like us, has our skin colour, our values, shares our politics. We want him to be a champion of the poor, a defender of the status quo, a feminist, an environmentalist, a teacher, we want him to be wise, or fierce, or mild, or whatever. It may be harder to think of him as the Son of God, the one who calls us, who challenges us, the one who wants to, well, change us by reorienting us to others.
At the end of our Gospel reading, Jesus predicts a time “when I am lifted up from the earth, [and] will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12.32). For we who will soon be observing Good Friday, the image of Jesus raised up painfully on the cross comes to mind. Do we wish to see Jesus? Then by all means, see Jesus on the cross. See his agony, see his humiliation, see him taking on the sin and hatred of the whole world so that he might change us and free us. Our second reading, from Hebrews, speaks of Jesus’ of his “obedience” and his “reverent submission”, of his taking on this terrible thing on our behalf. This is not the celebrity that longs to be worshipped and revered. The cross invites us to consider the strange and wonderful anti-celebrity that Jesus is willing to embrace on our behalf.
There are many things that make us want to be church – our desire for fellowship, our need for support, our need for peace and reassurance. All of these things are good, but what really makes us church, I think, is that we are like the Greeks. We want to see Jesus. We want to see Jesus for who he truly is. As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, we will have many opportunities to see Jesus. We will see him enter Jerusalem, humbly, on a donkey. We will see him wash he feet of his disciples. We will see him share bread and wine with his disciples as he gives himself to us. We will see him stand before Pilate. We will see him stagger under the cross, and we will, terribly, see him lifted from the earth on that cross. We will see him buried. And, two weeks from now, in the light of a new dawn, we will see him rise again.
Our challenge is to let go of the Jesus we want to see and to see him as he really is, as the compassionate servant of God, as the one who gives himself to us so that we can be changed, as Jeremiah says in our first lesson, so that even our hearts and souls are rewritten. As we approach Holy Week, think of what a strange celebrity Jesus embodies, and how different it is from the celebrity that the world chases. Jesus says “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (Jn 12:31). I don’t know quite what that means, but as I read it this week I thought of the three most powerful men in the world today, the leaders of America, Russia, and China, and of how they wrap themselves in the cult of celebrity and power. One takes delight in praising himself and telling people that they’re fired. Another is engineering his own election win while poisoning his enemies abroad. Another has just had himself declared leader for life. How foolish they seem, compared to Jesus. How confident he appears in his love and glory as the Father’s son. He doesn’t need our loyalty, or obedience, or fear. He comes to us as priest, as saviour, and servant.
We want to see Jesus. This Easter and Holy Week, may we truly see him, and in seeing Jesus, may we truly see, and truly serve, one another. Amen.