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April 9, 2000

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from the Revised Common Lectionary

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12 or
Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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What Does it Mean To See Jesus?

I can recall very clearly the struggle when the thought first came to me that God might be calling me to the ministry.  The first inclination was along the line of Moses and Simon Peter who thought that the Lord would be much better off looking for someone else!

I called my pastor and shared my sense of frustration.  "I sense a call, but I can't for the life of me figure why God would call me."

The chuckle on the other end told me I was not the only one who had ever gone through such feelings.  As we talked, I asked the question, "I haven't a clue as to what ministry is all about.  Where do you start?"

He told me to read John 12:20 and 21, pray a lot and call him the next day.

And I'm thinking, "This, I could have gotten from my doctor!  Take two aspirin and call me in the morning!"  

Then I got my bible and turned to John 12:20-21:

"Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus.' "

It became clear.

It was clear then and it remains clear to this day.

Being in ministry -- as a clergy person or as a lay person -- means this:  It is as though the world around you has a request.  "..   we wish to see Jesus!"


So what does it mean to see Jesus?

It must be more than simply seeing Jesus in a visual sort of way.  The Greeks who came to the Passover Feast in Jerusalem wanted more than the chance to get a "glimpse" of Jesus.  They wanted to see Jesus in the sense of seeing what Jesus might mean for their lives.

Seeing Jesus in our text, means seeing who Jesus really is and what his mission and ministry are all about.  It is seeing in the sense we mean when we want someone to understand something and we say, "Do you see what I mean?"

The passage in John today gives a wonderful opportunity to learn what it means to see Jesus since it is Jesus himself who answers the question.  When Philip and his brother Andrew come to Jesus and tell him that some Greeks wanted to see him, Jesus did not say, "Here I am, take a look."   He answered with some of the most profound comments about his ministry and coming crucifixion in all of the New Testament.

And so it is Jesus who tells us what it means to see Jesus.

To see Jesus means:

[1]  To understand how Jesus is glorified
[2]  To understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus
[3]  To understand the purpose of Jesus' death 


[1]  To understand how Jesus is glorified

The first thing Jesus said to Philip and Andrew when they told him there were some Greeks who wanted to see him was, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified."  He goes on with an analogy of how a grain of wheat falls into the ground, dies and then yields more wheat.

Why does Jesus talk about being glorified and then talk about death?  The word which is used for "glorified" means, "The time has come for the Son of Man to receive honor -- to be magnified."

The amazing truth as John's Gospel presents it is this:  In his death, Jesus is glorified and honored.  This is a little different emphasis than we find in the other three gospels.  It is as thought through Jesus' death, God opens up a window into eternal reality.  Death is not final after all.  It is not the last word anymore.

When a seed is planted in the ground, it appears to be gone -- to die.  But in fact the seed germinates and leads to more life.   It bears much fruit.  Jesus is not defeated by death, but rather is the One who comes to have victory over death.  The worst hour of his life and the seeming worst hour of human history is turned into the greatest hour ever for the kingdom of God!

[2]  To understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus

For human beings, being honored or glorified is to receive honors, awards and promotions in this life.  Death is when it all comes to naught.

A few years ago while on my morning jog, I was going through a cemetery behind our house and a tombstone caught my eye.  It had so much writing on it, I had to stop and read it.  The epitaph was a long list of a man's degrees, awards and accomplishments.  It was as though the headstone was there to make this grave stand out among the others.

But, his condition was the same as everyone else's.  Buried!

Paul wrote, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." [1 Cor. 15:19]   But Jesus counters this in our gospel reading.  "Those who love their life," He told Philip and Andrew, "lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

Don't be sidetracked by the extreme way the language is used here.  It is common hyperbole in Jesus' time.  It's a little bit akin to the way we talk about sporting events.  When our favorite team defeats an opponent handily, we might say, "We killed them!"  Someone from another culture who doesn't understand the way we talk might thing we were quite barbaric to kill people who were simply trying to win a contest.

Jesus explains further what it means to become one of his followers.  "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also."  The effect of his words is, "People who are so invested in the things of this life will lose sight of what life is really all about. They will wind up defeated by death.  People who want to follow me, on the other hand, will go through death as I am going to go through death -- but, they will be with me forever.  They will share my fate, but they will also share my future."

As we move through the remainder of this Lenten season, it will be important to keep our eyes on this perspective from the gospel of John.   In his death Jesus is glorified.  It is this eternal view of the event of crucifixion that keeps us from being overwhelmed by death.

[3]  To understand the purpose of Jesus' death

Finally, to see Jesus means to understand the purpose of Jesus' death. It is important to understand that Jesus is not saying all this business of death and dying is enjoyable!

It is not.  In our reading, Jesus says, "Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say-- 'Father save me from this hour?   No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour."

It is at this point something profound happens in John's Gospel. The voice of God comes as an affirmation that in the process of Jesus arrest, crucifixion and death, God is glorified and the power of Jesus' ministry is actualized.

It is in the crucifixion that the power to reconcile God and humanity is accomplished.  Jesus says, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

In other words, for Jesus and his followers, death is a doorway -- not a dead end!


"We wish to see Jesus!"

Isn't that the question that lies at the root of our spiritual quest?  To see Jesus -- to really see Jesus, means to understand the wonderful thing God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and to follow Christ through this life and on into eternity.

Only faith can see the beginnings of Easter in the dark clouds that now surround Jesus and his followers.