XCovid-19: For our live-streamed Holy Week and Easter Services and more info about Staying Connected when we are apart…Read more

Sermon Archives

"We Want to See Jesus"

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Mar 18

Text: John 12:20–36

We want to see Jesus,” they say.

Don’t we all. It’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?

Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem for Passover, the festival of Jewish liberation. Mind you, we’re telling this story just slightly out of sequence: Next week we’ll hear Luke’s story of their entrance into Jerusalem, with crowds and palms and hosannas. The gospel of John has that story too; the reading we just heard is what happens immediately after their highly charged arrival, at the one time of year when the Romans are on high alert for any sign of insurrection.

The city is full of Jews from all over, in town for the festival, and some Greek-speakers from somewhere in the eastern empire approach Philip, a disciple, and make a simple request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.

It’s a statement often found affixed to the inside of church pulpits around the world, where only the preacher can see it—a reminder of what people like me are supposed to be delivering when we get up in front of a congregation. As if to say: “They don’t want your homey little stories, pastor. They don’t want your latest political opinions. They just want to see Jesus.” Okay. Sure thing. No pressure.

 I don’t know if it struck you this way, but to me the episode has always seemed oddly pointless, not to mention totally unrelated to the discourse that comes after it. And then, for the first time, this week it dawned on me what John was doing here. Turn back to chapter 1, to the first meeting of Jesus and Andrew in Galilee, and you’ll see, he’s bringing us full circle as Jesus’ ministry nears its close. “Teacher, where are you staying?” Andrew asks him that first time they meet, and Jesus answers, “Come and see.

Soon Andrew goes and finds his brother Simon (whom Jesus would call Peter), and then Philip is drawn in, and Philip tells Nathaniel… and now three years and many miles later, their journey has brought them all to Jerusalem. Once again the theme is seeing. We want to see Jesus. This time the curious seekers are Greek-speaking Jews from beyond Israel’s borders. This movement is going to just go on expanding, from its hometown origins in Galilee to Judea and the holy city and on to the wider empire, where the dominant language is Greek—not the language of Jesus and his disciples, but the language in which John himself is writing this story.

Which we heard read in English.

That’s a long way for a village guy from Galilee to travel.

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” he tells the crowd. And here we are, hearing a translation from the language that carried the gospel out to every part of the empire and beyond—Greek—into a language, English, that wouldn’t even come into existence for another thousand years.

That’s a lot of people who have seen Jesus, and told other people about him.

Mind you, this spreading of the gospel of Jesus has not always been an honorable process. Too often it has come through conquest and greed, as empires have come and gone. There are few more painful ironies of history than the spectacle of Christian missionaries accompanying invading armies, with their Bibles and chalices at the ready.

Yet somehow Jesus himself always seems to escape our attempts to name and contain him.

Here we still are, gazing at him, puzzling over him, trying to take him in, trying to wrap ourselves around him, trying to figure him (and ourselves) out. It’s 2018. We’re from Cambridge. Why do we care? What are we doing here?

We too want to see Jesus.

In our passage this morning, Philip and Andrew bring this request back to Jesus himself, and this is where the text really gets weird, in a way only the gospel of John can. He starts talking about his impending death. And grains of wheat that have to be buried in order to bear fruit. And being honored, and giving glory to God. And if you’re like me, you’re miles back at the original question, thinking, wait, what? What is he talking about?

So, umm… does this mean you’re not free to talk to the Greeks today? What does tomorrow look like?

All through the gospels, the answer to questions like, “Who are you, Jesus? Where are you from? What are you planning to do? What’s all this about?” —the answer to all these questions in everyone’s hearts has been, “Come and see.” Follow me, and watch carefully. Let yourself be drawn into the story, bit by bit, and into the mystery of my life, bit by bit.

And now that following, and that watching and seeing and experiencing has led us to the brink of unthinkable horror.

And Jesus is pointing at that horror, pointing at the reality that he is about to be “lifted up” on a cross to die in typically brutal Roman fashion—and asking us to take a long, steady look.

But why? What spiritual good could possibly come of looking at such a sick spectacle of human cruelty and viciousness? What is to be gained from seeing Jesus that way?

Surely the whole thing was in a way just a colossal mistake. Crucifixion was reserved for people who tried to challenge Roman rule. Jesus wasn’t about to mount a military insurrection. What kind of threat did he represent? There was no reason for him to die. So why linger there?

It happened. It was terrible. But it wasn’t the end. That’s kind of the uneasy peace we’ve made with the story in our corner of the theological tradition, isn’t it? It happened, it was terrible, but then Easter came—whew, we can let the kids back into the sanctuary again.

But right now, today, Jesus is standing, pointing. He’s asking us not to look away.

And more unsettling still, he’s talking about honor, and glory, and being ready to surrender our lives. He says his death gives glory to God, and John says God answers in thunder, and says, Yes, that’s right. Yes, your life is already to my glory, and now your death, your terrible death—that’s to my glory too.

My glory…!

And we think of where we are at this moment in our country, this moment of crisis over the idolatry of guns and killing… how frail the bodies of those courageous Florida high school students seem in the face of backlash, even death threats from gun advocates, as they speak out, saying ENOUGH! Enough!

…And we look around the world, and we see the appalling campaign of violence which has been unleashed against the Rohingya people of Myanmar, driven from their villages by the hundreds of thousands, leaving countless dead behind… We see the violence being rained down daily on the people of Syria…

We think of violence against black and brown bodies from the founding of our nation right up to the present day, and we wonder, when are human beings ever going to stop glorifying terror and bloodshed?

But is that what Jesus is pointing to?

Abba, Father, glorify your name,” he prays, and God replies, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” If the life of Jesus is already to God’s glory—a life of preaching and healing, feeding and forgiving, renewing and restoring—if this is the kind of life that reveals who God is, so that Jesus can tell his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen God”—

then what could his death possibly reveal to us about what God is like?

There is a deep mystery at work here that resists simple theological answers. But one thing Jesus surely makes visible is the willingness of God to go with us even into the depths of suffering and death, and be with us there. He knows his journey will not be complete until he has taken on the full force of human suffering and sin. He wills us to turn our gaze to him there, and in him to see ourselves and one another, and know that we are all one in the love of God. We are not alone. We must not let each other be alone.

In God there is no retreating, no turning away, not even from the cross. Love abides, to borrow from the language of John.

Teacher, where are you staying?” Where are you abiding?

Here, with you. “I in you, and you in me.”

The life of Jesus fills all of human life with the divine presence and love, from birth to death, and all the moments in between. And it’s in the nature of human life that most of the time, that loving presence goes unnoticed; it’s working through our lives with a quiet persistence that is mostly hidden from our sight, buried in the earth of our human selves.

After Jesus had said this,” John tells us, “he departed and hid from them.” To many he will remain hidden, in the tomb in which he was laid. But for those who can look with the eyes of the heart, there will always be glimpses: stirrings of love and longing that move us to go looking for him. Perhaps, over time that love and that longing will take root, grow and blossom and bear fruit in our lives, as our own buried power to love is set free, and the One who has been at work in us may become visible in the world God loves… a world where love so often feels buried and suppressed.

That’s why Jesus points us to the cross—points, not at the glory of death, for there is no glory in death, and not at the glory of suffering, for there is no glory in suffering, but to the glory of a love that seeks us out in our human vulnerability, our fear, our pain, in the terror of loneliness and the desolation of abandonment, and abides with us there, breathing life out of lifelessness.

Many of you know that my primary work these days is as the minister and director of the Friday Café, a weekly gathering in our church hall where housed and homeless neighbors can share a meal and spend time together in community.

It’s a coming together of many different lives, and given that most of our guests are experiencing or have experienced extended periods of homelessness, almost anyone you might sit down to talk with has a wealth of pain and struggle they’re carrying—trauma, loss, rejection, you name it. It’s humbling to realize what folks have survived and continue to survive every day.

Yet as I go from table to table on a Friday afternoon, checking in with folks or sometimes settling in for a heart-to-heart talk, I find myself awash, not in pain, but in the beauty of people. There is so much love at work in these lives, so much insight and wisdom in the way people talk about hope and loss and hurt, reflecting on those who have been important to them, and those whose failings have left deep scars on their hearts… They are doing the healing work of meaning-making, the hidden work of God, and you can see the fruits of that work in their friendships in the community, in the way people look out for each other and help each other—and perhaps most amazingly, in the profound gratitude so many feel.

The longer I do this work, and the more I ground myself in prayer, the more aware I become of the everywhereness of love, hidden in plain sight. I find that the nearer I draw to Jesus, and the more I open my heart to take him in, the more open my heart becomes to others. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, that as I learn to extend grace and welcome to others, I find I’ve come closer to Jesus.

Isn’t that what we’re being asked to surrender our lives to? To that healing work of love, so that through us, love may become embodied and visible, just as God in Christ was embodied and made visible?

May we go on looking, seeing Jesus more and more fully, being the love of Jesus more and more fully. And to God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...