“We wish to see Jesus.” John 12:21
A colleague who for years lived in the Irish Midland county of Roscommon commented that the Easter season was approaching, a time of religious, cultural, historical and political significance in the small town in which she lived.
“It is,” I said. “I have gone back to writing a new sermon for each Sunday.”
“Why?” asked my colleague.
Why? I’m not sure. It is not as though there is anyone looking for one. There was a time when a sermon posted here might have found a couple of hundred readers, now, it is no more than a couple of dozen. Perhaps it is a means of coping with the realities of the times.
This Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent was traditionally known as “Passion Sunday,” it was the Sunday when Christians remembered Jesus turning his face towards Jerusalem. When Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday became combined in more recent times, there was a loss of the sense of anticipation, a loss of a sense of preparation for what lay ahead.
The Gospel reading for today helps recreate a sense of the anticipation. Saint John Chapter 12 Verse 20 says, “Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.” There is a sense of a gathering of many and diverse people, in the current times there is a loss of a sense of the internationalism found in the Gospel story. The chosen nationalism of Brexit combined with the enforced isolationism brought by Covid-19 has brought a feeling of insularity in the most literal sense of that word. A time when unknown foreigners just arrived for a festival is inconceivable in a land where a border agency and customs officers have brought down impenetrable barriers.
The unknown foreigners hear the stories of a prophet and John tells us, “They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” John is specific about Philip’s roots, he is a Galilean, he is as much an outsider in the city of Jerusalem as were the Greeks who had come for the festival. Galilee was distant from the province of Judea in which Jerusalem was situated, the hostile land of Samaria lay between the provinces. The journey to Jerusalem was not one that was made casually.
When Jesus is told of the foreigners’ request he says, in Verse 23, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus is unambiguous about what lies ahead. There is no equivocating, no suggestion that there may be a number of possible outcomes. His death will be the result of his presence at the festival, but it will be a death with a positive result, he tells his friends, in Verse 24, “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.”
To see beyond death would have been difficult for his friends, to imagine that good would come from brutal violence and killing would have been a concept with which anyone would have struggled.
In the present times, there is a similar incomprehension. The deaths and the grief of the past year are without meaning. There is no great scheme of things that would allow the pain to be seen as meaningful, there is no reinterpretation of the times that can be imposed by priest or politician that can cast the suffering in a positive light. It is part of the arbitrary, brutal and incomprehensible reality of the world in which Jesus lived.
Jesus’ friends, and the Greeks who came to find him, would have been under illusions about the realities of the lives they lived. They would not have needed a philosopher to tell them that life was nasty, brutish and short. What they wanted was for someone to give it meaning, someone who could show them a way through it.
The past year has been one in which many people of faith have found themselves abandoned, church doors have been closed, clergy have been invisible, those whose faith has endured are those whose faith has been in Jesus. When the times are past there may be many whose faith is expressed in the words of Verse 32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Among the realities of uncertain times, the presence or otherwise of the church has become increasingly irrelevant, Jesus says is that he himself is the one who draws people to himself. The Greeks who came to the festival understood that truth.