Fifth Sunday in Lent

Let us set the scene. The Jews are going up to Jerusalem to worship. It is the time of the Passover. Since Jesus is a Jew, he too has gone together with his disciples. Passover plays an important role in John’s Gospel, which will link it with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. All this must certainly have been on the mind of Jesus as he approaches the Holy City, anticipating what is to come.


Cities draw people from all nations, from all walks of life. This was certainly true of Jerusalem then, especially during religious festivals. Among the diverse crowds of people are some Greeks. They come to the disciples Philip and Andrew. To be more precise, they go to Philip first, probably because he has a Greek name and grew up in a town, Bethsaida, which had a mixed population of Jews and Greeks. In any event, they come to him with a request: “We wish to see Jesus.” They’ve heard about his signs, his stories, and the effect they are having on people. They want to meet and connect with this individual, whose fame has spread far and wide.


Several years ago, there was a t-shirt popular among some church people. On the front there is a picture of three men riding on camels. The caption below reads: “Wise men still seek him.” Is that still the case today? There may be those among us, in our neighborhoods, in our cities, who, even though absent from our churches, are searching. In these months of quarantine many have turned to meditation, to spiritual traditions, to help them cope with the anxiety of loneliness. No doubt at least a few of them in their solitude are exploring the rich resources of the Christian tradition. They too are wishing to see Jesus.  


Philip and Andrew go tell Jesus about these Greeks. We wonder what these Greeks expect to find when they meet him. What image have they formed in their mind about the one they wish to see? We’ve all had the experience of attending an event at which we had the opportunity to meet a star or celebrity. We came with a preconceived idea about the person. That is to say, in our imagination we pictured who this person would be. But in the meeting, we found that the image we’d formed of the person and the actual person in front of us didn’t exactly correspond.


When they do meet him, the Greeks probably find Jesus confusing. He offers no explanations, no easy answers. Instead, he speaks to them in images and paradoxes. Author Mark Villano reminds us that spiritual masters typically speak in strange ways. It’s because they want us to see the things that transcend us, spiritual truths about which it is impossible to speak directly. Often this is frustrating for those who want to learn from them, even for those in their inner circle, as we see so often in the case of Jesus’ disciples.


There is a story from the east about a disciple who complains to his spiritual master: “Master, why do you not speak plainly to us? Why do you tell us these stories, and then not explain their meaning? The master replies: “How would you like it if I offered you an apple, and then said, ‘here, let me chew if for you first.’”


We have to do our part. We can’t sit passively. Words will not bring us to the place we want to be. Explanations do not satisfy. Instead, as Villano tells us, we have to see beyond the words on the page to the reality to which they point—and then let that reality in. Only then can that reality change us.    


Jesus can be seen to stand in the tradition of the spiritual master. But he is more. He not only points out the way; he is the way. He not only leads us on the journey; he is food for the journey. But he takes on the role of the spiritual master for these Greeks who wish to see him.


And he certainly gives them a couple of good apples to chew: 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.


Villano observes that we don’t just die once. We die all our lives. This contradicts the old adage according to which the brave man tastes death but once, but the coward tastes death many times. The truth is that we “let go” all our lives. Sometimes it’s a stage of life that must die. Sometimes it’s a way of thinking about ourselves and the world that has to die. Or maybe we must let go of old behavior patterns, old ways of coping with life that are no longer working for us. Maybe it’s people to whom we have to say goodbye. Parents have to let go of their children to give them the space to grow, to develop.


But, as Villano continues, it is not only about letting go. It is also about embracing something new in its place. We let go of one stage in life only in order to enter into a new one. We let go of old ideas and ways of doing things only in order to grow, to become wiser, to embrace a new vision of life. We let go of people in order to embrace them in a new way, with a new freedom and love of which we were not capable before.


Jesus is telling the Greeks and us about a deeper kind of life, to be found along this spiritual path he is pointing out to them. It consists in dying and rising. In following Jesus, we learn to consent to it, rather than to resist it, as so many do. We give ourselves over to that dying, that letting go, so that we may bear spiritual fruit. Indeed, we follow the Lord into death so as to rise with him, both now and later. That is the special theme of Lent, which comes to fullest expression in the Great Three Days, extending from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. That is our destination on this Lenten journey. When life itself has matured and ripened, it’s life itself that we must surrender, in the hope that we may enter into life that is truly life. “For if we have been united with Jesus in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5).


This leads to another apple to chew: Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Is Jesus calling us here to be self-loathing? Does Christianity promote a masochistic spirituality? Are we called to denigrate this world and life within it for the sake of the world to come? Some have thought so. But the Bible teaches us to receive this life as precious gift. It teaches us about the Father’s care even for the least among us. And it teaches us to honor, celebrate and protect all creation, which reflects God’s goodness. To dishonor creation is to dishonor the creator. To denigrate life is to despise the author of life. Again, Villano helps us here. He writes that living well in this world can only happen if we are able to see beyond this world. We can live in this world according to what this world says is important—its hopes and fears, desires and obsessions—only to find in the end that we have tragically wasted our lives. Or we can see our lives under the aspect of eternity and then build them on a lasting foundation. That will mean to “hate” one kind of life in order to “keep” another kind.


How do you like them apples? We don’t know how the Greeks reacted to these apples. The lesson makes no further mention of them. After the sayings, the scene shifts. Jesus reflects on his impending crucifixion, and his soul is troubled. Should he pray to his Father to save him from his hour? These verses are reminiscent of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus’ soul is troubled to the point of death. After asking his disciples to keep watch with him, he goes a little farther, falls facedown and prays. No doubt the agony in the garden lies behind the verse in today’s epistle lesson: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb. 5:7).


In his declaration to the crowds, Jesus reveals that the apples that he gave his Greek inquirers to chew, he indeed has to chew for himself. The grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies refers to him; he will be crucified and buried. The fruit that it bears in dying again refers to him; he will be raised to new life. The cup that his Father has given him to drink will not pass from him unless he drinks it. In his obedience, he glorifies his Father. This is the desire of his heart. And he makes this known to God in his simple prayer: “Father, glorify your name!” The voice that came from heaven responds: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it!”


The voice that came from heaven is articulate. But to the crowd it sounded muffled, like thunder. Maybe they haven’t been on the spiritual path long enough. Maybe they haven’t spent enough time chewing on the apples Jesus gave to the Greeks, as well as to us today. We have to be careful that we are not content to be bystanders, to be one in the crowd. The noise of this world drowns out the words of Jesus. Pundits and celebrities and influencers presume to teach us how to interpret the world and how to succeed in it. When we listen to them, the voice that comes from heaven becomes less and less distinct. Here we need to rely on a Lenten discipline that we should all be practicing: prayerful and meditative study of Scripture. Let us read and re-read the words of Jesus and let them do their work in us. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. By our constant use of it, the word of God will train us tune out the noise and hear the voice that comes from heaven.


Jesus said: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Have we tuned out the noise enough to hear the words “Follow me?” Jesus addresses these words to each one of us. If we have heard these words, then we ought to continue along the path he has pointed out to us, the path where we learn to stretch and grow, to let go and embrace. And then, over time, we will begin to resemble Philip and Andrew. Others will notice us and approach us with the request: “We wish to see Jesus. We want to connect with him too. Teach us what you’ve learned. Show us what you’ve seen.’ And we’ll have something to share.


And this is consistent with what Jesus wishes too. He makes this explicit when he says that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to myself. To the Greeks, as well as to us, it’s as if he is saying: “You wish to see me? Gaze at me on the cross. That is where who I am comes into sharpest focus. The gift of God’s Son for the life of the world. Amen.    




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