21st MAR 2021
“We wish to see Jesus.”
The text or book from which our second reading this morning is taken has long been called Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. The problem with this appellation has always been that -- as biblical scholars and even the great Church Fathers of old have acknowledged -- the work is most definitely not by Saint Paul; nor is it an epistle or letter; nor was it addressed to the Hebrews, or the Jews, in other words. The work is in fact one of the more unusual or even difficult books of the New Testament to understand.
As best the experts can determine, it is a kind of theological treatise or essay, perhaps in fact an early sermon, clearly intended for an educated audience probably of mixed Jewish and Gentile believers. The unknown author of the book --a brilliant theologian by the way -- among other things makes the case for considering Jesus to be a High Priest of the New Covenant which the Gospel ushers in. This is arguably a hard sell, particularly for Jews, as Jesus himself had no known family connection to the ancient caste or tribe of Levi, that is, to the Israelite tribe of priests.
Jesus is High Priest, the author of Hebrews explains, not because of his birth into the Tribe of Levi and certainly not for the glory and prestige of the office; he is rather appointed High Priest by the Father, by the one who said to him, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Priesthood thus becomes Christ’s divine birthright. High priesthood is in a sense his mission and ultimate purpose. It is only in the death of this “begotten” one -- this High Priest -- that this same Jesus has become “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,” including us today.
It is, in our Lord’s case, not a Levitical bloodline that matters but the bloody sacrifice he makes on our behalf at the Cross. Our Lord does not sacrifice earthly things, creatures of land and sky upon an altar made by human hands. His priestly sacrifice is his very own life given that others may live. “Although he was a Son,” we are told, “he learned obedience through what he suffered.”
And his obedience and suffering ultimately become our freedom, salvation, and joy. In a blunt but telling aside, the author of Hebrews admits that “this is hard to explain.” Yet for all that, it is at the very heart of our faith. Christ’s birth -- the fact that he was begotten of the Father -- is intimately connected with his death for our salvation upon the Cross. As Melchisedek -- an ancient priest mentioned in the text -- offered bread and wine, so our Lord offers on our behalf his Body and Blood.
His sacrifice is what we now recall in these closing days of Lent. This Sunday, in fact, is often called in Anglican circles the Sunday of the Passion; the Sunday upon which we reflect in earnest upon what it means to have a great High Priest as “the source of eternal salvation,” if we but obey as he obeyed.
In our account this morning from the Gospel of John, we encounter visitors to Jerusalem, Greeks seeking a meeting with Jesus. “We wish to see Jesus,” they explain simply. Now, just exactly what Greeks of all people might have been doing in Jerusalem at Passover time is not explained by the text. They are not likely to have been tourists on a pre-paid, pre-pandemic holiday. As some scholars speculate, they may well have been Greek-speaking Jews returning to Jerusalem for the High Holy Days. But in any case, they must surely have heard of Jesus and his reputation for wisdom and holiness.
And, their open-mindedness here is in sharp contrast to the hard-heartedness of the Chief Priests and Pharisees, as so often described elsewhere in the Gospel of John. And so these Greeks, whoever they may have been, approach Philip with their request to see Jesus. And Philip and his brother Andrew -- curiously the only two disciples with Greek or Greek-sounding names -- pass the request along to Jesus, who in turn seemingly ignores it.
He does not, after all, welcome and usher in these Greek visitors, sit down with them over a cup of tea, or chat with them about his life and mission. In fact, there is no indication in the text that he met with them at all. Jesus, it almost seems, has other, more weighty, things on his mind than speaking to these strangers and aliens, as well-intentioned as they may have been. And the Greeks, having made their brief walk-on appearance in this text, are themselves never heard from again. Did they ultimately become followers of our Lord and spread his message in their homelands far away? We shall of course never know.
Still, if Greek visitors to Jerusalem, or anyone for that matter, truly want to see Jesus -- to understand what he is about -- they need only listen to his words here in this Gospel account. For in his brief discourse which follows upon the disciples approach to him, our Lord manifests himself -- shows himself -- to anyone who will listen. He manifests himself to us as well. And so, if like the Greeks you want to see Jesus, you need look no further. Our Lord here explains his mission and its implications.
While he does not use words of priesthood, as does the author of Hebrews, the message is similar. In obvious reference to the planting and harvest so familiar to his hearers, our Lord explains that, like a “grain of wheat,” one must die in order to live and bear much fruit. “Those who love their life lose it,” continues Jesus, “and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Strong words indeed. In our Lord’s telling, giving of self and selfless service become the only true path to salvation and life.
And in an obvious allusion to the Cross, our Lord in the text speaks of being “lifted up from the earth” and drawing all people to himself. The hearers of his age do not understand of course . “How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?” they ask. But for us as followers of the Christ the implication is clear. This is the same sacrifice of self of which the author of Hebrews speaks. As our Lord challenges us at the end of this discourse, we must “become children of light.” We must believe and see Christ in all things.
“We wish to see Jesus.”
Priest or minister, mounting the pulpit in some ancient churches of Europe and the Americas, is sometimes confronted with these very words -- We wish to see Jesus -- ornately carved upon the pulpit lectern for preacher alone to see. It is a poignant reminder to the preacher of the hunger which all of us have for the assurance of God’s love and caring; a reminder of what Christ our High Priest has sacrificed on our behalf.
And so, we must ask ourselves: Do others, even in these troubled and fraught times, see Jesus in us…? Are they lifted up by what they find in us…? Do we, even in these days, open our hearts and minds to Christ -- as did those Greeks of our Gospel account…? Are we ready for the service and sacrifice our Lord demands of us…? Or are we caught up in our own self-pity and fear, as are so many during this troubling time of isolation and separation…?
The bottom line -- the reality -- is, my friends, that you and I can only ever truly see Jesus, when we show him to others.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs