"And the Greeks came to Philip and said to him, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus.'"
What an honest, straightforward request this is, found at the beginning of the reading from John's Gospel, which we hear today on this fifth and final Sunday of Lent. It comes from some Greeks who are in Jerusalem for the festival. They approach one of the disciples of Jesus with this very specific request.
Truth is, we don't know why those Greeks were in Jerusalem. Did they have some interest in the Hebrew religion and tradition? Were they people from throughout the Mediterranean world called "God fearers" by ancient Jewish folk? Or were they on a spiritual sight-seeing expedition with Jesus of Nazareth as one of the sights that the travel brochure said simply could not be missed? Nor do we know what these visitors had heard about Jesus or what they expected to find: a transcendent rabbi, a good preacher, a fortune teller, a miracle worker, a magician -- or the Son of God. We just don't know.
What we know is this: They came seeking, searching, questioning, inquiring, desiring. We also know that Jesus didn't pop right out to see these foreign visitors. In fact, the Gospel at this point reads like one of those annoying menus you get when you try to call someone on the telephone these days: If you would like to speak to Philip, press 1. Press 2 to speak to Jesus of Nazareth. Press 3 for answers to the meaning of life, or remain on the line and press pound.
And even then Jesus didn't connect with them. Instead, he tells his disciples some of the most mystifying, mysterious, and mystical stuff possible about seeds and glorification and death and life.
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus." This is the theme and the center of this story and its encounter. The request is what it's all about. That request is the heart of the matter. In a very real way, it defines the task of the community of faith we call the Christian church. I remember at the college chaplaincy where I served many years ago, engraved on the pulpit of the university church were these very words, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." It was a reminder as to what preaching is about, indeed what the mission of the church is about, presenting the person, the meaning, and message of God's love in Jesus so that he might be seen. That's why we exist, our purpose and our mission as the Christian church: making that love known and visible, making him known and visible so that people who are seeking might find him.
The famous and saintly Mother Teresa of Calcutta gave an interview during the last few years of her life that illustrates the point well. The reporter noted that religious orders in the west and many churches, for that matter, had been losing numbers. But the reporter also noted that Mother Teresa's order was growing by thousands, so she asks "Why?"
Mother Teresa answered without hesitation, "I give them Jesus."
"Yes, I know, but what strategies do you develop? How do you manage it?" asks the reporter.
"I give them Jesus" is the reply.
"Yes, I know, but can you be more specific?"
"I give them Jesus."
"Yes, we know of your fine work, but there must be something else," says the exasperated reporter.
"I give them Jesus. There is nothing else."
There you have it: This holy woman describes and defines the role, the purpose, and the mission of God's church. To present the love of God in real ways, to present Jesus as a human friend, companion, and guide. To do it in word, yes, but equally, if not more so, to do it in action.
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus." In many ways the Gospel's Greek sight-seers are patron saints for us people of the 21st century. The request itself is the request of seekers, and that is precisely who we are today. Pollsters tell us that around 95 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal life spirit. However, the style of American believing is not nearly as settled as it was in previous generations. Assumptions about denominations and church attendance and "normal" forms of religion have been blown out of the water. Believing is not so much about certainties and answers. Instead, to believe is to seek, to search, to inquire, to try different forms of spirituality. Instead of arrival, the posture for today's folks is that of a question, a journey, a seeking pilgrimage.
Now, I understand that in my own life as a believer. The request of those seeking, searching Greeks in the Gospel is my request as well: "I want to see Jesus." Sometimes it is a request that emerges out of a sense of longing for God and for a whole and holy relationship with God. And sometimes, sometimes it is a request that sounds more like "Listen, I want to see the manager, and I want to see him right now!" when I don't understand what is going on, or things make no sense, or I am perplexed by the difficulties and antagonisms of this world. In both ways, I am sharing a longing, a searching, and a seeking that are so much a part of human spirituality and experience today.
The work of the body of Christ, the mission of God's church, is to present God's love in Jesus so that he might be seen. It is to invite the seeking and inquiry of human beings and human hearts to find love, hope, strength, and compassion in the presence of God. As such the stance of the church is to be one of invitation not judgment, of openness not condemnation, of inquiry not pat answers.
Today's Gospel story gives a powerful picture of what we will see as our request to see and meet Jesus is fulfilled. It's in mysterious and even elliptical language, to be sure, but it's there. "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." "It is for this hour I have come, Father, to glorify your name." "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." Strong, mystical expressions to be sure, and they are expressions of the cross.
What Jesus is saying is this. If you want to seek me, if you want to find me, if you want to know me, then look at the cross and my love poured out on it.
To see Jesus, to meet him, is to see and to meet the Crucified One. To see him, to meet him is to see and meet the utter love of God and life of God visible and given to human beings. It is to see and to meet a person who is willing to give himself for others in a free and full way.
There is a prayer in the tradition of the Episcopal Church that was first prayed by a missionary bishop in the Philippines just about 100 years ago. It captures the picture of whom we meet and what we see:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace. So clothe us in your Spirit that we reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your Name.
What do we see when we meet the crucified one, arms stretched out on the cross so that everyone, might come within the reach of God's saving and loving embrace? What we meet is someone who is completely inviting of all humanity and of all that a human being is. What we experience is the loving embrace of God, a welcome to anyone or any part of anyone who is seeking. What we come to know is that as much as we have been seeking and searching so God has been seeking and searching for us.
We discover something else as well that is at the heart of the Gospel. As the arms of God are stretched out for us, so we need to do some broad arm stretching ourselves. "So clothe us in your Spirit, that we reaching forth our hands in love" may invite people, may welcome people, may bring people to that love.
When our request is fulfilled, "We wish to see Jesus," we come to know two things: God's embracing love for us and our call, our purpose, our vocation as God's people to welcome others to that same embrace. The Gospel and particularly this Gospel story recognizes and honors our seeking, our searching, our inquiring, our yearning, and invites us to look in some particular directions to see Jesus and his love.
* If you wish to see Jesus, look at the spring growth around you and realize that life that comes from each seed and bulb now blossoming forth in prodigious array is the same life that God gives you.
* If you wish to see Jesus, look at the cross of Christ and see Jesus lifted up drawing all people to himself, embracing us with outstretched arms.
* If you wish to see Jesus, look at the people around you, your family, your friends, your colleagues, your co-workers, and see the face of Christ in them as people who are dearly and deeply loved by God.
* If you wish to see Jesus, look at the strangers, people you don't even know well or at all, and see the arms of God longing to embrace them too.
* If you wish to see Jesus, look into yourself, into your heart and your soul, into that place deep within where you long for and yearn for God.
The request is granted, our seeking is rewarded. It is possible to see him, to meet him, to know him, because he is willing to see us, to meet us, to know us. That's why God came to this earth, why he suffered on the cross, why he rose again.
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus."
Today, may we acknowledge that we are seekers. May we acknowledge that God welcomes our seeking, and may we acknowledge that God is calling us to reach out to other human beings who are also seeking.
It's a twofold invitation. To enter some place within ourselves where we are searching, seeking, and yearning and to meet the God who is already there waiting for us. And it is to speak a word of invitation, love, and hope to someone whom we know who is also seeking God, that another person may meet the God who is already there waiting for her or for him.
In seeking, we shall find and be found by the God who loves us as human beings, and we shall see Jesus, his love, his glory, his compassion, his face, his life.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit, that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your Name. Amen.