The gospel for today describes an episode early in the final week of Jesus’ life. There are abrupt shifts and unfamiliar uses of language. Some of Jesus’ words are confusing and mysterious. The theology is dense and while the translation into English doggedly follows the Greek of John’s gospel, it partially obscures the meaning.
If we reconsider the gospel from the perspective of Philip and Andrew we can fill in background, and provide interpretations drawn from context and imagination.
The gospel opens during the week before Passover, the most sacred feast of the Jewish calendar, which recalls how God freed the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and made them his people.
Some Greek-speaking gentiles, who were interested in the Jewish faith had come to Jerusalem, to observe and perhaps worship at the Feast. These Gentiles had become intrigued by the idea of the One God of the Jews rather than the many gods of the Greco-Roman culture.
When they arrived in Jerusalem they heard rumours about a teacher and miracle worker named Jesus. About a week earlier, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and people were talking about him so they were curious and walked around the city looking for him.
They recognized him from a distance by the crowds around him. And they noticed that one of the people, who seemed to know him, spoke Greek to other visitors. It was Philip, who was originally from the northern part of Galilee where more people spoke Greek.
So they went to Philip and said, “Sir, we’d like to meet Jesus. Can you help us?”
Philip considered their request. He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. He went to find Andrew, who also spoke Greek, and asked his opinion. Philip and Andrew had both sensed that Jesus was intense and distracted these days After he had raised Lazarus he seemed to be bothered by the crowds who either wanted to congratulate him or who expected more miracles so he left Bethany to avoid them.
After the crowds had gone he went back for a supper that Lazarus and his sisters held for him to thank him for raising Lazarus. It was at the supper that Mary had weirdly anointed his feet with expensive oil and dried them with her hair.
Jesus had responded with a macabre comment “Leave her alone. She bought it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” It was a depressing remark in the middle of a thanksgiving celebration. Philip and Andrew didn’t know what he meant but he seemed morose.
The next day when he entered Jerusalem crowds came out to shout Hosanna and to call him the King of the Jews. Jesus didn’t encourage this or even appear to enjoy it. He was detached. He didn’t speak. His indifference confused the disciples.
So Philip and Andrew weren’t sure how he would reply to the request from these foreigners.
Still, these Greeks seemed sincere and Philip and Andrew knew that Jesus had been open to meeting other people who weren’t Jews.
So they told Jesus that some Gentiles wanted to meet him.
His reaction surprised them. He could have said, “tell them I’ll see them after I’ve finished here.” Or maybe Jesus could have said, “My Greek isn’t good enough”
What they did not expect was his answer, “This is it. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
Philip and Andrew probably looked at each other and wondered if the son of Man being glorified meant that his triumphal entrance into the city was the beginning of fame and political power that would spread to the Greek-speaking world.
After all, he was loved and celebrated by large crowds …even though his popularity drove the chief priests and the Pharisees crazy.
For a moment the fantasy of worldly glory danced in their minds. As they saw it, they both spoke Greek and Jesus would need their language skills to spread the word. Jesus being glorified for the whole world would give them more status and power….
But, Jesus didn’t mean that at all. For him the appearance of the Greek-speaking Gentiles had to do with his ultimate mission. The Father had sent him to spread the good news of salvation first, to the Jews then to all the peoples of the earth. Jesus saw this request from the Greek-speaking Gentiles as a sign from his father that his ministry had entered a new phase of expansion into the wider world. It was good news for all the peoples of the planet.
But his glorification would be at a cost. Jesus expanded on this cost for the benefit of his disciples with a beautiful mini-parable. “Listen carefully, 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.
He was talking about death… again. Philip and Andrew couldn’t connect this story about grain to his comment about glory or the request to meet the Greek-speaking Gentiles. Jesus’ change of course was so abrupt and his words about death clashed with his growing fame for having raised Lazarus and his triumphal entrance into the city, that it left Philip and Andrew in stunned silence,
Jesus recognized their confusion and explained his words with a set of paradoxical sayings. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
But this explanation also failed to help Philip or Andrew… As they saw it life was the ultimate gift. It was the basic good. New life was celebrated when babies were born. Loss of life was mourned. Jesus had even given his good friend Lazarus back his life just a week ago.
They couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. His words didn’t answer the request of the Gentiles to meet him. Nor did his words explain what he meant about the son of man being glorified.
By this point Jesus was not looking at them. Instead his eyes seemed to focus on something unseen in the middle distance. While Jesus had been quiet and withdrawn for several days he now talked non-stop.
He told them Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
Following Jesus was what they had done for years. But this talk about losing their life, and grains dying to give life was ominous.
Then Jesus’ voice softened and he said Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. At these words Philip and Andrew felt only a slight sense of relief.
But then Jesus spoke again voicing what sounded like an inner dialogue because it certainly didn’t relate to anything that they had said to him. He said, “Now my soul is troubled. should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
As he spoke, Jesus was no longer addressing Philip and Andrew or anyone in the crowd which was now watching him in silence…He seemed to be in an intense reverie. He did acknowledge what his disciples had observed, My soul is troubled.
His words, should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? strongly hinted that he didn’t really want to face what was coming. In the garden of Gethsemane, later that week, Jesus would repeat the very human hope: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
In response to Jesus’ cry Father, glorify your name… a voice came from heaven saying, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd thought they heard thunder. Some said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
Both Philip and Andrew heard …and recalled that a voice from heaven had called Jesus his beloved son when he was baptized. They were impressed. …At the same time they had no idea of when or how God’s glory would happen or what it had to do with death.
Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Jesus was looking at Philip and Andrew but he spoke loudly enough that the other disciples heard. He was telling them to forget the details. What mattered was that the Father’s word validated Jesus and and that they had the privilege to hear it.
Then Jesus reverted to his confusing pronouncements … Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. Did Jesus meant that the Romans and their lackey Herod would be driven from Israel?
But then came another symbolic prediction of his death And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
By this point all the disciples were looking at each other and at the Greeks in alarm wondering if they heard correctly, wondering if someone else understood Jesus differently.
The one thing that he had said that made any sense was, Father, glorify your name. He was always pointing to the Father, always saying things that referred to the Father’s wishes. His life revolved around doing what pleased the father.
Sunday’s gospel stops here. If we distill the lessons….It tells us that Jesus was human. He was preoccupied about his approaching death which he called the hour and he recoiled in horror at the prospect of his own crucifixion…Yet he freely accepted it. …because Jesus trusted the father completely to bring glory out of gore.
It tells us that even Jesus’ closest followers had difficulty understanding his words and the trajectory of his life because it defied not only conventional wisdom but their language and logic.
It also tells us, significantly, that biological life is not the ultimate value: that there is something glorious beyond.
The gospel reminds us too about our own baptism. On page 156 of the Green Book of alternative services the concluding prayer before the actual baptism says, Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory;
This is a jarring reminder of the cost of following Jesus.
The mystery is that we can share the benefits of Jesus’ death and the glory of his resurrection through baptism. Something that is inaccessible to us in any other way.
Jesus didn’t tell his disciples what his words meant just as he doesn’t tell us precisely what our call is other than to follow him in faith and hope in the Father
The gospel tells us that this life we are living is a significant, but only a small part of reality
It is a gospel that leaves us hanging in some ways, waiting for Jesus’ prophesy to play out in his death and the glory of his resurrection.
Finally it invites us to enter into these last two weeks of Lent fully aware of the mysteries and the paradoxes in the story of God’s love for us.
Let us try to take on the minds of Philip and Andrew as they thought about Jesus’ words and attitude as he approached Passover and all that it would mean.