This evening, I would like to look mainly at the lectionary reading from John and share with you some of my thoughts. I do not plan to examine every detail but rather to comments on it at several points. I will conclude by attempting to relate the other lectionary reading to a theme in John.
A. John 12:20-21: The Greeks: ‘We want to see Jesus’
The setting for John’s text is the beginning of the Passover feast in Jerusalem. It was one of three holidays when all Jewish believers were obliged to come to Jerusalem. Jewish believers from all the surrounding countries as well as within Palestine itself came to celebrate. Some Greek worshipers (Ἦσαν δὲ Ἕλληνές Greek for God-fearers) came to the Passover festival. They had other plans as well. They came to Philip and told him they wanted to ‘see’ Jesus. He in turn told Andrew and both then went to Jesus and told him. The New Testament refers to God-fearers as a group of people who worshiped with the Jews but did not follow all the rituals of Judaism. There is another word used for Jewish believers themselves who lived in the diaspora.
According to the Interpreter’s Bible, stating that they wanted to ‘see’ Jesus, was a kind of euphemism for saying ‘we want to follow him’. Seeing, believing and following are important themes in John’s Gospel. In John 1:43-51, we have the call of several disciples of Jesus including Philip and Andrew. In their call John uses the word ‘see’ on several occasions. Since John’s author mentions Philip and Andrew as well as ‘see’ in this passage, he may wish to recall us back to Philip’s own call to follow Jesus and that of believing.
In the passage that precedes this one, many Jews came to Bethany to a dinner hosted by Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They were interested in coming because of Jesus’ presence and because Lazarus had been raised from the dead. The passage might have read ‘they wanted to see Jesus’, but it seems to avoid saying that in so many words. Likewise, when Jesus entered the city and was surrounded by people with palm branches who strew them in his path, the passage doesn’t say that the people wanted to see Jesus, though of course they did. Perhaps John’s author wanted save the word for those who, ‘seeing Jesus’, had a desire to actually know and follow him.
We don’t know if the Greeks became followers of Jesus or not, but it is very possible that that was their intent. (They are never mentioned again.) At the very least, this paragraph points to the eventual inclusion of non-Jews in the plan of God.
We are the God Fearers today who say ‘We Want to See Jesus’. Most or all of us are today’s heirs to that inclusion. Do you identify with this passage? Is that why you are here today? Did you come wanting to see something of Jesus? If so, what exactly did you expect? In what way do you prepare yourselves for the encounter? Do you come expecting something to happen? What are you looking for?
- An Ecstatic vision? (Not likely I think.)
- A Worship experience?
- Something to transform your life?
- To learn how to follow him?
- All of the above
- None of the above
B. John 12:23-26 Jesus’ Response: A disconnected passage or something we didn’t expect?
How does what follows in the text answer the request of the Greeks. At first glance, it seems that what follows is totally unrelated to the paragraph before. But is it? Is not what follows really the answer to the question of ‘seeing Jesus’? But perhaps it was not the answer they and we were expecting?
In this passage, Jesus says that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it produces nothing’. In saying that he is talking first of all about his own death, but, as is common in John’s Gospel, there is probably a double meaning here suggesting that those who follow must also die in some way in order to produce more seeds. In so doing, he is glorified. What does it mean to see, know, believe and follow Jesus? At the very least this statement should be taken metaphorically, but in some cases, Christians in times past as well as in the present have had to literally follow in death. The passage is also hinting at the time in the near future when the Good News will be spread to other nations—including the Greeks, the new seed.
We need to think about what it really means to see Jesus? Is it just a visual experience? Or is there something much deeper here? Is not really seeing Jesus, to understand who he is and to willingly follow him? What is Jesus answer? Isn’t he saying we must be like the kernel of wheat too?
A frequently quoted saying among Anabaptists today comes from Hans Denk, an early Anabaptist: “No one can know Christ unless he follows after him in life.” He also conversely said, “No one can follow him unless he first know him.”
In his book, The Naked Anabaptist, Stuart Murray Williams claims that in Christendom Jesus was worshipped and honored but he was not followed, for the most part. He claims that the life of Jesus, including his many teachings was largely ignored. Even the creeds we recite ignore Jesus’ life and teachings rather, they skip from his birth to his death and resurrection.
Do we as people who claim to be Christians also want to skip over his teaching to give up all to follow him? He also says, “ Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be, (Matthew 16:5). Are we prepared to do this?
C. John 12:27-29: A Voice like Thunder
In the time of Moses, the Children of Israel heard the voice of God as thunder, too. They were afraid and did not want to hear God’s voice much less see his face. Are we like them? We might reverse the order, but we say we want to ‘see Jesus’ but do we really want to hear what he has to say? Are we afraid also? Maybe we are afraid of a real close encounter with God because we are afraid what he will ask us to do or where he may ask us to go? I have been in that place. Years ago, I was afraid God would ask me to go to some remote place of the Earth and be a missionary. Now, decades later, I find he did, but it was not so fearful after all and it didn’t look anything like what I thought it would. So, when I was licensed as a minister and they gave me the title of Church Planter, Missionary and Evangelist I was surprised because they recognized that I had been doing the very thing I that years ago was afraid of being asked to do.
What brings glory to Jesus today is our lives totally give over to him and to follow in his footsteps; to live like him, to give like him, to encounter God and others like him, to love like him.
D. John 12:30-33: Lifting up Christ
Jesus, referring to his death and resurrection, says, when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. In following him, our lives lift him up to others. Will others respond and come to him? It partly depends on how we live, how we relate to others we encounter in our sphere of influence. Let us give it every chance we can to happen. Let us desire and expect to see Jesus in worship but also to be open to hearing his voice speak to us, and then willing to put those words into action. The other passages for today give some further help, so briefly:
- Psalm 51:1-12: A starting point for Discipleship/Following Christ
This text has to do with our tendency toward sin and our need daily for mercy and forgiveness. The last verse of the psalm, as read, is about sacrifice. In it, sacrifice is transferred from this physical world to the spiritual realm and to ‘seeing’ God, understanding what is the real sacrifice—a broken spirit and contrite heart.
‘Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise’
- Jeremiah 31:31-34: Another step in Discipleship
In Jeremiah 31, God says he will write his laws in our hearts. In order to do this we need to yield ourselves to his touch.
- Hebrews 5:5-10: Yet another step in the process
As Jesus ‘learned’ obedience, so must his followers in humility and grace.
- Conclusion: A prayer
I would like to conclude by reading a portion of a prayer from an Early Anabaptist Prayer book called, Prayer Book for Earnest Christians. It was first published in 1708 in German. Many Anabaptists have used this book in the centuries that have followed. It has gone through some 87 editions to this point. It was finally translated into English by Leonard Gross in 1997 by Herald Press. This particular prayer is one of the best examples of the yieldedness that I would like to emulate:
“Oh! most gracious and compassionate Lord Jesus Christ, rich in love! Most gentle, humble, patient Lord! What a beautiful example of a holy life, rich in virtue, you have provided for us. Now we are to follow in your footsteps . . . . . Therefore, allow your noble life to be in me, too. May your virtuous life also be my life. Let me be one spirit, one body, and one soul with you, that I may live in you and you in me. May you live in me, and not I in myself. Grant that I might so acknowledge and love you, that I may walk just as you have walked.
“If you are my light, then shine in me.
If you are my life, then live in me.
If you are my jewel, then adorn me with beauty.
If you are my joy, then rejoice in me.
If I am your dwelling place, then take full possession of me.
“May I totally be your instrument, that my body, my soul, and my spirit may be holy . . . each day renew my body, spirit, and soul after your image, until I am perfect. Let me die to the world, that I may live unto you. Let me rise with you that I may ascend heavenward with you. Let me be crucified with you, that I may come to you and enter into your glory. Amen”, [Leonard Gross, Prayer Book for Earnest Christians. (Scottdale: Herald Press 1997) p. 69-71.]
 Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010) p. 58-9.
 Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010) p. 54.