Dr Sarah Mortimer


Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12: 20-33


All this week I've been wondering what happened to the Greeks.  At the start of our gospel reading, they are on centre stage, anxious to see Jesus and to find out for themselves what all the fuss in Jerusalem is about, why the city is so tense and expectant.  But these are cautious, courteous people – they don’t try and barge their way to the front or into the inner circle, they thread their way through the edges, hoping that someone will let them have a moment of Jesus’s time.  Surely they cannot have expected what would happen next, that their polite request would lead not to a short conversation with Jesus but to something much more dramatic, to a heavenly dialogue between Father and Son, with a voice from heaven that sounded like thunder.  For Jesus responds with a short, intense sermon not just for them or those in Jerusalem, but for all of us.   

Perhaps I have been wondering about the Greeks because they are people I find I can relate to.  They are interested and excited – like everyone in Jerusalem they sense that something big is happening, that there is a feverish atmosphere here in the days before Passover.  They may have seen Jesus riding in on a donkey, noticed the frisson of expectation around them, but as they watch the action unfold they are not sure they understand what it means.  They see in Jesus a prophet, speaking the words of God, and they are full of respect.   But this respect leaves them standing at a distance, watching from afar.  They want to come closer, to find out more, but only indirectly, without taking too many risks or getting involved too deeply.   So they seek out Philip, a disciple with a Greek sounding name, for maybe Philip can make sure that everything stays polite and nothing gets out of hand.

Jesus, though, has other ideas.  In response to the Greeks’ request, Jesus invites them right into the heart of the Christian faith.  For it is now, he says, that the hour has come, now is the time when the world will learn the true meaning of glory, the true nature of the life that is divine.   And this life is not, I suspect, what the Greeks had had in mind.  For at its core is the love that gives itself for others and in obedience to the divine will, love that holds nothing back but by offering itself completely brings life and light to all.  It is love, too, which knows the cost of divine glory, as Jesus acknowledges and faces the suffering that is to come, suffering that will lead him to shameful death on the cross.  For this death will reveal the divine glory, the perfect relationship between Father and Son, through which, and in the Holy Spirit, all people are drawn to God and to life in all its fullness. 

 The theme of divine glory runs through John’s gospel, as the evangelist emphasises its radical, transformative power for us and all creation.    By now John’s reader knows that Jesus has done great signs and miracles, turning water into wine, even raising Lazarus from the dead.  But from this point in the gospel they will come to see more clearly what this glory means, that its culmination in Jesus’s life will not look like human triumph but will be the exaltation of the cross, when Jesus is lifted up as he is crucified.  It is these few intense days that we mark in this season of Passiontide, as we follow Jesus’s journey through Jerusalem, to his trial and then to Calvary.   The pain and the heartbreak of these days is made clear in the gospels, as Jesus and his friends and family suffer and are broken at the hands of human violence.  And yet it is through this and from the cross that the glory of God is made manifest, and our own eyes and hearts are raised to the heavens. 

As Jesus speaks to the crowd, and within it to those brave but hesitant Greeks, he is clear that they are not simply onlookers but participants in this drama – and the choice they must make about the part they will play is a total one.  They – and we – are invited to share in divine glory, but we must recognise that it will change us, reorienting our lives and our priorities to God and towards each other.  For, when are drawn towards Christ, towards the cross of Good Friday and the light of Easter morning, then our perspectives will change and our horizons expand.   We learn that nothing we might fear or dread is beyond God’s power, that God’s love and grace can transform even the darkest corners of the human soul and hold together the most broken pieces of the human heart.  And we find too that in the light of God’s grace so many anxious concerns of our human social life, the pressure to conform, to win esteem and fit in, all these can become less pressing, losing their grip upon us.   Jesus calls on us to take that risk, to look to the cross and listen to God’s voice, for then perhaps we might find the courage and the confidence truly to live in this world, truly to embrace the love which God offers and which we and all people can share.   

So this week I have been wondering - did the Greeks take that risk?  Did they hear in Jesus’s words the invitation they needed, even if not the one they expected? Did they continue to follow him through those last days of his life, as he taught the crowds and explained the Scriptures, and then as he was tried, tortured, and crucified?  And then did they come to see in the cross the light of God’s glory, and come to walk in that light through Easter and beyond?   Or did they instead just drift away, finding this all too unsettling, too far beyond the comfort zone they wanted to stay in?  John gives us few hints, and the fate of the Greeks is left hanging, and unresolved.

But that ambiguity is surely intentional, refocusing our attention beyond the Greeks themselves.  For of course the situation of these ancient Greeks is our situation too, here in this moment, and as we imagine their future we also are drawn into that great question posed all the way through John’s gospel – the question of how we will respond to God’s invitation, to the light and so to the judgement that Jesus brings.  In these weeks of Passiontide, as the drama intensifies, as we hear that Jesus’s ‘hour has come’, do we also desire to see Jesus?  And if we do, will we allow ourselves to be drawn towards the cross, and to find there the glory of God and the redemption of the world?