Vicar’s sermon. 17.3.24 John 12.20-33

In 2016 the artist Grayson Perry produced a short series of documentaries that investigated masculinity in the UK. The first episode of the series focussed on young men in the North East who were part of a community of ‘cage fighters’. The second episode was set in Skelmersdale and looked at ongoing tensions between young men engaged in criminal activity: why they did what they did and their run-ins with the local police. The final episode was called ‘Top Man’ and it took us to the City of London, to those who make and lose huge sums of money through the machinery of the global stock markets. I remember one man in particular from this episode who presented himself in an incredibly focussed way in his office high above the city. He was fit. He looked after his body. He ate a particular diet, and he would rise early and meditate before beginning his working day. What did that day involve? It saw him sat in front of a computer screen waiting…waiting for the moment when, with a stroke of the keyboard, he would invest or withdraw his money. That was it. That moment was his day’s work, and on it hung a fortune, won or lost.
Timing. Timing is important. In last week’s rugby it took a while before the French players got their timing right: passes were going astray, they were pulled up short for a number of forward passes (not allowed!) because a player had mistimed their run and got ahead of the ball. Timing. I remember being handed a triangle to play in an orchestra and having to count any number of bars before my crucial ‘ting’ was required. I lost count and got a glare from the conductor. I missed my moment.
You may have missed it but in today’s gospel reading something crucial happens when Jesus says (verse 23) ‘The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.’ ‘The hour has come’: we have reached a crucial moment in the Jesus story. We might have missed it because we don’t read the story in one go but up until this moment the message has always been ‘wait’. Jesus’ hour is ‘not yet’. ‘My hour has not yet come’. He’d told his mother this at the wedding at Cana when she had pointed out the fact that the wine had run out. In chapter 7 and then again in chapter 8 we’re shown Jesus teaching in Jerusalem with his enemies trying to arrest him but (John tells us in both chapters), ‘no one laid hands on him because his hour had not yet come’.
But something shifts here. What has happened? What has happened is that some Greek worshippers have approached Philip and Andrew and asked to ‘see’ Jesus. They are there at the beginning of our reading and then they disappear, but their presence and question trigger what is about to follow. And just in case it needs saying, lets remember that when they ask to ‘see’ Jesus their request is not just to have an interview with him: ‘seeing’ has a number of meanings in John’s Gospel. They want to meet with him …more importantly, they want to understand him. ‘I was blind and now I see’ says the hymn – it’s that kind of seeing we’re talking about.
What is Jesus’ response? The answer he gives is for everyone, not just for the Greeks. His response is about how, now his hour has come, he will be glorified. And how is that to come about? It will come about through his death.
We are soon to focus our hearts and minds on the absolute core of our faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus. Over this period we will read more and more of John’s Gospel. Jesus’ death and resurrection are presented in the other gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in different ways but the general thrust of their message is this: Jesus was crucified, it appeared to his followers that his death was a disaster BUT GOD (in and through the resurrection) showed his approval of Jesus’ ministry and faithfulness. This divine approval sends us back to his teaching, to his life amongst us to ask ‘who is this? And, ‘if this is the life that meets God’s ‘Yes’’ then how should we now live? Resurrection, in this understanding is a vindication of who Jesus was and claimed to be and shows that his trust in the eternal faithfulness of God (even in the face of death) was well placed and something for us to follow.
John however shows us another way of understanding Jesus’ Passion, something different, something more. In the first three gospels the humiliation of the cross is followed by divine approval and exaltation: one thing following the other. We see this in the wider New Testament. Think of the famous passage from Philippians: ‘Jesus did not think equality with God as something to be grasped but humbled himself…taking the form of a slave…humbled himself even to death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name above every other name’ – it’s there isn’t it? Humiliation followed by vindication.
Not so in John’s gospel. Of course, John will give us resurrection stories: the meeting with Mary Magdalene, Doubting Thomas, the meeting where he restores Peter on the beach in Galilee. Resurrection there is! But John pulls Jesus’ glory forward from the moment of resurrection to the time when Jesus is ‘lifted up from the earth’ on the cross. This is the moment to which everything is pointing. This is where we will see Jesus’ glory: the ‘hour’ when he gives Himself utterly for the love of God and for the world he came to save.
Why has the Greek’s question provoked this response? Their presence, their approach to Jesus seems to be the sign that the reach of His ministry can now travel beyond traditional Judaism and go ‘global’. This is the sign he needs to recognise that His hour has come. ‘God so loved the world that He gave us His son’. That’s the world with all of its mess and beauty. It’s the whole world, not just the good bits. We are told that ‘whosoever’ believes in Him is ‘given power to become a child of God’: there are no barriers or distinctions based on sex or class, age, place of birth, ability or disability: whosoever…all are welcome, all are loved.
‘I will draw all people to myself’ says Jesus. There is a saying ‘The cross stands, the world turns’. The cross of Jesus is where we all find a place and see His glory. And what is that ‘glory’? It is the glory of the Father’s only Son (the Christmas Gospel) ‘full of grace and truth. No one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son who has made Him known’. And it is at the foot of the cross we see God most clearly.
And what do we see there? We see Love. Love given, totally and utterly: for the world (perhaps we can understand that) but also ‘Love given for and for you?’ God pours Himself out for you: ‘this is how much I love you. Can you see now?’ And when we do finally ‘see’ our world changes, for as we receive His love we can begin to love in this way ourselves.
This love is everywhere. Love that gives itself for others. This Love is a sign of God’s presence around us wherever we see it. ‘Whoever serves me must follow me’. This ‘glory’ is something we can share. The more we give of ourselves (break out of the selfishness that holds onto our lives) the more we know of God’s presence within and amongst us.
Cross and resurrection. Death and eternal life. The apostle John shows us that these things are to be understood as being held together, not just one giving way to another. Some verses in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians express this:
But we have this treasure (a sense of God’s glory) in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

The Christian life is not an easy one because we are called to live towards others in love. That takes us ‘out of ourselves’, it brings risk, (risk of rejection) and the possibility of pain, but it is of the nature of God to live this way and we are His children. It is the way of Christ…and whoever serves Christ must ‘follow him’. This is the way. Walk in it and you will be honoured by God the Father.

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