“Did They Ever Get to See Jesus?”
By Rev. Dr. Stuart McLeod Blythe
John Gladstone, Professor in Preaching and Worship at Acadia Divinity College
Scripture Reading: John 12:20-36
October 23, 2022
Message: Jesus provides the pattern by how we help people “see” him.
Mrs. Beasant was a legend. She was the Private Assistant to our, let me call him, President (Principal) at the Scottish Baptist College when I studied there between 1984 and 1986. She occupied the outer office of our President’s inner office.
Sometimes when we as students would arrive at the college, a large sandstone building, there would be a note or a message that Mrs. Beasant wanted to see us.
We would make our way upstairs to her office, where there was often her tray, with a China cup and a teapot with accompanying tea cozy. In the office, she would give us a piece of paper. On that paper would be a name, a date, and a phone number.
The name was the name of a Baptist Church. The date, the date when we would be preaching there. And the phone number, a contact with the church. That contact would often be the Church organist. Instructions included letting the organist know our choice of hymns no later than Thursday so that they could practice.
So, it is that on many a Sunday, other students and I would travel by bus, train, or car all over Scotland wearing our best clothes, to preach in Baptist churches, usually two services, 11.00 am and 6.30 pm. Since we were often far from home, the five or so hours in between would usually be spent at the home of an unfortunate church member who had been designated to provide us with hospitality. I say five hours; I fear that for them and us, it often seemed much longer than that.
Over the years, I noticed that in a number of these church buildings, whether painted on the wall behind the pulpit, engraved in the pulpit, or on one occasion on a handwritten note taped in the pulpit, were the words from our text this morning, words spoken to Phillip: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
I am not sure I was a good optician. I am not sure that many saw Jesus through my student sermons. Yet, I like that aspiration for preaching. I like the idea that in preaching, we do not merely want people to hear about Jesus but see Jesus. I like the idea that we do not merely want people to learn about Jesus but to experience Jesus. I like the idea that preaching is a show-and-tell activity where through the power of the Holy Spirit, our preaching becomes a conduit for the living Jesus to step around and, through the words, as it were, into the room.
Yes, I like the idea that helping people see Jesus should be the aspiration for our preaching. I also think that it should be the aspiration of all Christian witnesses… that is to help people see Jesus… and I think that in our verses, Jesus gives us a pattern to follow, a script to enact, and a score to perform, for helping people do that.
So far, so good. But if I were sitting in the congregation this morning listening to this, I would be muttering to my wife sitting beside me… “Yes, this is all fine and well, but we do not know if the Greeks in the Scripture passage ever got to see Jesus!”
Indeed, this is true; even though these words are written on church walls, the passage is unclear on whether the Greeks ever got to see Jesus.
The passage, therefore, is a bit awkward. It is awkward because although they are called Greeks, we do not really know who they were or why they were going to the Temple to worship. It is awkward because Phillip when confronted with this request, does not really seem to know what to do with it so passes it up the chain. It is awkward because when Jesus is told, he does not really respond to the request but launches into: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And then kind of delivers a sermon to the crowd.
For Andrew and Phillip that was maybe one of those moments like when you say to your pastor, “Beautiful fall colours on the way to church this morning,” and they respond, “Yes, as I was saying in my sermon last week.”
I mean, awkward!
We are never explicitly told that the Greeks ever got to see Jesus, though I hope that they were included in the crowd to whom Jesus delivered his sermon. No, we do not really know if they ever got to see Jesus, but we do know why they are in the story… they are in the story to be… awkward.
They are in the story to be awkward by raising a question that needs to be answered. The question is, “What happens to the rest of us?”
You see, in verse 19, the religious leaders, very annoyed with Jesus, complain, “the whole world has gone after him,” and these Greeks represent the whole world. And their question is, how do the rest of us, those not within Israel, fit within this story of a Jewish Messiah? That is the awkward question they raise.
And that is the question Jesus answers in his sermon to the crowd.
He answers it when, as he begins to build towards a climax, he refers to his death and says:
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to me.”
This is the way that it works, the Greeks say we want to see Jesus, and Jesus says to the crowd, yes, yes, through my death, everyone will get the opportunity to see me…all of you belong in this story.
Jesus responds to the request by indicating how people will get to see him.
Interestingly, the way in which Jesus says that everyone will get to see him is a unique example of how he wants all his followers also to live. That is, he gives us a pattern, a script, a score, as to how we, too, should live so that others may see him. He gives us that pattern in verses 23-26 in response to the request of the Greeks. And he explains this pattern in an image, a reflection, an application, and a conclusion.
The image is of a grain of wheat that needs to fall into the earth so that it can rise fruitful. The reflection is that life is a tricky thing and that if we try to hold it or grasp it for ourselves, we will lose it, but if we are willing to give it away, we will gain it. The application is that we who serve him should follow his example. The conclusion is “that whoever serves me, the Father will honour.”
This pattern of falling to rise, giving to gain, and serving for honour, is precisely the pattern that Jesus followed in his own life and death so that people would see him. Likewise, the pattern of falling to rise, giving to gain, and serving to be honoured, is the pattern that he wants us, his people, to follow if we, too, want to help others be drawn to him and see him.
Sadly, within the history of the Christian Church, we have often sought to exalt ourselves, take up our own rights, and subjugate others in our presentation of the Christian faith.
The tragedy of this is not merely the terrible way we have treated others, which would be bad enough, but by not following the pattern Jesus has given us, we misrepresent Jesus to people.
Between 2014 and 2017, my wife Susanne and I lived in Amsterdam. We both joined a Dutch pipe band. When I joined, I could not speak Dutch, and everyone else in the band was Dutch. This led to some chaos as I misunderstood instructions and marched in the wrong direction or started with an “A” instead of an “E.”
I had played bagpipes for a long time. But in that band, I learned a lot about music. I learned about the importance of playing exactly on the beat as required in the music and that long notes had to be played long, and short notes had to be played short.
Our pipe sergeant explained to me what happens if you do not do that. He said, “You will hear someone playing something that sort of sounds like the tune, but it is not the tune.”
Likewise, when we try to present Jesus to people without following his pattern of falling, giving, and serving, we present something that sort of looks like Jesus but is not Jesus.
Sometime in 2007, I think it was I was sitting outside a church building waiting for someone to come and let me into the building. It was a damp, grey, post-industrial Glasgow day. The church, an imposing sandstone building, was “Govan Old Parish Church” near the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland.
Govan Old Parish Church is situated on what is believed to be one of the earliest sites of Christianity and Scotland. So somehow, it felt like holy ground. Yet that description seems strangely out of keeping with what I saw around me. The building was now used less and less for congregational worship because of congregational decline and amalgamations. The building was in a built-up area but had a walled graveyard around it. The graveyard was in a state of disrepair. The fence was rusted and corroded, the grass was long, and the gravestones, some of them centuries old, were covered with empty and discarded beer bottles and cans and rubbish.
As I sat on that wall beside that church, I had what I would describe as a religious experience. I began to imagine that place at a particular period of its history, a period I knew about… 1930-1938.
In 1930 George MacLeod, Rev George MacLeod, described by his biographer as the “darling of the establishment,” the son of a Unionist MP, and at that time a collegiate minister in one of the most prestigious churches in Edinburgh, accepted the call to become the minister of Govan Old Parish Church.
Govan, in 1930, faced crippling unemployment, social deprivation, and radical politics.
As I thought about that period, I imagined what it must have been like for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to carry in the equipment to broadcast MacLeod’s sermons from Glasgow to the nation in some of the early religious broadcasts.
I imagined the Pearce Institute, a building located beside the church transformed by MacLeod into a centre for training, for crafts and for hope for unemployed people.
I imagined the occasion when communist supporters wearing their hats attended the evening church service and then followed MacLeod to the Pearce Institute for a Question-and-Answer Session.
More than that, I imagined the time when for a week, he led his robed choir into the streets, ringing a handbell, holding open-air services in the streets in what he called a “Mission of Friendship.”
Between 1930 and 1938, MacLeod revitalized that church community.
It seemed to me that MacLeod, who could be a strong and determined leader, yet demonstrated what it means to lay down, give up, and serve, to help people see Jesus. He followed the pattern, and when he left Govan to establish the Iona Community, he did so that he could extend this practice of parish renewal.
As I sat on the steps and imagined all this, I looked out of the gates, yes, outside of the gates and beyond the wall, to see the Celtic cross that MacLeod had erected there in 1937. On that occasion, on the dedication of the Celtic cross, he asked the question, “But why here?” That is, why outside the walls?
He answered the question by saying that Christians liked to stay within the safety of their circle and that because the streets around the church were not very nice, they had built a wall. In contrast, he said, Jesus went outside the wall.
In that sermon, we get handwritten parts of what is said to be one of MacLeod’s most famous sayings, which I quote in a longer form. It appears in a variety of forms.
“I simply argue that the cross be raised again,
at the centre of the marketplace
as well as on the steeple of the church.
I am recovering the claim that
Jesus was not crucified
in a cathedral between two candles
but on a cross between two thieves;
on a town garbage heap;
at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan
that they had to write His title
in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek …
and at the kind of place
where cynics talk smut,
and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.
Because that is where He died,
And that is what He died about.
And that is where Christ’s own ought to be,
And that is what church people ought to be about.”
MacLeod finishes this sermon about the installation of the Celtic cross by quoting Jesus' words:
“If I be lifted up, I will draw ALL people to me.”
That day, that experience of sitting in that place has stayed with me.
The witness of the church and not merely its preaching is to help people see Jesus. Let us look for the opportunity to do that in the next week, try to help people see Jesus as we follow the pattern of fall to rise, give to gain, and serve to be honoured by God.