One of the masterpieces of American nineteenth-century church architecture is found at Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. It is a feast for the eyes.
There is one aspect of the church that is for the preacher’s eyes only. There are words carved into the inside of the pulpit...words to remind the preacher just what his or her task is...the simple request made by some Greeks:
“Sir, we would see Jesus.” (John 12:21)
This is the task...both simple and daunting...that Christian clergy have been called to.
One might struggle with a certain amount of fear to “show Jesus the right way,” taking great care to show Jesus correctly without error directly from the Gospel text.
In its great wisdom, the early church selected four accounts of Jesus to present who Jesus is: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One can make the argument that there are even more accounts of Jesus when you consider Paul and the other letter writers...showing how early Christians lived in communities informed by Jesus’ life. The early church understood that one example of Jesus was not enough to weave the tapestry that would address Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am.” The final collection explores not only Jesus’ human life, but also the inspiration and affect that he had and those who followed him.
It seems to me that we struggle to see this tapestry of Jesus. The temptation is to sift through these accounts of Jesus to “show Jesus the right way.” We try and take everything we’ve heard from the Bible and reconcile it all in our heads as one complete image of Jesus.
This is a frustrating pursuit, for the four gospels do not agree with each other. When they tell the same story, they give different details. A story critical to one account is absent or even countered in another. Things happen in a different order. Even Jesus’ words change from book to book: in content as well as in tone.
It’s almost like they have come up with four different answers to Jesus’ question; “who do you say that I am?”
Robin Griffith-Jones, an English New Testament theologian, wrote a brilliant book called The Four Witnesses while occupying John Wesley’s study in Oxford. In the book he details how each Gospel writer detailed a distinctly different vision of Jesus. His first chapter is evocatively entitled “The Four Greatest Stories Ever Told.” He suggests that Mark’s Jesus is “The Rebel,” with focus clearly on Jesus’ relationship with the power structure in place by the Romans...a failed revolutionary who mysteriously still succeeds. Matthew’s Jesus is “the Rabbi,” teacher and revealer of Hebrew Scripture who fulfills Jewish expectation. Luke’s Jesus is known as “The Chronicler,” a social revolutionary speaking to a Gentile world from a place of extreme compassion for all of humanity. And, finally, there is John’s Jesus: "The Mystic" whose insights are almost too deep to understand, and whose persona is completely entwined with God.
I think that this is so helpful to our desire to see Jesus. We seek not a single portrait...the right image of Jesus...but instead are on a quest to understand all that there is to see.
The hour comes (or begins, if you will) for John’s mystical Jesus in John 12:20.
The proper hour is key to the Gospel of John. Jesus keeps telling people that “my hour has not yet come.” Twice we are told that Jesus’ adversaries are thwarted in their attempts to arrest him “because his hour had not yet come.”
His hour clearly is his ultimate suffering, and today marks the start of these events in the Gospel.
The Gospel writer’s task is to show how Jesus approaches the hour.
Clearly John is familiar with this passage found in the Gospel of Mark...text we will hear next week on Palm Sunday of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples:
“’I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible; that this hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’” (Mark 14:34-36)
John starts out in a similar way:
The hour has come, and in John 12:27 Jesus says “Now my soul is troubled.”
But John takes a track that is a stark contrast to Mark’s Jesus.
Verse 27 continues: “And what should I say---“Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
And God’s voice comes and confirms that Jesus perfectly understands what is happening.
This Jesus is in complete control of everything: he is self-reflective instead of one actually struggling with the task at hand.
Jesus is setting up his lengthy discourse of alone time with his disciples, which will include the words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled...” He will then make it clear (in the rambling, circling way that we all associate with the Gospel of John) that the hour of his suffering...his death...will be the hour of his most brilliant glory.
“This is the hour for Jesus’ return to the father: the hour of his death. By the end of his farewell to his friends they will be ready to recognize in Jesus’ exaltation the father’s exaltation as well. But the connection is not easy to see. “Walk while you have the light,” says Jesus (John 12:35). The light is fading. We should be moving toward the darkest hour of all. But precisely in this darkness, we learn, was the greatest glory. The darkness was not mere background, a night sky from which some stellar triumph would scintillate more brightly. The darkness was the brilliance. Deep seers in the later church asked if the darkness was the darkness we see at the source of a light when its brilliance is too much to bear....John’s Jesus does not pray at Gethsemane; neither does Judas touch him. There is no poignancy in this betrayal. Jesus, in complete control, lets the drama take its course. His death is no defeat, no invasion of Jesus’ person or supremacy by the forces of evil.” (The Four Witnesses by Robin Griffith-Jones, p. 292-293)
In John 10:17-18, Jesus says:
“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my father.”
What might all of this mean for us today?
Well, I happen to know that, for many of you, Lent is far from your favorite season.
Perhaps, then, you will enjoy this quote from the preacher Fleming Rutledge:
"I have flunked Lent. I flunk it every year."
Debra Dean Murphy, another preacher, takes these words and runs with the: suggesting that we always flunk Lent.
She writes: “When we set out on Ash Wednesday every year to observe a holy Lent, we pray Psalm 51 together, asking for mercy and cleansing, for wisdom, for an erasing of the record that stands against us—a blotting out of our iniquities. We pray that God will "create in us a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within us."
And then we often act as if we must accomplish these things ourselves. We embrace Lenten disciplines—a good thing—but we easily mistake them for what they are not: self-improvement programs meant to make us better (thinner, smarter, nicer) people. We come dangerously close to narcissism, shifting our gaze from Christ and our neighbor in need to ourselves and our trivial preoccupations.
And so this week, as Lent is rounding the homestretch, we return to Psalm 51—back to where we began. We re-assume the posture of the penitent one who knows she cannot do the work of transformation by her own power, who can only cry out from the depths: "Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me."
“We are reminded that the work of transformation is God's and not ours.”
(Debra Dean Murphy blog entry)
Murphy’s words connect with me in this way: that in Jesus our vision of God is transformed. We have been called into a new relationship with God that focuses not on the standard system: faithful gets reward from God…sin gets punished by God.
Instead, sin is our brokenness…thoughts and actions that isolate us from God and others, that creates despair and the sense of isolation.
Faith and belief then become what we give our heart to, the sense of God’s presence with us and others.
And our needed action, by far, is seen in Jesus’ the mystic’s simple words:
“Love one another as I have loved you.”