Monday, 19 March 2018

Passion Sunday: Show me things I've never seen before

First preached as sermon at Guildford Cathedral on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Passion Sunday, 2018.
Gospel reading: John 12.20-33

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12.21).

'What do you see?'
Many people are familiar with a trip to the optician. Famously on the wall there are letters of ever decreasing sizes to test your sight. But we know that sight does not always equate to vision and seeing things on a deep level.

Seeing, recognising and believing are constant themes throughout St John’s gospel.

The climax of the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, speaks of the Word being made flesh, Jesus Christ, who dwelt among us ‘and we have seen his glory’. John continues ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father who has made him known’. (John 1.14, 18).

John also deals in signs, visual pointers to the profound truth of Jesus Christ’s mission and purpose. Famously he records seven signs – a perfect number – and says there were many more: water changed into wine (John 2.1-11) showing the coming hour of transformation in Jesus Christ; the healings of the royal official's son in Capernaum (John 4:46-54) and the paralysed man at Bethesda (John 5:1-15); the multiplication of loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand (John 6:5-14); Jesus walking on water (John 6:16-24); and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). All signs to be seen to point to Jesus’ divine power. They ask us, ‘now do you see?’

The remaining sign is of the man born blind whose sight is restored such that he can see who Jesus really is (John 9:1-7). The story culminates in Jesus speaking to the man whose sight has been restored saying,

‘Do you believe in the Son of Man? He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. (cf John 9.35b-41)

Seeing in John’s Gospel is far more than a visual reception of data and a function of the retina; this seeing is seeing with the eye of the heart. What I coin deep-sightedness.

It is this sort of seeing that Mary Magdalene has when at first she fails to recognise Jesus through her tears on the Day of Resurrection but on hearing Christ speaks her name she sees, as says ‘Rabbouni, teacher’ (John 20.1-18). And Mary Magdalene the first missionary, the Apostle to the Apostles, proclaimed, ‘I have seen the Lord’ (John 20.18).

The apostle Thomas sees with his eyes but not with his heart, and he seeks visual evidence of Jesus’ resurrection: but then a moment of recognition comes and he says ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20.24-29).


So, those Greeks appear saying to Philip, ‘Sir we would see Jesus’. Well, what have they come to see? What do we see in Jesus? What does their question demand of us if we place ourselves in the shoes of Philip the disciple when someone else says to you, ‘I want to see Jesus? There is a missional edge to their request.

Quite what the Greeks made of their seeing Jesus, history does not relate. It is in St Mark’s gospel that the centurion gazes at the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, on the cross and declares, ‘Truly this is God’s son’. Many did see and believed; many saw Jesus and saw nothing beyond.

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. This notion of seeing is important. The Greeks arrive to see Jesus, and their own mother tongue, Greek, has a variety of words that mean ‘to see’.

Their request to see could be from scorpion from which we get the word ‘scope’, as in telescope and microscope. Were they scoping Jesus? Getting the measure of him? Assessing what it would mean to follow him?

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. It could be, that far from be intrigued and seeing Jesus to get the measure of him, that there was a different edge. Their request ‘to see’ could be another Greek word sképtesthai from which we get the word ‘sceptic’. It was true then, as it is now, that there are sceptics about who Jesus Christ is. They may want to be entertained or to dismiss, as in Herod’s request to see Jesus (Luke 9.9). Sometimes, though, even scepticism can lead people on the journey of encounter with him; that’s true even today of people who come to see Jesus sceptically and find their lives turned around by him. When Jesus encounters two of John the Baptist’s slightly sceptical disciples he says, ‘Come and see’ (John 1.39)

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. The word John’s gospel actually uses is idein which means ‘to see’, in the sense of ‘to visit’ or ‘to meet with’. But it can also mean, in the context of John’s gospel, ‘to believe in’. ‘Sir’, they could be saying to Philip, ‘we wish to believe in Jesus’.

In meeting them Jesus he doesn’t say, “well, here I am have a good look”. Rather he unveils what is hinted at in the Prologue to John – and we have seen his glory –as Jesus declares that now his hour has come. And what will be seen is his glorification, the glorification of the cross, when he is lifted up from the earth.

Window in Guildford Cathedral - South Aisle
In the wilderness the Israelites who were being infested by poisonous serpents could be cured by looking at a pole erected by Moses (it features in the window on the south side of the Cathedral nave). Therein lay their healing and restoration. The cross is the new sign to be gazed upon for salvation. That is the image Jesus is drawing upon as he speaks of the Son of Man lifted up. (cf also John 3.14-21)

This takes us to Good Friday and the Proclamation of the Cross and we hear the haunting verse of Lamentations, ‘Is it nothing to you all you who pass by. Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow’ (Lamentations 1.12a). We hear that as we gaze upon the stark wood of the cross. Not just a bit of carpentry but the sign of our hope and salvation.

It is this deep-sightedness that enables St John Chrysostom to say of Jesus on the cross: ‘I see him crucified; I call him King’.


Today is Passion Sunday. It is the day in the Church’s year, before the intensity and drama of Holy Week, on which we begin to contemplate more intensely what we see in the glorification of Jesus Christ and ‘behold the wood of the cross, whereon was hung the Saviour of the world’, as the Good Friday liturgy puts it.

As the time of his Passion draws near may we consider how we see Jesus Christ, and behold God in all people, moments and things. Passion Sunday is a spiritual optician’s check-up (from another Greek word optikos "of or having to do with sight and seeing’).

My prayer is that believer and enquirer alike may cry out to the Lord: ‘I wish to see Jesus: show me things I’ve never seen before’. Amen.

© Andrew Bishop, 2018

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