Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday.22 “Some Greeks” John 12:20-43

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” That sounds promising, doesn’t it? You like these Greek dudes because they’re 1) very polite, 2) rather devout, being in Jerusalem to worship, and 3) Seemingly quite interested in Jesus. These are promising signs. Maybe we should identify with these guys? After all, it’s tough to find characters in the Bible who are good roles models without too many flaws. The apostles seem like an obvious choice at first, but when you get to know them well, from reading the Gospels, they disappoint. They are shockingly clueless (they didn’t get the whole Palm Sunday thing at all, John confesses, with the palm branches and the donkey. It was only after Jesus was glorified by the cross, resurrection, and ascension into heaven that the light bulb came on and they put it together from the Scriptures).

So, these Greeks seem like role models we can fully get behind. But, hold your horses! Honestly, I can only think of one solid guy in John’s Gospel (not counting Jesus, of course, who’s not really a role model, exactly. He’s God, the Savior and we can never be that) in John 9, the beggar man born blind—that’s my guy…

“What’s wrong with these Greeks, Pastor?” Well, OK, this is just me and my quirky reading, but since you asked, away we go…

First, who are these “Greeks” in John’s Gospel? This is not, in John, a synonym for “Gentiles” or “Unbelievers” or “Pagans” as too many modern scholars fail to see. No. “Greeks” here would be Greek-speaking Jews, as we see from how the term is used by Luke and St. Paul, as well as in rabbinic literature of the 1st century, and by 2nd century Christian writers. εθνη is the word for “gentiles” or “non-Jews”; and ελλην is the word for Greek speakers, usually Jews of the Diaspora who lived outside Palestine, as St. Paul had done up till age 12 when he moved to Jerusalem.

In this case, since we are told “some Greeks” had come up to worship at the Feast of Passover (which only Jews would do!) it’s really beyond argument that these are Greek-speaking Jews. They may be converts (converting to Judaism was more popular in 1st century Rome than converting to Buddhism was in 1960’s California) maybe born LCMS Lutherans, like St. Paul. But they’re worshiping God according to the Jewish faith when we meet them in our Gospel today which makes them Jews—and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the best you could do at that time, religion-wise.

The difficulty I see with their request is that they’ve just seen Jesus! Our Gospel reading follows John’s account of the Palm Sunday procession on the donkey with the palm branches and coats thrown on the road, the huge crowd shouting “Hosanna to the King of David!” John tells us the crowd was huge because there were all kinds of pilgrims from all over the world there to celebrate Passover (as Moses’ required of all Jews) and because they’d heard Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead at Bethany just a week before and that he was riding into the city.

So, they’ve seen Jesus! They heard him acclaimed as David’s Son and Messiah! What more do they want? This is what makes me suspicious of their motives. They want a personal audience. The concert was not enough for them. They demand a backstage pass. Why?

Well, as the Bible does not like the direct approach to questions like this, refuses to answer them that way, we have to look at Jesus’ response to their request for backstage passes, and read off from that why the audience appears never to have been granted, but refused.

Jesus does not rush to meet them (as was his habit with hurting people pleading for mercy from him). He cold-shoulders them the way he often does with the scribes, Pharisees, chief priests and other elites. He says, cryptically, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Yes, yes, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also…”

In other words: “they already saw me—as well as I can be seen. If they want to see me more clearly, grasp me more faithfully, tell them to come back in 5 days and see me hanging on a cross and dying. If they want to follow me, meet me on Golgotha, and follow me into death and the grave. Because, if you are thinking I’ve come to save y’all in the sense of keeping you from dying, or resuscitating you like Lazarus, you’re wrong. I came to kill in order to make alive. I wound in order to heal” (as our OT reading says).

A few verses later, Jesus hits the point, hard. “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself.” When he’s lifted up (like the bronze serpent) on the cross to die, then and there, he draws all into his dying in order to draw us into his life and kingdom. This is why Jesus came: to ransom us by his death. So, if you don’t see Him dying on the cross, you’ve missed Him entirely, the whole point…

And I don’t think the Greeks wanted to see that—few of us really want to see Jesus like that! We’d rather see Him fixing our shoulder, healing our cancer, getting us a better job, giving us tips for managing difficulty in our lives. In short, we want to see Jesus fitting himself into our lives, our way, accommodating his aims to suit our ideas of the good life.

This is seeing but not seeing, hearing but not understanding, having blind eyes and hard hearts, trying to see Jesus our way. But it does not deter us. Like the Greeks, we would see Jesus—but on our terms, not his. And this request will always be rebuffed…

In “Mimesis”, Erich Auerbach sees how the Scriptures really work, how the true vision of God really occurs: “The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be an historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us; and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”

In other words, the Scripture’s story of Jesus will not be fitted into convenient corners of our lives as we please—no! Rather, we get fitted into little corners of Jesus’ story, just the way he pleases; and, if we refuse to be fitted into his Story, His Way, we are rejects who will be left on the cutting room floor.

If we would see Jesus, our dreams of directing our life’s story have to die. Because Jesus simply won’t be a supporting actor in the star drama of your successful life. He will direct, star as Crucified King, or he’ll be ever hidden from your sight…

Like a pirates’ map of buried treasure, an X, a cross, marks the spot—riding into Jerusalem, trudging along the Via Dolorosa, bleeding, dying, crying “Finished!” on Golgotha. You want to see Jesus? Really? Well, how ‘bout this Friday, noon to 3? Good? Fine; He’ll see you then. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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