Our Gospel starts today with this mention that among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks who came to Philip and asked to see Jesus. Remember the Jews were scattered throughout the great Roman Empire – so they likely were pilgrims coming to the Temple to sacrifice. As John makes this reference to the Passover, we also know it is Jesus’s last week, before his condemnation.
Here actually our lectionary (= set of readings for each Sunday) is a bit upside down. The passage we have just heard comes In john’s Gospel right after the triumphal entry of Jesus in the holy city – this triumphal entry that we will celebrate next week for Palm Sunday. But you get the idea: Some Jews from outside the country have heard for the first time about Jesus, maybe they have witnessed Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, the crowd welcoming him by shouting: “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord – The King of Israel” and so of course, these people are eager and excited to meet him.
Now you would expect that after that request to the disciples, they have this amazing encounter with Jesus, and that the rest of the story would be about the Greeks being blown away by Jesus’s teachings and miracles.
And yet – This is not what’s going on at all. We don’t know what happen with the Greeks – but Jesus hearing that some people want to meet him gives him an opportunity to explain what it really means to “see” him: Jesus announces that he is going to be “lifted up from earth” – and that’s a double meaning as we often find in John’s. Yet this time, rather than Jesus giving spiritual meaning to earthly things (like the wine at Cana or the water with the Samaritan woman), literal meaning takes precedence on the spiritual meaning: Being lifted up does not mean first that Jesus will reign over earth, very concretely it means that he will be hung on the cross on the outskirts of town, on mount Golgotha.
So yes, and that almost sounds cynical, lifted up on the cross, that’s how the Greeks will “see” Jesus. And that’s still how we see Jesus, each time we enter a church – we see Jesus on the cross, and as we enter Holy week, more than ever, we are called to “see” the crucified, after following him in teachings, miracles and ministry.
Not a triumphant king but condemned with other criminals.
And naturally, this sight of Jesus, it’s unbearable to watch. We know that the disciples fled. The suffering, the shame and the despair one suffered on the cross was absolutely gruesome and terrifying. That’s actually why the Romans used crucifixion as away of putting criminals to death: to dissuade the people from rebellion.
But if the cross is this mirror to our suffering, it is also a mirror to our violence and to the terrible things human beings do to other human beings. Of course, we haven’t crucified Jesus on that day, but we live in a world where violence still befalls on innocent people – not necessarily those who have done nothing wrong, but those who cannot defend themselves for lack of physical or mental strength, lack of social status and relationships, lack of means and money. And we know that even when we are not violent with our acts, we still judge and condemn others with our lips, those who cannot defend themselves because they are too shy or too vulnerable, or just clueless about what we say behind their backs.
So yes, we don’t want to see Jesus on the cross not only because we hate to suffer, but maybe we also refuse to see him because we know our own violence and our own sin. On that week in Jerusalem, Jesus will become another prophet to be put to death by his people. In him, not only we reject an innocent man, but we reject God. As our confession of sins states: We deny God’s goodness and God’s goodness in one another.
To see Jesus means that we also have to see the grief we bring upon God and the pain we bring upon each other. To see Jesus means that we also have to confront our sin.
And it’s interesting because confronting our sin, this what our Psalm 51 is all about. You may have noticed that we read it each year for Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, and here we hear it again on the last Sunday before Palm Sunday. Psalm 51 is known as the psalm of repentance.
To give you a little bit of context, this psalm is believed to have been written by David after the prophet Samuel told him in a parable how he had offended God by sinning against two innocent people: Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. The sin David committed with Bathsheba is often qualified as an adultery, yet adultery is between consenting people. From the story though, it is clear that Bathsheba was taken from her house and her husband and brought to the king without her consent. David committed sexual abuse and even rape. And this was not the end. When David found out that Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to manipulate Uriah to come back home from war and sleep with his wife so Uriah would assume the child was his. As David failed to talk him into doing that, David got Uriah killed by asking his General to send him to the forefront battle. One could say that it was even worse than murder because David got his rival killed by somebody else. On top of proving himself manipulative and deceptive, David acted like a coward. Then he married Bathsheba with no regard towards her feelings, after he did the worst things to her.
So this was serious sin, you see. Although he was the king, David completely over stepped the boundaries not only of good behavior, but even of human decency.
Yet in the midst of that, David cried for mercy – and this is what Psalm 51 is all about. David expressing his regrets and guilt and asking God for forgiveness – This is him confronting his sin and in this he will find redemption, because he did not give up on God’s mercy and God’s goodness, and in this he does not give up on himself either. There is a flip side to sin you see. There is active sin, the sins we commit when we abuse our power and overstep the boundaries, as did David, but there is also passive sin: despair, when, as David puts it “[our] sin is always before [us]” and we get stuck in self hatred, shame or hardheartedness. And to me, in Psalm 51 David walks that thin line: he regrets the evil he has done, mourns his wrongdoings while feeling the pain he has inflicted on others, yet he refuses to be eaten up by a past he can’t change and he refuses to be limited by a future he has destroyed. David finds hope and he finds hope because he believes that God is bigger than any sin he has committed, however awful. And so God will hear him and deliver him. David trusts in God’s power and finds a horizon beyond sin.
Life is not limited by the terrible things we have done. I love it that David trusts God to wash him and make him clean. The translation of our psalm in the Bible “The Message” actually uses images of God of “soaking David”, scrubbing his stains and doing laundry with his sins! It may seems strange to see God’s power as a washing machine, and yet I know that to me, I wash the clothes I love because I want to keep them and I want them to look beautiful. And I think it says a lot about our relationships with God. God hates sin, of course, but God wants to remove sin from us because God wants to see our beauty, God wants to use us, and God wants to keep us forever. The way God deals with our sin reveals God’s great love for us and that’s what we are invited to experience when we confront our sin in the presence of God. Not condemned, but washed and made beautiful and usable again!
We can see our sin and just despair, or we can see our sin and experience God’s love and to me this is exactly what happens to David in this psalm. We know that as God will wash David and cleanse him from his sins, God will reveal David’s soul’s beauty, God will use David for God’s purposes, and God will keep David forever. David will experience this deep knowledge and intimacy with God the prophet Jeremiah talks about in our reading today.
In the same way, when we see the cross, we are invited to see God’s love beyond the suffering, the violence and the sin. That’s the glory Jesus is talking about: Not the apparent glory of walking triumphantly in Jerusalem, but the deep glory Jesus manifested as he loved his people to the end, and no matter what. This love is the true meaning of the cross and our reason to hope beyond the suffering, the violence and the sin. This is this love we are invited to see during Holy week.