This week’s lectionary reflection draws on the Gospel reading of John 12.20-33 to take us on a journey that includes both the Temple in Jerusalem and Canterbury Cathedral.
Dr Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, email@example.com
I have grown to appreciate Canterbury Cathedral over the years. In fact when my husband Alan and I lived in Canterbury for five years I didn’t particularly enjoy the atmosphere of the Cathedral. There was a starchiness and a stuffiness about the place then, and I often felt rather fraught when I went to services there, caught between the expectation that as the wife of the Principal of the Canterbury School of Ministry there were certain events I needed to attend, and the fact that I also had a baby who became a lively toddler in tow. In those days children were expected by some of the Cathedral staff not to be heard, and perhaps not even to be seen. It was definitely stress making.
But as I have visited there over more recent years I have begun to treasure much of what it has to offer. When I was working for the Anglican Communion Office in London I came to realise how much the Cathedral is loved by Anglicans from so many parts of the world, and what it meant to them to visit Canterbury as pilgrims. There’s the great symbol of the Anglican Communion, the Compass Rose, engraved into the floor in the centre of the building, with its wonderful motto, ‘The truth will set you free’ that speaks powerfully to me, and of which the Anglican Communion should be proud, even though I am not sure it always quite lives up to the vision.
But the unforgettable spine chilling moment above all for me came at the end of the last Lambeth Conference in 2008 in which I was privileged to participate as a member of staff of the Anglican Communion Office. At the end of the final service of the conference held in semi darkness in the Cathedral, representatives of the Anglican Church of Melanesia carried a canoe in procession through the cathedral, singing a haunting traditional south pacific lament as they did so. They – and we – were remembering the members of the Anglican Melanesian religious brotherhood who had been murdered five years earlier as they had sought to mediate and make peace in one of the Solomon Islands intermittent civil or tribal wars. They have become known as the Melanesian Martyrs. Ever since whenever I think about Canterbury Cathedral that is what comes to my mind – as a place where modern martyrs, as well as medieval ones, are remembered.
I am quite sure that one of the reasons that the Cathedral has become more welcoming over the years is due to the current Dean, Robert Willis. He is the personification of a diffident, yet competent graciousness that is a mark of the Anglican tradition at its very best. One of the things that Robert wanted to do when he became Dean, about 20 years ago was to create a mission statement for the Cathedral. As he told me the story once, there were discussions about it in cathedral chapter, and sub-groups set up to decide what should be in the statement – which was apparently potentially getting longer and more complicated by the week. And then one day during the daily worship, part of the biblical passage that is this coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel was read, and suddenly Robert saw what was needed.
As John’s Gospel puts it, ‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip and said to him, ‘Sir we wish to see Jesus’. (John 12.20-21) And hearing these words Robert was inspired to suggest that the mission statement of the Cathedral should simply be ‘To show people Jesus’. And that is exactly what happened and if you go onto Canterbury Cathedral’s website to this day you will find that statement set out at the bottom of the page. What it is trying to say, I think, is that the whole life of the Cathedral, from the beauty of its architecture and worship, to the quality of the intellectual engagement and enquiry it facilitates, to the sense of warmth and hospitality with which visitors are greeted, to the way that it functions for those who work and live there as a place of authentic Christian community, needs to point people towards Jesus Christ, to enable them to draw nearer to him and through him to God. If any church ever finds itself looking for a mission statement in the future – it is not a bad one to consider.
But back to the Gospel reading. Why were those Greeks wanting to see Jesus? Rowan Williams once asked, ‘Were they, I wonder, like the tourists who turn up in Dharamsala in India saying, I want to see the Dalai Lama? ‘There’s a famous charismatic religious figure around. I’d like to catch a glimpse of him. I might even be interested in listening to what he says, a bit … and then its back to the hotel.’
Perhaps that was indeed what those Greeks were thinking – but for Jesus, and maybe eventually for them too, it turned into so much more. Let’s briefly re-tread our steps through the last couple of chapters of John’s Gospel in which we are being pivoted towards Jesus’ passion. First there was the account of Jesus’ life-giving ministry to his beloved friend Lazarus, putting himself in danger to do so, especially because Lazarus’ recovery from death causes such a stir that Caiaphas, the ultimate example of a pragmatic religious official, worries about its dangerous effect on their Roman political overlords, ‘It is better that one man should die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11.50) That is followed by the account of Jesus’ anointing by Lazarus’ sister, Mary, an act which foreshadows Jesus’ death (John 12.1-7). Although with a double entendre that is characteristic of John, since kings in Israel were anointed in order to inaugurate their rule – the anointing is not just a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death but also a proclamation of Jesus’ messiahship. But then, there is a sort of double double entendre, or should one say triple entendre, since for John’s Gospel the moment of Jesus’ death and the moment when he is crowned as king are actually one and the same.
And now it seems to be this meeting with the Greeks that edges that destiny ever closer. For Jesus’ initial response to their request, is to speak of the dying of the seed – himself – to lead to a fruitful harvest. At first sight it is not obvious why their request leads him to make such a response. I think it is something like this. One of the great visions of the Old Testament – you find it in the psalms and in the prophets – is of a pilgrimage of the nations that would be made up to Jerusalem which would inaugurate God’s coming kingdom of justice and peace.
Think for example of the great passage from Isaiah, ‘It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains and many people shall come to it…’ (Isaiah 2.2-3) Jerusalem and its Temple was the destiny for this pilgrimage, because it was seen as the dwelling place of God, a place of squeezing, where God’s glory could be seen and God could be visibly present with human beings. But for the New Testament, that dwelling place of God, that space of God’s glory among human beings is now squeezed into the person of Jesus Christ – so he becomes the goal of such a pilgrimage, and those Greek visitors both foreshadow it and are its first fruits. They are bringing about those ‘latter days’, and just as the mountainous height of Jerusalem facilitated its role as the goal of pilgrims, so also it will mean that Christ himself as pilgrimage’s new goal will need to be lifted up.
It is striking to read John’s account of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane later on in the Gospel. There is there no agony such as you find in the other Gospels. But there is no agony there – because it is here, now earlier in the story that you find it. ‘Now is my soul troubled’ says Jesus at this point (John 12.27). It is now that he needs to decide whether to embrace or to refuse the destiny that the coming of those Greek visitors asking to see him has forced into his present …to allow his own body to be squeezed into the space where God and human beings can meet each other. Three of John’s key words which reverberate again and again through his Gospel, make their appearance in this passage, to indicate its crucial role in the story.
Hour: This is the moment that time has been waiting for through the earlier chapters of the gospel when we have been told that Jesus’ hour has not yet come. Now eternity is squeezed into this moment of decision and judgement.
Glory: This is that biblical word that John’s Gospel delights in turning upside down in its meaning. It refers to the ‘visible presence’ of God. In the pages of the Old Testament such visible presence is shown through manifestations of power and splendour. But in the Gospel of John the word ‘glorified’ is used to describe the moment that Jesus hangs on the cross. In a radical inversion the visible presence of God is now to be seen in a moment of apparent supreme weakness and defeat.
Lifted up: One word in Greek. It speaks, and it is intended to speak, at several levels. At one level it refers simply to Jesus being physically ‘lifted up’ on to the beams of the cross. But the word in Greek also carries the metaphorical sense of ‘exalt’ – be raised up in honour.
All three words therefore point us to the cross, which for the Gospel of John is the moment, the hour when the seed that has been sown in the earth, has sprouted into the tree of life, to become the bridge between earth and heaven.
Back finally once again to those Greeks and their request, ‘Sir we would see Jesus’.
As Archbishop Rowan once put it: Jesus’ response to this request seems to be, There is only one way in which you can really see: and that is, when you see the Christ lifted up in the pain and the defeat of the cross, and find the glory of the Father radiating there.’ You can’t just be a tourist. You can’t simply wander around hoping to capture a glimpse of an interesting person if you’re really concerned to see Jesus. You have to go where the cross is because, of course, where Jesus is, there will his friends be also.
That is what those seven Melanesian brothers, who were martyred as they travelled to make peace discovered.
(This is a lightly edited version of an address I gave during Holy Week 2020 for Holy Trinity Church, Geneva)