Lessons for the 5th Sunday in Lent: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Today we start by talking about Philip. Not Philip the Apostle – we’ll get to him in a minute – but the great conquering hero, Philip of Macedon. When he was made king in the 4th century BCE, Philip took the beleaguered and bedraggled Macedonians, and he carved an empire for them out of the Greek world that his son, Alexander the Great, would expand east and west from India to Egypt. Philip and Alexander created the imperial footprint on which the Romans would later build their own empire. Philip and Alexander created the Hellenistic world – the Greek world – that Jesus was born into. Philip and Alexander were conquering heroes, people who redeemed the world for their followers. It’s no wonder that in the centuries after they ruled, people and places would be given their names. Paul wrote one of his letters to a group of Christians known as Philippians. Jesus traveled to a region of Galilee known as Caesarea Philippi. There were Israelites who bore the unmistakable Greek name, Philip.
The Apostle Philip shows up a few times in John’s gospel. In the other gospels, Philip is only present in the rolls of the Twelve. In John, though, Philip has an important role in a number of stories, including this one where we find ourselves at the climax of Jesus’ ministry:
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”John 12:23
Jesus proclaims to the crowds that his hour has now come, and all because (at least narratively speaking) some Greeks introduce themselves to Philip and tell him that they wish to see his Lord.
If we’re being honest, of course they want to see Jesus. At this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has just concluded three of his greatest and most controversial acts. In chapter nine, he gave sight to the man born blind. In chapter eleven, he raised Lazarus from the dead. In chapter twelve, Jesus triumphantly entered into Jerusalem surrounded by a parade of supporters waving palm branches in celebration and shouting hosannas!
Power. Resurrection. Spectacle. This is why the Greeks present themselves to Philip. They wanted to see Jesus because at this point in the story everybody wanted to see Jesus. And why not? Jesus was the Messiah and messiahs help to make sense of the world; they have somehow grasped the moment, the Geist and the spirit of the age in a way that’s compelling and comforting. And this Messiah was also reassuring the people – all the people (recall the Samaritan woman at the well) – of their special place in it, reminding them that they are good and beloved. It could not be a more compelling message: “You are loved! You are loveable! and I, with my power, am going to take care of you.”
It’s not a stretch to say that there are people today searching for a Messiah. Despite our apparent economic successes, our cultural malaise is palpable. It feels like we’ve gone adrift, like we’ve lost our place and any sense of who we are.
Nationwide, there’s an opioid epidemic that claimed over 60,000 lives last year from overdoses, to say nothing of those who still struggle with addiction or the damage done to friends, loved ones, and communities.It seems like every day brings another example of how people who’ve been entrusted with power – business executives, medical professionals, pastors, priests, police officers – have abused that power in order to prey on the men, women, and children around them. Our confidence in the structural institutions that buttress our society – up to and including the church – remains soundly underwater. A solid two-thirds of Americans report feeling anxious whenever they contemplate the future of their country. In our wider conversations, we seem to have adopted a national mood of bitter despair. To use an old familiar line, we feel like people who are “rich in things but poor in soul.”
With all of this, it is no wonder that people are looking for a Messiah to offer love, security, and “a hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11). But some people look for the messiah in all the wrong places. They might find a spiritual leader who offers a sense of order out of disorder, an escape from life. They might seek a political savior, someone who will them who is good and who is bad, and someone who promises to protect us and deliver us from harm. Maybe they find a guru who will tell them of a technological or a health cure that will deliver them from the fear of decay and death.
The Greeks in today’s story, when they went looking for a Messiah, present themselves to Philip. Philip has been with Jesus from the very beginning – who was there at the wedding when Jesus turned the water into wine and was there in the boat to see Jesus walk across the Sea of Galilee. Philip was also there when Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the Temple (John 2) and saw the crowds and his own brothers reject Jesus (John 6, 7). Philip has seen Jesus almost get arrested and almost get stoned (John 10).
Philip knows the highs and the lows of following Jesus. In John, when Philip is introduced, he asked that bracingly honest question about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip knows. He’s been with Jesus from the beginning. Philip has seen the power and the glory of his Lord, and knows that they are not the power and the glory that most people might have hoped for.
This is what makes him the perfect guide to the Greeks. They had certainly seen Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and heard about the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Have they found the great conquering hero who can throw off the yoke of Roman oppression? Have they found the Messiah who will not only bring peace to their troubled lives but peace to the world? Have they found the one who will not just protect them from the hands of their enemies but who might protect them from death itself?
Yes, they have!! But, what they cannot imagine is that in four short days, the hoped-for Messiah will be hanging on a cross. They cannot imagine that in four days he will lay down his life for his followers and for his enemies. To be honest, Philip can’t imagine it either. But Philip has been with Jesus from the beginning. He’s seen more. He knows what it is to wrestle with doubt and faith. And so, because of this, Philip is the perfect disciple to guide them on their way through Good Friday so that they might still be there on Easter Sunday.
The descendants of these Greeks who came in search of a Messiah are all around us. Sometimes, in our weaker moments, they are us as we search desperately for a savior, longing for whatever port we might find in the storms that rage in our world. We know what it is to desire a messiah to save us, and like Philip, we also know that the one true Messiah is the one who “emptied himself…humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2).
At the same time, we also know that that focus on loving our neighbors more than we love ourselves can make him a hard Messiah to follow. And we know that, in our most vulnerable moments, that can make it tempting to doubt that his Gospel – that his good news – is well and truly good for us…and for our families…and for our friends who are yearning for a word of hope in these times.
Next Sunday we will celebrate Palm Sunday: and the Sunday of the Passion. We will make our way from a great procession to the terrible slopes of Golgotha. We will bear witness to Jesus nailed to a Roman cross, and we will see him die.Then we will depart, knowing that on the following Sunday we will return again to celebrate his resurrection: the great vindication of him as the world’s one true Lord.
As we do so – as we move from Palms to Passion to Empty Tomb – let us keep in mind that the foundation of our Messiah’s Kingdom is not the power and glory of the triumphal entry but is instead the love and self-sacrifice of the cross. That is the source of our hope. That is the source of our peace. And that, therefore, is what we use to evaluate the promises of hope and peace offered by the would-be Messiahs of this world. That’s what empowers us to resist their Siren songs, and that, brothers and sisters, is the greatest gift that we have to offer our neighbors.
Thanks be to God. Amen.