Sermon preached by the Reverend Lloyd Alexander “Tony” Lewis, Jr.
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Lent – March 22, 2015
Curiosity drives us to expand our minds to learn the next thing. If you have ever watched the eyes of children at school, you know this is true. The presence of something new – something different – moves a child to look and see and by doing that to capture the hidden treasure found in what is different. And then comes, what I call the “Aha!” moment. That moment occurs when someone comes to realize that what is being investigated definitely has pertinence to one’s own life and experience. Now not only the “what” but the “why” unfolds for a child. Now it all makes sense. Now the door, not just of perception but of understanding, is opened.
Dare I say it happens to adults, too? In my other life I was a Biblical Greek teacher at a seminary. One of my students, a really fascinating young man from Florida, found himself in a required language course, not of his own choosing, that I, not of my choosing, had to teach. It was an introductory course. I would watch him as each new concept cascaded over his head, until soon his head was bowed. He really didn’t want to be there. But he realized that institutional requirements are necessary gateways to graduation. So he set himself to learn – to untangle – the mystery of the class over the course of two weeks when he would focus on language study exclusively, as he learned how the dreaded Greek participle functioned. One day it finally happened. I watched it happen in his eyes, eyes which seemed almost to indicate shock and awe as he peered into what he believed to me inscrutable until at last he “put it all together.” And then the sigh, the shaking of the head, the bemused smile as if to communicate an unspoken, “Of course: this is why I am here. This is why this all makes a difference.” You see, for him, finally the door was finally opened. And what he learned became his for keeps. It was his “Aha!” moment. And none too late!
When John brought together his rendition of the gospel, the church believes he had several things in mind. He wanted to give people hope to follow Jesus. He desired to ground joining the Christian community in an assurance that leaving what they had been before was not only desirable, but crucial and necessary. And he wanted to affirm for people a fundamental truth that justified both of those previous statements. It is the fundamental truth that Jesus himself articulated when he exclaimed, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” In other words, Jesus is not a messenger from God or a teacher of God or just a good person: Jesus is God at work: there is no need to look for another.
All sorts of people were drawn to that experience. Nicodemus who tried to keep one foot safely in the religious establishment of his time and culture while being strangely drawn to this new rabbi with a new teaching. A Samaritan woman who sought to interpret Jesus, until Jesus began interpreting her. A man born blind, whom Jesus brought to sight and then to more than sight. Each in some way they were figures of the curiosity that stands right around the corner from faith.
And now, the Gospel tells us, some Greeks, headed to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. They were seeking something: why else would they as Greeks be heading to the celebration of a very Jewish Passover in Jerusalem. So now they came to the followers of Jesus with a simple request, born of human curiosity: “We want to see Jesus.” Their demand is not an unknown one, even among the followers of Jesus. John tells us earlier, that when Nathaniel, having heard the reports from the first disciples that there was something spectacular and different available in the acts and teaching of a young teacher from Nazareth, said to Philip, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he was met by Philip’s answer, “Come and see.” On the basis of what Nathaniel experienced in his encounter, we do know that Nathaniel’s curiosity was rewarded with the beginning of his belief, leading him to that point when he could say, “Teacher, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” But we do not know about these Greeks. Paul tells us elsewhere that Greeks demanded wisdom, undeniable and ordered evidence of the pattern of truth which would confirm reality. They just wanted to see for themselves that wisdom at work. They wanted to touch. They wanted to hear. They wanted to be shown. Some sign? Something perceivable? Some moment of personal encounter? Some way of determining once and for all that what they were being invited to experience through the rumors they no doubt had heard was indeed the real thing.
Faith, you know, is such a tricky word. The fact that we can talk about blind faith, I believe, makes this clear. Blind faith opens the door to what seems to be a superficial level of understanding and a shallow type of commitment, sort of like what Socrates spoke against when he stated “…the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” (Plato, Apology,38a) But for many of us our moment of conversion, of having the “Aha!” moment came only when we listened, and then listened again: when we saw, and then saw again. What Jesus revealed to his followers when they came with the query of those Greeks may well have been just such a moment; a moment just as much for those disciples’ benefit – for those who were not curious and did not ask questions on that occasion – as it was for those curious Greeks.
And here is how Jesus answered them and answers us. “I have arrived at my end which will become your beginning. It is like planting seeds. Seeds planted must ‘go away’ so that trees might arise in their stead. And what results from that planting and through that dying, is far greater than anything that a seed alone physically represents. And here is the sign of that end that becomes the beginning. It is the plan of my Father and my plan found in my destiny to love you unto my death, so that you might be raised to a new life in me!”
The closer we get to Holy Week, the more that we are confronted with that reality. The Son of God will be glorified, but that moment, that hour of destiny, comes when he goes up on the cross out of love for us. That is the beginning of the one great miracle that splits the Red Sea of our lives and lands us on the other side in Canaan; that takes the righteousness of God and writes it on our hearts where it becomes unavoidable; that even reforms the worship we offer and sets it in the context of heaven itself, where once and for all Jesus enters heaven, bearing the joint marks of the call of God and sympathy for us, fashioned in his solidarity with our humanity. He it is who is our priest, who stands with boldness before our Father and his Father and by his presence in heaven and his laying down his life for us there intercedes eternally for us, saying, “I am here, and I am bringing all the children with me.”
And you see, it all comes from a simple question. “We want to see, Jesus.” That demand is not an end in itself. It is a beginning and the moment when faith begins to move us to understanding, and we open our eyes and exclaim, “Aha!”
The Reverend Lloyd Alexander Lewis, Jr. is the Downs Professor of New Testament Emeritus at
Virginia Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian, The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.