A sermon on John 12: 20-33 by Garry Deverell, 6 April 2003
In 1819 John Keats, the English poet, sat transfixed before an ancient vase he happened upon in an Italian museum. It was an urn from ancient Athens, the principle city of Greece, and it featured the carved figures of women and men dancing to some kind of ritual in an idealic forest glade. Something about these figurines captured the poet’s attention and, more than that, took him away into a rapt meditation upon the capacity of art to convey spiritual truths. What Keats found most moving was the way in which the artist had captured a moment of truth—the truth of a particular human joy and longing—in the stillness of such beautiful forms. He wondered at the way in which such truth could be frozen in stone, and therefore rendered communicable even to people who would view the urn thousands of years later. The poem he wrote to commemorate the occasion closes with the famous aphorism,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty.—That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
In saying this, Keats revealed his admiration for a particularly Greek way of seeing the world. The ancient Greeks believed that the truth about things was revealed to human beings through their eyes, particularly in beautiful and bright forms, and even more particularly in the beautiful and bright forms of the human body. I’m sure that many of you will have seen pictures of those strong and erect young men carved in white marble, often standing at the entrance of public buildings or temples, often naked, and often with some kind of weapon in their hands. Or of slender women draped in jewelled finery with garlands in their hair. Usually in a state of semi-undress. But such figures represented far more than an ideal for human beauty. They also represented the Greek understanding of God. For them, God was exactly like one of these statues: strong beyond all strength, glorious and bright with the brightness of the sun, beautiful such than mortals would desire to be joined with God, but also distant and impervious to any kind pain or suffering.
Now, in the passage we read from John’s Gospel tonight, who asks to see Jesus? Some Greeks. Some Greeks ask to see Jesus. And because they are Greeks, they are hoping to see a particular kind of Jesus, a Jesus who is like one of their Athenian statues of the human form divine: a strong and noble Jesus, a Jesus whose form is beautiful in that classical Greek sense, a Jesus who shines with divine light and ignites their desire for him, a Jesus who is clearly more than human, who somehow sails above the ordinariness of human pain and regret and grief in some kind of cool, divine inscrutability. Now, in case you’re thinking that I might be imputing motives to these fellows which don’t exist, consider this. That John’s whole Gospel might be characterised as a sermon to the Greeks, and particularly to the Greek-speaking intellectuals. Unlike the other gospels, John talks about Jesus in a language which Greek-speaking intellectuals could understand and appreciate. He nicks, for example, their idea of the logos—an idea or a form that exists in the mind of God before the universe began—to explain how Jesus could be considered divine. “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.” The Gospel also seems to address that peculiarly Greek obsession with light and seeing and form as the appropriate way to find out about divine things. Only in John’s gospel do you have Jesus proclaiming that he is the light of the world. Only in John’s gospel do you find passages like the one we read tonight, where Jesus exhorts his listeners to become “children of the light,” children who gaze at the glorious brightness of God and are drawn to that light like moths to a flame. All of this is very, very Greek. Right down to the word which John uses for seeing in this passage. It is eidein, from which we get both “idea” and “idol”. The Greeks, in wanting to “see” Jesus, are looking for a form, an “idol,” if you like, in which their divine “idea” might be both seen and admired.
But wait. Doesn’t this imply that John is basically on board with all this Greek stuff, that he is something of a pagan philosopher, seeking to transform Jesus into some kind of semi-divine hero like Ulysses and Hercules, therefore priming his image for popular consumption in world dominated by Greek thinking? Yes and No. Yes, he wanted to talk about Jesus in a way that people other than Jews would understand and appreciate. But no, he didn’t buy into the pagan version of God in the process. Indeed, the passage we are reading contains one of the most damning critiques of that God you will find in all of literature! Note, if you will, Jesus’ response to what the Greeks asked. I quote.
The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life . . . Now my soul is troubled, but what should I say? “Father save me from this hour?” No, it is for this hour that I have come. Father, glorify your name! . . . Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of the world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
What we find here is a specifically Christian warping or transfiguration of the Greek idea of divine beauty so admired by Keats. For John argues that the human form of God is not strong and beautiful, in that classical sense we described earlier. Nor is it impervious to the ravages of ordinary human life—the passing of time, the reality of evil, or of human suffering. On the contrary, according to John, the human form of God is the crucified Jesus. A suffering man, hanging from the most vile instrument of torture of the ancient world. A man vulnerable to being troubled in soul. A man vulnerable to death. In describing Jesus like this, John effects a transvaluation which would have been scandalous for the Greek thinkers of his time. Beauty, he declares, no longer has anything to do with the classical forms of the Olympic body or the Olympian gods, objects of religio-erotic desire that they were. The beauty of God, he declares, is revealed in its opposite, in that which strikes the ordinary gaze of the human eye as the which is least desirable of all. The weak ones, the ugly ones, the suffering ones. For it is these, to whom the world denies value, that God ascribes the most value. Unlike ourselves, God actually loves the unlovable, and desires the undesirable. Such love is able to raise a person from despair to hope, from darkness into light, from misery to blessedness. Such love is able to bring a sense of the beautiful even to those of us who, in the world’s eyes at least, live not-so-beautiful lives.
I want to close with a word about what all of this might mean for our Lenten journey. The thinking of the ancient Greeks has not gone away. It is everywhere present, even today in Australia. It visits us in every commercial which represents happiness and the good life in terms of the beautiful forms of sculptured bodies, and impervious to age or to the suffering of the poor and brokenhearted. It visits us in New Age notions of God as some kind of universal being which is everywhere present, especially in nature, and yet (like nature) is blind and deaf and dumb to our specifically human anxieties. Finally, it visits us in our cultural obsession with seeing as the preeminent way of knowing what is true. If we see it, even if “it” is only on the TV, we believe it. If we don’t see it, then we don’t believe it. These are the realities we live with everyday, and they are not so very different from the realities of John’s “Greeks”. The colonial powers might have changed. But their message has not!
During Lent, God invites us to be immersed in another possible reality, another way of seeing the truth of things. Instead of looking at the world through the light of our televisions, God invites us to look at the world with the dark and contrary light that comes from the cross of Jesus. For John says that the cross is the visible form of the divine glory, and therefore a unique and power critique of all that our world would consider beautiful. Under the paradoxical power of this dark kind of light, a power which Shelley called “negative capability,” even scenes of torture become signs of resurrection. Sinners become capable of sainthood, misery becomes capable of joy, and ugliness becomes capable of beauty. All because God’s love empowers us to let go of the way we see things with our eyes, in favour of a seeing of by faith in which the beauteous promise of things comes into focus. Something of what I have been saying tonight is powerfully conveyed in the words of Leonard Cohen, a poet, this time, who understands that sense of joy and liberation one can experience in being loved by a God who is not ashamed to share our imperfections:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.