In today’s gospel Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (his 3rd visit, in John’s gospel); it is Palm Sunday; when some Greeks want to ‘see Jesus’; they find Philip, who has a Greek name, and comes from Bethsaida, a Greek town on Galilee; Philip finds Andrew, from the same town, and with a Greek name. Together they approach Jesus to tell him about the Greeks. Suddenly, Jesus declares a seminal moment in his life: now his ‘hour’ has come, taking us back to those times, starting in Cana at the wedding, when he had said his ‘hour had not yet come’.
The Greeks now disappear from the story, as quickly as they appeared. Referring to himself as the Son of Man, he says it is time for the SoM to be ‘glorified’. The title goes back to the end of the first chapter of the gospel, when Nathanael confesses that Jesus is, ‘Rabbi, the Son of God, and king of Israel.’ Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see more – heaven opened and the angels of God ascending a descending on the Son of Man.’ This referrers to the time Jacob is escaping from the wrath of his brother, Esau. At Bethel, Jacob dreams of a ladder with ‘the angels of God ascending and descending on it.’ Later, the Rabbis, would debate this ambiguity in passage: was it ‘on it’, as our translations say, or ‘on him’, which would imply that Jacob himself was some kind of way (?) between earth and heaven, that he was, in fact, a heavenly man. John 1, applies this interpretation to the Son of Man – Jesus of course. That Jesus is, indeed, the access between heaven and earth.
John, doesn’t mention Jesus’ crucifixion until, he actually comes to the cross, his predictions of his fat, calling himself ‘Son of Man’, are indirect and enigmatic: talking of when he is ‘lifted up’ – a word that means just that, but can also mean ‘exalted’; or when he is ‘glorified’, a word that can mean honoured, but might also imply a kind of divinity. Later the Rabbis would call this glory the ‘Shekinah’, the ‘place’ or ‘dwelling’ (or ‘tenting’) of God, as in the tent that was the Tabernacle.
The origins of this term, ‘Son of Man’ (literally ‘the son of the man’ – which is very bad Greek) are in the book of Ezekiel, in his vision of the throne of God, where Yahweh looks like a kind of human being (Adam). And in Daniel where the Son of Man is s kind of ‘junior’ God, whom the ‘Ancient of Days’ invites to sit on the throne and to have all the authority of God.
John also downplays the actual suffering of Jesus. During his trial he seems to be very much in control: before Pilate, it seems that Pilate is the one on trial. (which for John of course, hi is).
On the cross, Jesus final word, ‘it is finished’ (in most modern translations) can also be translated ‘it is accomplished’, which is less a cry of despair, but much more a cry of triumph, which of course, for John it is.
So, though we would expect that Son of God is a more ‘divine’ title for Jesus; because of its OT background Son of Man implies more ‘divinity’.
In the end, Jesus is the Human Being. As Latin American liberation theologian, Jon Sobrino suggests, ‘Natural human beings assume that they know what being human nature is.’ We might not. Or, as German theologian, Gerd Thiessen suggests, ‘We used to look for the link between the apes and human beings, perhaps we are the missing link!
One of the unique things about the Son of Man in John’s gospel is that Jesus has come down from heaven, and will return there. Jesus origins in the heavenly world are important for John. There in the hymn to the Word, the logos, in the first chapter, all the way through his gospel story, Jesus is aware of his heavenly origins with his Father, and that he comes to reveal to us what the Father is like. What Jesus is like reveals to us what the Father is like. In that Jesus gives up his life for his sheep, for his friends, for us, for the world. Tells us about the Father’s love for the world, revealed in unconditional self-giving.
The world we live in is not a fully human world, it is not humane. Too much greed, violence, oppression and exploitation, of people and the environment. We still need to learn what true humanity is.
While I was thinking about this sermon I watched ‘2020: The Story of Us’, a documentary film on ITV the other week, looking at some ITU units during the pandemic, especially at the Wittington Hospital, (at the bottom of Highgate Hill, named after Dick Wittington, who, with his cat, ‘turned again’ to London and became its mayor.) Doctors, nurses, volunteers, bus driver, Michael Richards talk about their experiences. It also focuses on Michael Rosen, whom I respect. He almost died from covid, catching it very early on before doctors quite knew how to treat is. He was in a coma for weeks, and in Intensive Care for 47 days. At the end of the film, he returns to the Wittington and talks to his ICU consultant, Hugh Montgomery. As they are sharing the fact that they have both lost sons in their late teens, Rosen 20 years ago, but his doctor at the end of the first lock down when his son went for a day’s snorkelling in Cornwall, but never came up – his body was found weeks later. Just then a nurse, who remembered, and cared for Michael Rosen walk by and said how happy she was to see him so much recovered. At this he broke down completely, because of the care, of the love, that this nurse and many other staff and volunteers gave him. He’s written a book about it, called ‘Many Different Kinds of Love, A story of Life, Death and the NHS.’
There’s a ‘miracle’ in this story, based on Professor Montgomery’s experience in ICU. Rosen was in a come not responding – he seemed trapped there. They tried a play list of his favourite tracks, but no response; then his wife, Emma, was allowed in and talked to him, telling him how many people were missing him, asking after him, loved him. That did it! Slowly, he came out of his coma!
I realised that, in these stories, so many people have given their time, and risked their own lives; often for little or no reward, to care for those with this often-deadly disease. This is the kind of self-giving that so many have given us. We should be thankful; we should also strive to be like them.