Week of Sunday March 25 Lent 5
Gospel: John 12:20-33
15 ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!’
16His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 17So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. 18It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. 19The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Bethsaida, from the more Gentile oriented territory of Philip the tetrarch 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
Meeting the Jesus John met by writing my own gospel.
I open my New Testament to John 12 on a Monday morning, and am immediately lost in a strange, confusing world. I have to remind myself what this book is, and what it is not.
It is not biography. It is not the historical story of Jesus’ life. It is written for those who know the history of Jesus already. It is written for those who know the ending, and who have been captivated by the ending; who have seen and have found that crucifixion was not all shame, and not at all the end. It is written for those who have read and reread, and are praying and finding meaning for their lives in the story of Jesus.
I cannot look for the novel, or the news report, to which my reading eyes are attuned. This gospel is not to be scanned over breakfast, like the religion news in Huffington Post.
The gospel is also written with a conviction that life is more than what we see on the surface. However John would express it, mere narrative is not enough to see what is happening. Factual narrative is not enough. Philosophical language and precision cannot encompass the meaning of Jesus. We are being invited into a reality that exceeds what description can provide. We need to go below the surface into the mystery. John is drawing us to the mystery that blows like the wind (3:8) and comes and goes when it will.
The gospel is multi-layered. It uses the in-language of its community. It is a strange land for us 21st century folk who are so immersed in our prosaic, flat, materialist, almost un-imagined world of News Corporation.
John is not literature I would ever write. I write about riding for long distances; you meet God out there on the desert roads. I talk about climbing the high hills, and being pulled into the panorama at the top. Or of cold nights on tractors, out with the ticking, cooling diesel, and the fresh turned earth, or of the deep soulful eyes of a dog way out in the bluebush, as we rest in the midday shade of a Myall.
This would leave John discomforted. It is not his world, not his way of expressing the mystery, or opening himself to the wind of the Spirit. But he would know. He would understand. It is the same mystery, the same Life, the One God.
The excerpt from John which is this week’s lectionary reading should begin a verse or two earlier. There we see the Palm Sunday crowds, with a shallow, not-understanding enthusiasm, to be sure, but sensing something about Jesus is different. The Pharisees are beginning to understand, too. This man raises people from the dead: 18It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him... [and] 19the Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’
The irony of the beginning of our mysterious reading becomes clear. It is the whole world indeed, which is going after him. Even Greeks, even the non-Jews, want to see Jesus! They went to Phillip, who was from Bethsaida, gentile territory. Phillip was perhaps used to dealing with Gentiles, and more approachable. And Phillip, unsure of himself with this odd request went to Andrew and, finally, they went to see Jesus. If you want to see Jesus, you will get there in the end!
That’s in verse 22. To our eyes, it then seems Jesus ignores them, and the Greeks, and begins a long non sequitur, a mysterious discourse that takes up the rest of the reading. But if we understand the style of John, we will understand this is Jesus talking to the Greeks. He is providing the answer. This is how you see me, he is saying!
The message is not a Jewish message. It is given to the Greeks. We see the crowd is standing there, also listening, while he speaks to the Greeks (3:29). This message is for everyone. This is how all people may see Jesus!
He does not list off a set of things to believe. He outlines a way to live. And even this, is not a list of things to do. It is a way of being.
24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
These are words we have seen before. (Mark 8.35, Luke 9: 34, 17:333 Matt 10:39, 16:25) The image and the concept are not strange to Paul, either. (1 Cor 15:35ff)
If we make keeping the single grain of our life, we will lose it. As Luke has it in his 17th chapter: Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. (NRSV)
This is the great contradiction. It goes against all our evolutionary past. We are bred, we are evolved, to survive. When a wild scrub bull charged me years ago, I slammed my carbine to my shoulder and fired, without thinking, multiple times. It fell right at my feet. If I had not done this, I would likely be dead. You would never have heard of me. What foolishness is it that says losing one’s life is to gain it, that hating a life will gain it for eternal life?
Granted, love their life and hate their life have the sound of hyperbole... the overstatement that is designed to lead us into new depths and subtleties of understanding and experience, but how does carelessness of life lead us into eternal life? How does lying gored in remote desert, or even dead, lift me to a new plane of life, and a new understanding of life? (Eternal life does not just mean life after death.)
Let us go on, although it will not seem to help, at first.
27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28Father, glorify your name.’
John very clearly has Jesus saying that the crucifixion is planned; it is part of God’s method of giving us life. Remember what he has just said? 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. This is cold comfort! Part of the plan is that Jesus is to be crucified, and us with him!?
Yes, you heard right!
Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’
Remember we are speaking just before His death. Remember we are in Lent, approaching Good Friday. In this event, says John, Now...
31 is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
We do not like this. We, and with good wisdom, see that God sending someone to death, especially his only Son, is an un-Godly act. It is barbaric, unworthy.
But we are reading with two things against us. We are reading with the memory of St Anselm’s Christology, where God’s honour needed to be satisfied. Whatever traction that Christology have for making sense of the life of Christ in Anselm’s time, it does not work for us. And it is not here in John. John is talking about the driving out of the ruler of the world, not saving face for God.
And for John, the image of pre-planned, pre-meditated death worked. It was a way into the mystery. With hindsight, it was for him an image upon which to meditate, which made sense of the senseless; the death of Jesus. It helped make sense of the reality that despite Jesus' death, there was an experience of triumph, and that somewhere, in John’s experience, Jesus was ‘still there,’ and John was a free man, a freed man, despite the death of Jesus; in fact, because of the death of Jesus.
Perhaps it is best not to seek to understand John. Perhaps it is best to accept that in struggling with this image of purposeful death he experienced a gaining of eternal life, life on a new plane, life with a whole new perspective.
Such an acceptance would mean that our work is not to listen to a sermon and get the answer about John 12; a neat exegesis wrapped up in 20 minutes, or so. Perhaps our work is to go away and play with the puzzle. To turn it like Rubik’s cube, looking for combinations, trying new patterns. Like an artefact which we found when we went through the Stargate, we play with it, test it, try it out. Does this thing, this almost alien image of John's, resonate with any of our experience?
In this playing we might stop asking what does it mean to hate life, and ask, what is life? Why do we seek so hard to save it?
What does it profit us to save our life, when we still die, anyway? What is the purpose of a life, when we will always die, no matter what? Why would we even bother, when fate, chance, and blind probability, will undermine all our planning with cancer, or a sick child, or a car crash? What is the point of even beginning on life, when we are born with a psychiatric illness, or with muscular dystrophy?
Perhaps I will think that, at least if I am better off than you are, and fed, and comfortable, I might be able to put up with the stress of constantly wondering when the day will come. But what does this seeking to save my life do? Are not the wars, and the greed, and the one percent, all manifestation of the desire to secure our lives, and to forestall death, and at least to anaesthetise ourselves in the mean time with a pretence of eternity or good fun, where we can forget the sword which hangs over us?
I wonder if this unremitting pain of existence, so close to the madness of the unbearable, is the thing from which John found freedom.
When my brain chemistry went haywire nearly 20 years ago, the questions I have been asking became paramount. They were unanswerable. Their logic was irrefutable. The notion that one might HTFU, and pull one’s self together was ridiculous. We are all going to die. Some notion that this is not as bad as it seems is a sublime denial of reality.
There are only two options.
One is to become my dog. I cease to be human. I cease to think. I stop being able to reflect self consciously. I live only for food. I cannot do this; I am human. If I am not to descend into irretrievable insanity, I must live self-consciously.
The other option is to take my fragile self, with its precarious chemistry, and seek a reason to live despite the fact that I will die. I have to look at the serpent held up on the pole in the wilderness; (John 3:14) at the thing I most fear. I have to stop trying to save myself, and look at my death. I can only really look death in the face when I refuse the easy answers and idols such as get a good job and a nice house.
Jesus is lifted up, too. And what we see when he is lifted up, is not resurrection. What we see is death. When we look at him on the cross, we are not looking at life after death. We are looking at death. Looking at death saves us!
I do not have the space, or the words, or the time to write a treatise on this. For a good beginning, one might read Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death, which begins here and goes on for 25 chapters so far.
But here is what has happened in my life; serendipity, the blowing of the wind...
Swimming the Mary Ellen Dam, with the muddy water and who knows what underneath, even though it terrifies me. Swimming off the beach everyday at Brighton and Whyalla, despite the shark threat; walking past Kitty Macully’s memorial each time. Riding the 24 hours, despite the risks of being taken out by semi, or even a malicious car driver. Facing the threat of the dark and walking all night under heavy cloud, through the wild scrub cattle and the quick-mud. All these little abandonments of safety, risk assessed to be sure, slowly begin to stare back at death: I will not be cowed into being safe and proper.
And slowly, I who as a little child was traumatised by hospitals, which unfailingly make me feel ill when I visit, am able to visit the sick and the dying. Inept, shy me, not knowing what to say, terrified of silence, begins to learn to sit with those who need no words, just company.
Slowly I am able to be with those who are different; who leave me terrified out of my depth, and for whom I have no answers and, as far as I can see, for whom I can do no good. Slowly I can talk with those who rage, with those who are sunk in depression. All the things I feared because they threatened my safety, and my grip on the world, are slowly losing their power over me.
I am only opened to the wind which heals by this putting myself in harm’s way. I have to “hate” my life. Somewhere in there, the fear of death is fading a little. There are wise words in one of Richard Beck’s latest chapters.
For Augustine faith isn't really faith until it has wrestled with the fear of death across the lifespan. That is, a lack of concern about death isn't a sign of faith. Rather, faith is manifested in the daily wrestling with death. This is what perfects faith over time in the saints. Augustine writes, "[T]he faithful overcoming the fear of death is a part of the struggle of faith itself." More, the fear of death is simply an acknowledgement of the gift and goodness of life itself. To be indifferent to your life is to spurn the gift of God. Timor mortis, wanting to preserve your own life, is, at root, an act of gratitude.
What this means, then, is that timor mortis is a fact of life and a regular feature of the Christian experience. The fear of death is always with us, moment by moment and day by day. A lack of timor mortis [fear of death] would signal an indifference that could be, by turns, pathological, triumphalistic, or a spurning of the gift of life. Thus, a victory over the fear of death is not experienced as fearlessness, the complete absence of timor morits. Rather, the victory over the fear of death is witnessed in daily perseverance.
I am finding, I think, that valuing life in the face of death, is giving me my life back. I am somehow profoundly freed from the logic of unavoidable death and pointlessness I witnessed above, and which drags so many of us down.
What have I written today? My own version of John; obscure and convoluted, and difficult to understand for the non biking, non swimming person! This is our task however, as Christians. John’s gospel is not a template, a cookie cutter for our life. It is a puzzle to work through, and struggle over, and be threatened by, as we seek our own recipe for life.
Somewhere I was given a sense deep mysterry, and an appetite for that mystery. It freed me from other folks’ prescriptions of what it means to be faithful. It was the greatest gift, for I have begun to find my life.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!