John 12.20-36 | Lent 5B Passion Sunday

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

Please turn in your Bible or device to John ch. 12. In its narrative context, our lesson is the final event that sets in motion the final week of Jesus’ ministry and life. Until the liturgical renewals of the 1950’s-60’s  this last Sunday of Lent had been identified most often as “Passion Sunday”. The first entry for “passion” in James Murray’s priceless contribution, the Oxford English Dictionary, reads “…chiefly a word of Christian theology”….”the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross”. Now you may be thinking “hold on, wait a minute. We’re a week out from those parts of our Christian liturgy”. And you’re right if we stop reading the OED there. Passion is a flexible word so farther down the column we read this entry “…any kind of feeling by which the mind is powerfully affected or moved; a vehement, commanding or overpowering emotion”. This meaning for  “passion” brings emotional depth to “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I pray for? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? (vs. 27a). Jesus is here voicing the sharper edge of obedience. A fitting end to Lent as I hope to show.

Closer reading reveals that the scene in our lesson is an expansion of the Pharisee’s exasperation “Look, this is getting us nowhere. The whole world is going after him” from ch. 12.19. Playing off their frustration, John records some Greeks want to meet with Jesus (12.20). We assume the men and women who make up the “Greeks” are not Jews, proselytes or God-fearers. So let me propose they might be what the Pew Trust survey could call religious but not spiritual – “first century Greco-Roman Nones” – persons on a package tour who have come to Jerusalem and its Temple for the Passover Festival.

These Gentiles want to fill in their tour with a “meet and greet”. Being a Gentile in Judea in the Second Temple Period mixed acceptance with suspicion.  We might suppose there was some uncertainty about approaching Jesus the Jew directly so they decide on an indirect approach. They talk with someone who speaks Greek, has a Greek name, Philip. Well they made their request to Philip but he turned and pulled his brother Andrew in. The two of them then go to Jesus and ask him, “Lord, do you have a minute? Some Greek religious tourists want to talk with you”. Close reading of the scene reveals that we don’t know if they get the “meet and greet”. 

But from the following narrative, we do know he responds to them in a way that cuts right through to the heart of what matters for Gentiles, Judeans and us. This Gospel is simple about simple truth but it is stubborn about subtle truth. What I mean by this: in the hands of such a skilled writer as John reading isn’t always like the “clear, crystal clear” exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. Even a casual reading of the Fourth Gospel involves us in “hmmm. I wonder what this means?” Part of John’s genius, then, is his openness but also his elusiveness, his playing with words.

Jesus turns to the Gentiles, the disciples and the gathered crowd and doubles down with his final public teaching. He wants to zero in on the implications/results of his crucifixion death and resurrection as the only, the singular way to experience the relationship of YHWH as Father. But he begins his final teaching with a proverb – planting seeds and the expected harvest. They and we know seeds “falling into the ground, that is, being planted; their dying, that is, decaying is all part of the process in producing a harvest.

Now they and we also know proverbs aren’t about planting and harvests at all. That’s why Jesus drills down into the soil of that imagery to draw out his kingdom thoughts on death and life (vs. 25-26), suffering and obedience (vs. 27-30), crucifixion and its results (vs. 31-36) with scattered discipleship invitations (vs. 26, 35-36).

Jesus uses the proverb to bury his audience’s fragile, vulnerable preoccupation with life/death in a decaying culture (vs. 25-26). Jesus is challenging the cultural way of thinking and defining life/death. And may I say, as an aside, each year close attention to our Lenten formation has us considering this very same challenge. Life and death are more than biological functions. Notice “Life eternal” stands in sharp contrast to life “in this world.”  Life “in this world” is provisional and contingent. They/we are always on the lookout for things that we want to believe will give us life. “Life eternal” is living in a new dimension of life–the really real, as opposed to the fake life advertised to be real “in this world.” The person who loves this life, seeking to retain it, really destroys it. Self-interest and self-preservation are ultimately self-defeating because of death. The harder one tries to live for self, the less of life one really has, until at the end – death- there is nothing left of it at all, and one has nothing to show for it. The Father’s path to life involves weaning us from the world – the love of things that pass away, sometimes by taking them away. His intention is for us to learn to rely on the One who raises the dead, to learn to cling to him for life because in him only is there life. In the Bible’s way of thinking about death for the believer. Death leads to life not death. Death is only a stopover. Here is proverbial Wisdom: In order to have/give life you must be prepared to lay down your life. The point of following Jesus, then, is that we might be drawn more deeply into the kingdom through our love for, service to, and sacrificial dying on behalf of those around us. In the Bible’s way of thinking, life is measured by what is in the heart, by servant actions of love and generosity that flow from the heart. Jesus invites not only the Greeks but everyone, who is Jesus curious to death, servanthood and discipleship “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me”.(vs. 26).

But vs. 27-30 block the pathway to life, discipleship and servanthood with the cross. It’s just ahead. And as a reminder, we’re also standing with Jesus in the doorway to Holy Week. The approach of Greeks confirms the timer is on. The Hour is ticking down!  In Jesus’ interpretation of the proverb, the noun “hour”, the verb “glorify”,  the Gospel’s other word for light, and the verb “lifted up” play key roles.  His death on the cross will glorify God. How so?  It will affirm the death of Jesus, the Word of God, reveals the self-giving love of the Father. From ch. 2 onward, John has used “hour” to describe Jesus’ commitment to the Father’s purposes. The Greeks approach draws the shadow of the cross over his commitment. Jesus must now travel the Calvary road and be “lifted up” – code for crucifixion. 

But for Jesus it’s more than nouns and verbs! At vs. 27-28 there is an abrupt change in mood. We’ve now come to the reason for calling this Passion Sunday. And may I say to you, it should be for us more than reading sentences in this Gospel or in the creeds. The gravity of the situation, the havoc, the convulsion of facing a raw, hideous crucifixion death is painfully pleaded “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I pray for? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?” (vs. 27a).  Revisiting “passion” from the OED “…chiefly a word of Christian theology”…any kind of feeling by which the mind is powerfully affected or moved; a vehement, commanding or overpowering emotion”. We can and should put such feeling to the burden of Jesus’ emotional tension in his commitment to obedience. Jesus’ crucifixion is the revelation of sin in its most hellacious form. He is standing in the winds of crucifixion’s furious hurricane. Obedience in this instance might feel not only insane but impossible. I believe John expects us to pause for a moment as Jesus shrinks back. But only for a moment because Jesus digs down deep. Forcefully, he replies “No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (vs. 27b-28).  Jesus’ crucifixion is the revelation of love in its most self-giving form. How else can we begin to understand obedience if not here?

Our emotions influence what we say and do. If you are fortunate enough to be over thirty, then I’m probably preaching to the choir.  You’re probably willing to acknowledge that emotions have been/are central to your life – providing joy, alerting you to threats, at times a force for change, at other times a warning, sometimes even helping you to call out to others for help. And as you well know from experience, most times you don’t choose what to feel, let alone when to feel. 

I suggest Jesus’ grief, sorrow, death and obedience have a lot to teach us.  Candidly, in my experiences with death, tears are companions for days, nights, weeks, even years after. It also seems to me in the shadow of death, faith can be strangely hidden. When I’m struggling under a cloud of hurt, loss and death, can I still say I have faith? Most of the time I have struggled to find that answer. But I do think Jesus is pointing at an answer. Firstly, Jesus relates to individuals and communities from obedience, dedication and service. Jesus viscerally experienced the terror of the cross. John’s portrayal of Jesus’ deeply moving dedication in vs. 27-28 shows us how much suffering and death actually affect him.  Pain will be real, even for the triumphant, confident Jesus of John. The cross is a place of passion, about sin, about judgement but also about divine love, about redemption. The tracks of our tears, our suffering are the paths along which Jesus now draws out life in us. Not the kind of mirror we might choose to stand before too often. But still worth the Lenten reflection. Secondly, Christian resurrection hope is physical. The Bible doesn’t say in death we’re leaving Kansas to go to some Oz out there where all is colorful and magical. The Bible actually says through the resurrection Oz is coming to Kansas. It’s not YHWH’s intention to replace Kansas but rather transform it into the best Kansas there could ever be. As St. Paul writes: resurrection’s end game is for all creation to be reconciled to YHWH with all things “gathered up” in Jesus (Eph. 1:10).  Thirdly, our experiences in suffering, sorrow are intended to create in us a vulnerable heart moving us to become more than spectators watching a procession. We, who are a Jesus community, are in his resurrection procession. By the Spirit we are made alive with compassion, vulnerability and hope for the grieving in the face of suffering, even death.  We are empowered to be as vulnerable as he was in comforting and serving those walking in the shadows of suffering and death. Concentrated into a single verb “lifted up” is the sweeping unity of salvation – crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.  “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” (vs. 32-33). Jesus interpreted “lifted up” as the Christus Victor release of divine reconciling love. Jesus’ death was the exposure of human sinfulness – his resurrection – proof of his vindication as righteous and the whole event as a disempowering of the prince of this world. 

Now John 12. 28b records YHWH’s voiceover statement supporting Jesus but the larger crowd didn’t make the connection (vs. 29). For some of the Judeans in the crowd, however, the penny does drop and the light does come on about Jesus’ messianic claims. “Hold on, they say,  We’ve always been taught that when Messiah showed up, he’d remain with us forever. So what’s all this talk about death and departures? Do you want to be the Messiah or don’t you? The Messiah’s not going to die. He’s going to become an important political personage, an influencer whose voice is needed at this crucial time”. (vs. 34).

 Clearly the cross was and remains to this very hour the obstacle to accepting Jesus as Israel’s messiah and a Gentile’s only savior. So concluding his teaching, Jesus exhorts the hearers to “walk in the Light” because it’s twilight. Light is fading. John, showing how little light is left writes  “When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them (vs. 36). The Fourth Gospel makes it clear the Light that penetrates people’s lives when Jesus speaks leaves nowhere for Gentile, Jew or us to hide.  The substance of light in biblical thinking is obedience worked out in holiness, morality and truth. So the sharp stab of light that shines into the world provokes a response – either you come to the light or shrink back into the darkness. Jesus asks us to let go of the darkness. Walk in the light. 

Now Beloved, why have the lectionary sages chosen this reading for the  last Sunday of Lent? Why does John record for us Jesus’ final words framed in an agricultural proverb? It’s because they/he want to plant into the listener’s heart seeds of Biblical truth. It’s time to realize that since the first century until this day, it’s darkness in a world that’s lost its way.  So how can we as individuals in a faith community live out “lighted, crucifixion/resurrection servanthood” in the midst of darkness? The Passion of Jesus in vs. 27-28 is a call out for our committed participation in suffering and resurrection. Listen in on the writer of the letter to the Hebrews “While he lived on earth, anticipating death, Jesus cried out in pain and wept in sorrow as he offered up priestly prayers to God. Because he honored God, God answered him. Though he was God’s Son, he learned trusting-obedience by what he suffered, just as we do” (5.7-9). Through our obedient commitment, Jesus will find ways through his deeply experienced passion to bring healing and hope to others in suffering, pain. Through us, – the holding of a hand, our prayers with/for someone lost in unbelief’s darkness, a visit with someone in the midst of painful frustration, in a hospital, in terminal illness, a meal brought to a family in need – in any of these/more than these ways Jesus is present through us in the lives of others. To live a “lighted” Christian life always involves serious commitment to obedience. The Lord’s resurrection light is not part of the world’s electrical grid. There will be no rolling blackouts but sometimes people will want to flip the switch off. Get this clearly in our mind. Our walking obediently in crucifixion/resurrection light is the only remedy for the world’s darkness. To live, we must die, to walk in the light, we must die. We must walk in the light because, like Jesus, we must be passionately committed to help someone find their way out of the darkness. This is why Passion Sunday is the doorway to Holy Week.

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