(Year B, Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018; Gospel Reading form John 12:20-33 [34-36])
“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip…and asked him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ …Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’” – John 12:20-24 (ESV)
There are many occasions where I fool myself into feeling superior to the likes of Peter, James, and John when they are jockeying for position, supposing myself to be among those who really get “it” about what Jesus is bringing and somehow think that I would do better. As misguided and outright wrong as that attitude is – just as misguided and wrong as their jockeying for position – it is nevertheless an honest view of the characters portrayed in the Scripture. I must continually remind myself that the only reason I’m somehow better able to appreciate the teachings of Jesus is because I have the benefit of the past twenty centuries worth of theological discourse and Christian teachings. Put me in the identical shoes of any of the Apostles in the Gospel writings, and I’m probably going to be in the same boat of (mis)understanding as they are.
And it is readings like this that most point that out to me. Because I remember first reading this account before I had the benefit of a study bible, or read any commentaries, or was exposed to the teachings of the Fathers, and thinking that Jesus’ response was seemingly disjointed, and – dare I say it – melodramatic. Why should Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus cause him to go into a lengthy discourse about grains of wheat and glorification, and receiving eternal life by hating your earthly life? As a young Christian I wasn’t exactly troubled, but I was puzzled. The text does say that he said these things to show what kind of death he would experience, but I still failed to see why Greeks had anything to do with it.
One of the constant mysteries that underlies all the Gospel accounts is in regard to the identity of Jesus. Is he a Prophet, a madman, or God Incarnate? John’s gospel was written after the three synoptics, and is written, as I’ve stated in another reflection, to highlight the “whys” more than the “hows” and “whats” – which the synoptics cover more than adequately. The mystery in John’s gospel account is deepened considerably in that John explicitly states that Jesus, being the Word, was with God and was God (John 1:1), and yet portrays him as possessing what appear to be certain limitations to his power. This passage appears to me to be one example – it seems as if Jesus takes the interest of the Greeks to be a sign not only that his crucifixion is near, but also that it is time to let the disciples in on what is about to happen.
Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians that “…[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8, ESV) Part of the “emptying” of himself, and taking on the form of a servant, must have meant losing the divine omniscience that He would have in His glorified state. But even though he had to rely on the sign of the appearance of the Greeks, he was able to discern what they meant, just as he was able to read the hearts of those whom he encountered during his ministry.
When this is brought to mind, the seemingly out of the blue remarks by Our Lord come into focus – the appearance of the Greeks marked for Jesus a turning point in his ministry. He had done many things in the fulfillment of prophecy to the Jews, but the interest of the world outside the Hebrew people marked that the call to the Gentiles to come and believe in the Lord Jesus was imminent. Before it could happen though, the Christ must be captured, mistreated and tortured, killed shamefully, and then rise in the fullness of the Glory of God. He was telling Phillip and Andrew that before he could be proclaimed to the world (by preaching to the Greeks) he must first put off his mortal body and put on His Resurrection Body.
All Christians have some ministry that they do – it is a consequence of the Faith, no one can truly call themselves a Christian and be content to sit on the sidelines, or doze in the pews. As James says, “so also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17, ESV) Not all ministries are publicly acclaimed; many lay Christians engage in the ministry of intercessory prayer, which is done in closets and by beds and only occasionally on street corners. Since we all have ministries, we either will encounter or have encountered turning points where something happens that signifies some coming change and makes us ready for the next faithful action. These changes can be anxiety inducing, and we either rise to the challenge or shy away, vainly hoping to maintain the status quo.
This week, I ask you to reflect on your personal ministries, whether they are large or small, and ask God for insight into their shifting needs, how they need to grow to work in harmony with His will. Also ask for clarity and understanding when reading the Word of God, so that you aren’t like me, and unwittingly committing the sin of Pride by thinking the Lord disjointed and ineloquent.
Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.