By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today’s Gospel reading, like those of the last two weeks, is from the Gospel according to John. Now, John is undoubtedly the most mystical of the four Gospels. But it also is the most mystifying! It paints a picture of stark, black-and-white contrasts: good vs. evil, light vs. darkness, love vs. hate, eternal life vs. life in this world. And students of the Bible have long noted that the language of John’s Gospel is unusual. Some scholars have concluded that this Gospel is written in a kind of code, where everyday words take on new and deeper meanings. This insight helps with today’s difficult Gospel reading. At least, I hope so! Because of the many difficulties in today’s reading, I am going to focus my remarks on the first seven verses, which tell of Jesus’ reaction to a visit by some Greeks.
The story starts off with some Greek-speaking foreigners approaching Philip in order to get an appointment to see Jesus. Perhaps they chose Philip because he had a Greek name. After going through the customary social chain of command, Jesus finally gets the message that some Greek-speaking foreigners are waiting to see him. His response is unexpected. He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
Now, since we haven’t been reading the Gospel of John in course, you may not be aware that, up to this point in the Gospel, Jesus has repeatedly told his disciples that his hour had not yet come. So, why does Jesus now say that the hour of his glorification has come? And what does he mean by “glorification”?
Well, previously, Jesus’ ministry had been centered on the Jews (with one side-trip to their religious cousins, the Samaritans). But now, for the first time, people from a foreign land have begun to seek Jesus out. Jesus perceives that this is a divine sign that his earthly ministry is about to be completed and that, after his glorification, salvation will be extended beyond the borders of Judea, to people like these foreign pilgrims. Only after he is “lifted up” from the earth will he be able to draw all people to himself.
Now, in John’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks of his “glorification” or of his being “lifted up,” he is using that coded language that I was speaking of earlier. Both of these terms are code for “crucifixion.” For according John, it is through the very humiliation of Jesus’ crucifixion, where he is quite literally “lifted up” on the cross, that Jesus is to receive glory from God for his obedience. And this paradox of glorification through humiliation goes to the very heart of John’s Gospel.
Theologians have long pondered why Jesus had to die on the cross in order for the world to be saved. The Gospel of John gives a “sort of answer” to this question. The answer is that Jesus must die on the cross, so that salvation may be extended beyond the borders of Judea to all the nations of the world. This is made clear a couple of chapters later in John’s Gospel, where Jesus explains that the Spirit cannot come unless he departs. And it is through the Spirit that Jesus will bring salvation to the rest of the world. Crudely put, it is like a relay race, where Jesus hands over the baton to the Holy Spirit, who will finish the race. Now, I will grant you that this answer leads straight to another question, namely, Why couldn’t the Holy Spirit come into the world without Jesus’ dying on the cross? Well, I don’t know! And John’s Gospel certainly doesn’t tell us.
Now, back to the story! After declaring that his hour has now come, Jesus offers his disciples a proverb, along with an explanation. He says (and this is my literal translation): “Amen, Amen, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it abides alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. The one who loves his life loses it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Now, this is undoubtedly a difficult saying. On the face of it, it seems to call us to hate our lives and to seek our own deaths. But here again, we need to decode John’s language to get Jesus’ real message.
First, we need to know that in John’s Gospel, the word translated as “world” is code for “earthly existence in opposition to God.” It refers to “life lived in alienation.” (So, in John 3:16, when Jesus tell us that “God loved the world,” it means that God has extended his love even to those who are alienated from him and who stand in opposition to his will.) Second, we need to deal with the meaning of the word “hate” in this context. Here, it is helpful to recall that Jesus was speaking Aramaic. And in Aramaic and Hebrew, the word that is usually translated “hate” sometimes means “to assign lesser rank, or to put in second place.” For example, when the Bible says that God loved Jacob, but hated Esau, it simply means that God ranked Jacob first and Esau second. Finally, the Greek word translated here as “life” can also mean “soul” or “person” or even “self.”
So, let me try to put this all together and offer up a paraphrase of Jesus’ teaching: “The one who puts his own life and person first will lose himself, but the one who subordinates his life in this alienated world to God will have eternal life.” Jesus is not asking us literally to hate our lives or to seek our own deaths. Instead, he is calling us to get our priorities straight. We are called to put God’s will first and our life in this alienated world second, a theme we find repeated throughout Lent.
We are being asked to order our daily lives in such a way that our own self-centered wants and desires come second to the will of God. Such a radical reordering of our lives entails making hard decisions and painful sacrifices. Each time we put God first, we can expect some element of discomfort, or even suffering, but there is a reward for putting God first in our lives. And that reward is eternal life. If we are willing to subordinate our selves and our lives to God, then we will know eternal life, here and now. On the other hand, if we persist in putting ourselves first, we will abide alone, alienated from God, like the unplanted grain of wheat in Jesus’ proverb.
In this time of Lent, the Church calls us to examine our lives in preparation of the joyous celebration of the Resurrection at Easter. I would like to assign you an extra-credit homework assignment to help you prepare. Over the next two weeks, set aside five minutes at the end of each day, and take stock of what you did and said and felt throughout the day. Then ask yourself, “When did I put God first, and when did I put myself first?” Finally, ask the Holy Spirit to help you reprioritize your life, so that by putting God first you may enjoy the blessing of eternal life promised to Jesus’ faithful servants. Who knows?—the single grain of this little spiritual practice just might bear much fruit!
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.