By the Rev. Darren Miner
Next Sunday is commonly called Palm Sunday, but it has another name: the Sunday of the Passion. Now, that word passion in modern English means desire, but it used to mean something quite different, namely, suffering. So in plain, ordinary English, next Sunday is the Sunday of the Suffering. It bears that title because the Gospel reading is the story of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Paradoxically, the first hymn of the Sunday of the Suffering is entitled “All glory, laud, and honor.” It is a song about Christ’s glory. Now, why sing a song about the glory of Christ on the day when you hear the story of his shameful torture and execution? Well, the answer to that question is given to us today in the reading from John’s Gospel.
Up till the events recounted today, Jesus had repeatedly downplayed the dangers he faced, defying death with equanimity. Again and again, he would say to this disciples, “My hour has not yet come,” meaning “My enemies cannot harm me, for the time appointed for my death has not yet arrived.” But in today’s Gospel story, Jesus says something quite different, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Now, that doesn’t sound too ominous, till you realize that the means of his glorification will be crucifixion on a wooden cross.
In today’s story, the arrival of some Greek-speaking foreigners signals to Jesus that his time on earth is short. Somehow he recognizes their visitation as a divine sign. Jesus attempts to prepare his disciples for what is going to happen, for what must happen. But he does it in an oblique and puzzling manner, almost speaking in code. He only hints at his coming death. And he avoids all direct reference to the cross, speaking only of glorification, of being lifted up or exalted. The disciples could not possibly have understood what Jesus was speaking about at that moment. I suspect that it was only later, after his death on the cross, that this puzzling language made any sense. But we know very well what he is talking about. We already know what is going to happen to Jesus. And it isn’t very pretty!
Jesus is going to die a horrible death. And he knows it. And yet, he speaks of his glorification, of his exaltation, as if his brutal death were something to be desired. Why? Well, here we enter into one of the deep mysteries of our faith. It is God’s will that the world be saved from the powers of sin and death, even if his Son must die in order to achieve the world’s salvation. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are told that Jesus made “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” If so, his prayers and supplications were made on our behalf, not his own. For John’s Gospel makes it clear that, even though his soul is troubled, Jesus refuses to ask for a reprieve. Instead, he says, “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” With these words, Jesus submits fully and unreservedly to the will of his heavenly Father, seeking only the greater glory of God.
Jesus’ act of submission is acknowledged from on high. God himself speaks in a thunderous voice: “I have glorified my Name, and I will glorify it again.” Yes, God’s holy Name has been glorified again and again in ages past, in the life and teaching of Jesus, in the many signs and miracles that Jesus performed. But the ultimate and crowning glory of God’s Name will be achieved in an act of unconditional obedience by his Son, an obedience even unto death. And it is because of this glorification of his Father that Jesus will himself be glorified by his Father. The paradox of the cross is that Jesus’ shameful public execution is also the means to his eternal glorification, that his being lifted up onto a cross is also the means of his exaltation to the heights of Heaven.
Today’s Gospel reading would prepare us for next week’s Gospel. It provides the theological context for that dread story of Jesus’ suffering. And in a way, it helps diminish the sting of the Passion Gospel. For we know a week in advance that the suffering of our Lord will result in his eternal glory, that all shall be well. But today’s Gospel reading is not all comfort and consolation. There is a heavy dose of demand as well. For Jesus tells his disciples, and us, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Well, think ahead to next week; Jesus will be on the cross. And we are called to follow him there, to abide with him there for a time. We are called to witness the cost of our salvation and to acknowledge the part that our sinfulness played in Jesus’ death. Yes, Jesus will eventually be glorified for his obedient submission to the will of his Father. Yes, Jesus will ultimately be exalted to the right hand of God on high. But first, he must suffer. And we have one week, just seven days, to prepare ourselves to follow Jesus to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, and to witness his suffering for the sake of our salvation. Just seven short days to make ready!
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.