First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 5

William Loader

Lent 5: 18 March John 12:20-33

These verses belong to the final days of Jesus’ public ministry in John. Like most of John, they want to be read with ears alert for subtle allusions beyond the surface meaning of the text. This begins already in the opening verse where suddenly we have Greeks before us, who must be Gentiles. But the preceding verse, 19, has the Pharisees declare that ‘the world has gone after him!’ Indeed it has, but in a sense which goes far beyond what the Pharisees would have intended.

It is striking that Gentiles are assumed to have had almost no contact with Jesus so that when it comes, it has to be mediated by Philip and Andrew from Bethsaida, from the more Gentile oriented territory of Philip the tetrarch. This may reflect the historical Jewishness of Jesus and his mission. On the other hand the present text is looking to the day when the mission will open to Gentiles. There will be fruit among the Gentiles. This explains the imagery which follows in 12:24. First the seed must be sown in the earth. It must die. The allusion is clear: it will come as a result of Jesus’ death. That is the meaning of 12:24. But the first response of Jesus, verse 23, speaks of that death in a different way: the glorification of the Son of Man. For Jesus' death, seen as shame and defeat to the eyes of unbelief, is in reality, to the eyes of faith in John's community, the way to the Father's glory, as John 17 makes so clear. 12:16 had already spoken of Jesus’ glorification as marking a turning point, in understanding. Now it will be a turning point in mission, because the risen glorified Jesus will send the Spirit, equipping the disciples to go far beyond what Jesus on his own could do, and so achieve "greater things" (14:12)..

John pictures Jesus’ death as introducing an event which brings about major change. The rest of the passage offers us more images about it. Working backwards from 12:33 we are reminded again that Jesus is speaking about his death. 12:32 speaks of Jesus’ being lifted up from the earth, recalling the lifting up of the serpent which we met last week in 3:14. The world will see Jesus hoisted up onto a cross; the believer knows it is really Jesus’ exaltation to heaven. 12:32 also mentions the mission theme: as a result of this act people will be drawn to Jesus. Literally it sounds like they will see him as a drawcard, as crucifixions sometimes became. At a deeper meaning we know that Jesus’ exaltation and return to the Father would result in the sending of the spirit and of the disciples who would carry out mission in his name and bear his name to the Gentiles.

12:31 tells us that Jesus interpreted his death as the judgment of the world and the casting out of the prince of this world. Judgement day and the defeat of the old dragon were standard features of Jewish and early Christian expectation (still well reflected in Revelation). We saw last week how John says that for all intents and purposes judgement takes place in the way you respond to Jesus. Here he interprets Jesus’ death as judgement. Fortunately in 16:8-11 we have similar imagery used of the Spirit. The Spirit will establish the case that Jesus’ death was an exposure of human sinfulness, his return to the Father a proof of his vindication as righteous and the whole event as a disempowering of the prince of this world. The devil is disempowered when human sinfulness is exposed and Jesus shown to be right.

Sitting between these statements in 12:20-24 and 31-33 about the momentous changes which will come about through Jesus’ death we find John’s reworking of the Gethsemane tradition, now made into a public experience (not without some awkwardness as the somewhat contrived explanations in12:29-30 indicate). John is so determined to have Jesus march resolutely towards his fate, that all doubt and hesitation has disappeared from the Gethsemane prayer. Instead Jesus’ prayer reflects why he should not pray to be delivered. But the pain of facing the event is still there. Jesus is deeply troubled at the prospect (12:27). The preceding verses, 12:25-26, also indicate that Jesus is a model. It contains a typical Johannine twist: following Jesus now includes following him right through death to be where he now is, a hope held before the disciples in Jesus’ prayer (17:24).

Johannine brushstrokes paint Jesus’ death as the veritable climax of history, judgement day, victory day, and the beginning of universal mission and hope. As we stand back from the painting, we can note familiar and challenging contours. Life and fruitfulness through death, self giving. Not the sort of recipe which will excite a success driven society.

Pain is real, even for the triumphant, confident Jesus of John. Pain is sometimes the path of truth and its avoidance a denial. Not exactly the theme of a society which flees from pain.

The cross is a place of truth about love, about hate, about humanity about God. Not the kind of mirror we want to look into. ‘Were you there?’ Acknowledging that truth has something to do with disempowering the forces in us which destroy and with sensitising us to such destruction in society. Only then do we see that this horrific event is a moment of exaltation and divine glory. God always comes closely attached to the worst violence and greatest depravation, stuck to it as its obverse in compassion. When we see that, every such event becomes a revelation of sin and a window through which we perceive divine pain.

Epistle: Lent 5: 18 March  Hebrews 5:5-10

See also A Seed has Fallen: A Reflection on John 12:20-33

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