John 12:20-33 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[a] to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
“The world behind me, the cross before me, no turning back, no turning back.” These words from the old gospel song “I have decided to follow Jesus,” make clear the situation of the moment. Having come to Jerusalem, there was no turning back for Jesus. The moment had come for his glorification. I’m not sure why the request from the “Greeks” triggers this response from Jesus. I’m not sure why these Greeks (Gentiles?), who seemed to know Philip, wanted to see Jesus. But the request offers Jesus the opportunity to reveal the path that lay ahead. He was going to face down “the World” (kosmos), which Charles Campbell helpfully identifies as “The System.” The moment when Jesus would face down the ruler of this world, and as a result that ruler will be sent packing. But, how will this happen? What is the mechanism?
It might be helpful to set the scene. As for us, the readers of this text, it’s likely that we’re drawn to it because it is the lectionary reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It is the reason why I’m writing this reflection, though I am preaching on the passage as well. While Palm Sunday remains a little farther off in the distance, and with it the Triumphal Entry (John 12:12-19), with this reading Jesus is already in Jerusalem. The countdown has begun. The hour has come. There is no turning back – the cross lays ahead of him. The triumphal entry, which we will have to celebrate a week from Sunday, will be shown to be a misreading of Jesus’ vision of kingdom making. As for us, the readers of this passage, a choice is being placed before us. Will we turn back? Or will we keep following Jesus – wherever that leads?
The presence of the Greeks does provide a helpful frame to the text, as at the end of the reading we’re told that even as Jesus is lifted up (on the cross), Jesus will draw all people to himself. Perhaps this is John’s hint that Jesus’ mission includes not only the Jewish people and nation but all people. His is a universalist message. As always when we read John, we need to make sure that we don’t read supersessionism into the passage. That the realm of God includes Gentiles doesn’t entail a rejection of the Jewish people. Jesus’ quarrel isn’t with his own people, but the religious/political elite that have bought into the System and are now tools of it.
It is interesting that Jesus recognizes that the hour has come, but he’s not sure he’s ready. While John’s Jesus seems rather serene on the cross, taking care of his mother, asking for something to drink, and then declaring “it is finished” before giving his spirit, here his “soul is troubled.” There’s a sense here of uncertainty. Yes, even in John the humanity of Jesus is present. He recognizes that there’s no turning back, though he’s open to an alternative (at least for a moment). Nonetheless, he knows that the die is cast. There is no other way. Yes, the hour has come. He finds himself once again in Jerusalem and he’s not going to go back home this time. The good news is that out of death comes life.
As Jesus speaks of his own future, he invites his disciples and us to consider own destiny. If we’re to be his followers, then a similar fate awaits. The good news is – if you serve him, God will honor you. Even as Jesus is to be glorified in this journey, so might we be glorified. The question is – what does this entail?
I appreciate the word given by Lee Butler. He speaks to the drive that is within us (individuals, groups, corporations, and nations). It is a lust, he says, “for control, recognition, and glory.” There is within these entities a self-serving desire to gain power, even at the expense of others. That pathway seems prudent, at the very least. If you want to receive glory and honor, you will have to cease it. No one is going to give it to you. As we have seen of late, politics is no longer the art of the possible, but the mechanics of control. No one wants to give an inch, lest the other side see this as weakness. Butler writes:
Today’s text reminds us that true glorification takes place only when we turn away from lust (self-centered grabs for power at the expense of others) and follow the example of Jesus in love giving ourselves for the good of all in the community” (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, p. 170).
This is not the way of the world (System)? It doesn’t even seem logical. Yet there it is.
In reflecting on this exchange, I thought about the scene in the original Star Wars movie, where Obi Wan Kenobi is in a duel with Darth Vader. It is a duel of equals (and old friends), when all of a sudden, Obi Wan turns off his light saber and when Darth Vader’s light saber cuts through, apparently killing Obi Wan, Obi Wan is no longer there. He has been lifted up and transformed. He is now more than he was before. Death becomes life. I’m not sure what to make of the scene, especially since Obi Wan will guide Luke I his efforts to destroy the Death Star. Nonetheless, that particular scene does point us away from the usual path to power and success. Glorification comes in a different form than the world has suggested. That doesn’t mean that we should be door mats or make ourselves martyrs. But it does seem to put things in perspective.
The hour has come. There is no turning back. Jesus, in John’s vision, has come into the world for just this moment. It is not that God has sent Jesus as a sacrificial victim, who is destined to serve as a substitute for punishment for human sin. There’s nothing of that here in John 12. But Jesus has come into the world to participate in a cosmic battle. He has come into the world to stand up to “The System.” He has come to face down the “ruler of this world,” but he chooses to do so through the vehicle of the cross. Jesus refuses to fight the battle on the terms dictated by the Ruler of this World (kosmos). Being that this is the fiftieth anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery, a march in which the evils of racism and segregation were clearly exposed to the world. It was the choice of nonviolence that enabled this to occur. The System seeks to bring order through violence. Jesus chooses to act through purposeful nonviolence, overturning the System. As we know, the conflict continues. The march goes on. But we also know that in the end the Ruler of the System will not prevail.
As we near the end of the Lenten journey, with the Triumphal Entry still ahead of us, may we reflect on Jesus’ vision, seeking to understand what this means for us. The Greeks came to him, and he is lifted up so as to draw all people to himself. Now is the time. The hour has come. “The World behind me, the cross before me, no turning back, no turning back.”