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Getting Closer

grainofwheatJohn 12: 20-26
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Introduction to the reading

Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover along with crowds from all over the known world.  This passage, which tells of the approach of the Greeks is important for three reasons.

  • First, it signals the close of John’s account of Jesus’ ministry.  From this point on, Jesus will offer no more signs, no more teaching, to the public, only to the disciples.
  • Second, coming after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which we mark next week on Palm Sunday, it serves as a bridge to the passion narrative.  In the verses after this reading, Jesus speaks publicly about his impending death to those Greeks and to all who could hear.
  • Third, the Greeks – real Greeks, not Jews who could speak Greek.  

Perhaps they were in Jerusalem for the Passover as proselytes, moving toward becoming converts to the monotheistic religion of the Jews.  The appearance of the non-Jews who seek him is a sign to Jesus that the hour of his death is getting closer.  For Jesus knows that his coming crucifixion and resurrection will fully open the door of God’s grace and mercy to the whole world forever.  The Greeks symbolize that whole non-Jewish world.

The first lines of our Scripture passage for today were:  Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  They came to Philip …and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Who were these Greek seekers?  Most likely Greek proselytes on their way to becoming converts to Judaism.

It was certainly an interesting time for them to be there, an historical moment.  Because there was something different about the celebration this year, all the talk about this man named Jesus.  Did they witness his coming into the city with great fanfare?  What did they hear?  That he was causing trouble; that he challenged the religious leaders; that he healed the sick and drove out demons?  Something was going to happen.  Everybody knew that…

So these Greeks wanted a closer look.  They wanted eyes on the man himself.  “We wish to see Jesus.”

But it wasn’t simply that.  I think they also wanted to see him with their hearts.  They wanted to get beyond the image, the hype, to know Jesus.  After all, they were already drawn into this religion of one God, a religion that ran counter to their Greco-Roman multiple-god system.  So something of a holy spirit was already at work within them.  I think they probably wanted something more than to just have a look.  They wanted to get closer.

When their request eventually made it to Jesus, however, he didn’t respond casually with “Sure, bring them over,” but with some mysterious theology, so very Gospel of John - like:

  • “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…”
  • “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
  • “Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
  • “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me the Father will honor.”
  • And in the next verses, past our reading, with the crowd standing around to hear: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

We don’t know whether the Greeks ever got to see Jesus or what they would have thought about him if they had, especially after hearing this esoteric speechifying.  But the point made earlier applies.  Like so much in the Bible, the Greeks here are symbolic; they represent the whole non-Jewish world.  So, they represent us, and what Jesus says in front of them - to them - Jesus says to us, for our benefit.  (I have to say, it’s often a lot easier to understand Jesus in the other Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.)

Any one of these pronouncements could produce a long sermon, could produce – and have – loads of interpretation.  But I’d like to look at what he said in Verse 25 because I had a little trouble with it.  “Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Those who love their life will lose it.  Well, I do love my life.  I love my family and my home; I love this congregation and the calling to be your pastor that I have been living out for nearly fifteen years.  I give thanks to God every single day.  I know I will lose it eventually; the end of human life comes to us all.  But I trust in believing, as I have said before, that we are spiritual beings in physical bodies and in the end, the spiritual being will continue into eternal life.

Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  So, does that mean that if a person hates the way things are now, for whatever reason – suffering, oppression, abuse, depression, and the like – that’s the way it’s going to be in the spiritual, eternal life?  That doesn’t seem right; it is in the eternal life that we hope to find freedom from suffering, justice, peace and joy, especially if that has not been the experience in our lifetime.

I am not alone in having troubles with this idea.  Theologians who have studied scripture more deeply continue to struggle with it.  The best interpretation seems run something like this:

  • Those who love their life are the ones who gravitate to the attractions of the world – wealth and riches, power and influence, fame and fortune.  But such material gain and achievements will come to naught in the end.  As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you.
  • Those who hate their life in this world are the ones who reject such materialism and recognition.  A sticking point is what is meant by “the world”.  Here “the world” is not synonymous with God’s perfect creation but rather the world as estranged from God and organized in opposition to God’s purposes, in other words, the world of sin.  The eternal life to be kept is the promised eternal life of freedom from suffering, justice, peace and joy. We can catch only glimpses of that eternal life while we exist here.

There was an editorial in last Wednesday’s Star-Ledger (March 14, p. 14) that seems to illustrate this situation, under the headline “Evangelical leaders show their hypocrisy.”
Our country’s most prominent evangelicals – those arbiters of godliness who tell us to love, how to pray and how to live – continue to show robust support for a serial adulterer who has… shall we say, a tenuous grasp of virtuous behavior.

[The article goes on to castigate these evangelical leaders, by name, for excusing the president’s amoral behavior, racism, support for neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and pedophile Roy Jones in Alabama, concluding that listing with the simple statement: “And Jesus wept.”]

Michael Gerson of The Atlantic, an evangelical conservative, believes the term “evangelical” has been defiled, and that party identity has obliterated moral conviction.

“This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption,” he wrote.  “Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they have dedicated their lives.”

This is not to condemn all evangelicals, notably those who believe moral values must instruct the positions we embrace, such as economic justice or human rights.  Some are horrified by their preachers’ capitulation…

Interesting, isn’t it, that a daily newspaper bravely speaks out publicly to remind us of how Jesus would react and respond to current events.

The evangelical leaders in the editorial do not speak for all evangelicals and certainly not for all Christians.  They do not speak for me.  And I worry sometimes, and am angry, that non-Christians think that all
Christianity is this strident political evangelicalism, so far from what Jesus taught.

But, you know, as Christians, we are all evangelicals, called to boldly live the good news of the gospel and not be silent about it, in every aspect of our living, public, personal, private.  We strive to get closer and closer to Jesus and to his Way, publically, personally, and privately.

And that good news is this, which we know so well:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that
everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world
but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Amen and amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
March 18, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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