John 12:20-36 – Interpreting the Death of Jesus
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 24, 2007
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. We are glad that the crew returned last night from their week in Gulfport, Miss. I have two very tired daughters this morning, and I want to give credit to the Baptist Men of N.C. for their ambitious and well-organized construction effort in the gulf. We sometimes forget that one of the ways we love and serve God is through good planning and organization! I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of local Baptist ministers on Thursday. We discussed the uniqueness of religion in the South. I told them that I never knew I had an ethnic group until I moved to Pennsylvania and found pinto beans in the ethnic food aisle of the grocery store. Let me take a moment to invite you to our annual July 4th service here at Home Church. We’ll gather in front of Main Hall on Salem Square at 8:30 for a service of song and prayer that includes a reading of the Declaration of Independence. I think it important that all people of faith take a moment to ponder the founding ideals of our nation, especially our commitment to liberty and justice for all.
Philip and Andrew: We ended the lesson last week with mention of some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus during Passover. They went to Philip who told Andrew, and the two of them told Jesus about the Greeks. It is an odd little scene that is not fully developed in John’s Gospel. We aren’t told, for instance, why it took two disciples to tell Jesus someone wanted to see him. We aren’t even told if the Greeks were allowed to see Jesus. Now, if this were in a movie, it might look like people trying to get into to see an important tycoon or celebrity. They have to go through Jesus’ “people” to speak to the man himself. In truth, the Greeks probably went to Philip because he spoke Greek. They may have even known him, but we don’t know for sure. You no doubt remember that we first met Philip and Andrew in ch. 1 when they answered the call to “come and see” Jesus. It is possible that the evangelist made a point of identifying these two disciples here to draw a parallel between the request of the Greeks who wanted to “see” Jesus and the calling of the Jewish disciples of Jesus. In other words, it is probable that this little story was originally about some Gentiles seeking to become disciples of Jesus.
The Hour has Come In the final form of John’s Gospel, the request of the Greeks to see Jesus served as the catalyst for a series of statements interpreting Jesus’ death. Jesus declares that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This is such a non-sequitor that many scholars suspect that something was lost in transmission of the text, but by now we should have become accustomed to John’s unusual writing style. The non-sequitor was intentional, I think. It was the appearance of Gentiles coming to Jesus that indicated the time had arrived for his glorification, and the teachings that follow show that the glorification will be on the cross rather than a throne. The hour had come.
So far in our reading, there have been several statements that Jesus’ hour had not yet come (2:4, 7:30, 8:20). The transition to the second half of the Gospel comes in this bold statement that “the hour” has arrived. “Hour” here obviously does not mean an hour on the clock. This “hour” marks a decisive turning point in history. It is a period when time appears to slow down, when the minutes become momentous. In short, the crisis point has been reached, and a decision is needed. As I read, imagine the confusion of those in the crowd who assumed that the hour of glorification meant that the Messiah would seize the throne.
Read: John 12:23-32
Grain of Wheat: As you probably know by now, John’s Gospel is quite different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The similarities between the three “Synoptic” Gospels are primarily because both Matthew and Luke both copied Mark’s gospel and took material from another unknown gospel that scholars have named “Q”. This means that whenever we see parallel statements in John’s Gospel and Mark’s Gospel, we can be confident that we are dealing with well-established parts of the oral tradition about Jesus. There are some very interesting parallels between Jesus’ statement here in John 12 and various places in the Synoptic Gospels.
There is no direct parallel in the other gospels about a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying in order to produce fruit, but there are some similar parables. For instance, there is a parable about the grain of mustard seed that produces a tree. There is also the famous parable of the sower whose seeds produce much fruit in fertile. This parable in John is consistent with Jesus’ other parables in that it uses seeds to teach about the future. Here, Jesus reminds his audience that the purpose of a seed is to become something different than a seed. It can exist as a seed for years, centuries even, if it is kept dry. Archaeologist study ancient seeds that never germinated. In Jesus’ parable, such seeds did not fulfill the purpose of being a seed. Jesus’ audience knew that a seed contains all of the genetic material that it needs to become a fruit-producing plant, but the only way it can fulfill its true destiny is to be planted in the earth and disappear. The seed will be transformed in death.
By quoting this parable, the evangelist makes it clear that Jesus was not a victim of Roman oppression; neither was he a naïve reformer who got swept up in political events. John depicts Jesus as a man who knew his destiny and the cost he would pay to fulfill it. He was not simply a seed whose death produced the fruit of the church; Jesus was a seed that willingly and consciously laid down his life. He was a willing participant in the transformation of the world. His death was fruitful rather than tragic, just like that of a seed.
Losing Life in Order to Live: This leads right into a paradoxical teaching about self-sacrifice that is found in all four gospels. In fact, it appears five times in the gospel since it is Luke twice. John’s Gospel states: “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it.” There are enough variations in the words used in Greek in the different versions of this saying to indicate that this was part of the oral tradition (Brown, 473-474 – very complicated) rather than being copied from Mark. In other words, John did not misquote Mark; he simply knew a variation of Jesus’ teaching.
It makes sense to me that Jesus said something like this several times during his ministry and in teaching his disciples. This was not just a statement about his impending death; this is a general truth. It is clear that Jesus could have chosen to save his own life in any number of ways. He could have simply not gone to Jerusalem, or not preached against the Temple and the priests, or gone back to Galilee and built houses like his father. Presumably he could have used his power and eloquence in the service of Rome rather than challenging the oppression of Rome. Like John Hus or Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus knew he was taking the path of martyrdom. He could have saved his own life, but in doing so, he would have lost something greater – his soul. In other words, this general teaching of Jesus helped explain to others why he was doing what he was doing.
Hating One’s Life John’s version of this saying sets up a contrast in stark terms: love and hate. We have other sayings of Jesus that also contrast love and hate in a way that make us uncomfortable today, such as his statement in Luke about hating one’s father and mother. Such statements are designed to stop in your tracks and make you think. Jesus is not talking about hate here in terms of wanting to harm someone, including yourself. I sometimes hear angry and depressed people say, “I hate my life.” That is not what Jesus is advocating. What they mean when they say “I hate my life” that they hate the situation they are in. They hate what they have done to themselves and others. They hate what they have suffered. They feel trapped and see no exit. Sometimes they hate their lives so much they harm their minds and bodies through self-abuse, alcohol, drugs, or even attempted suicide. That is not what Jesus is talking about.
An intense focus on your own misery or feelings of hopelessness or extreme efforts to control your eating, sleep, or other desires is the opposite of hating your life in Jesus’ teaching. Such things are pathological forms of self-indulgence and self-absorption. I think some people in the early church misunderstood Jesus’ teaching when they adopted ascetic practices that focused on slowly killing the body and mind, such as extreme fasting. There are twisted forms of self-centeredness that we need to avoid. Self-hatred and self-abuse is unhealthy and may require professional help. If any of our listeners today are suffering from self-loathing, I hope they will seek out someone to talk to.
Self-love Now there are forms of self-absorption and self-destruction that are pathological from a religious point of view, but we don’t usually send people to therapists to be cured of them. Instead of seeking a cure, our society glorifies and encourages forms of wanton self-indulgence and self-destructions. We are encouraged to seek our happiness in shopping, gambling, drinking, sex, psychotropic drugs, movies, television, home furnishings, clothing, cars, on-line dating, cyber-realities, games, and countless forms of analgesics. We spend a fortune trying to make us look younger and sexy, rather than following Jesus’ teaching. He wants us to turn away from empty self-gratification. Incidentally, this statement of Jesus is very similar to teachings of Muhammad and the Buddha. In order to be truly happy, we need to detach ourselves from dependence on external and temporary things.
Courage to Be There is more to Jesus’ statement than a call to simple living, though. Whether we are fully conscious of it or not, most of us live daily in fear and anxiety. We know that we are going to die one day no matter how we diet or exercise, but we pretend we make ourselves live forever. We feel the threat of our own non-existence, knowing that one day all of our acquisitions and achievements will be meaningless. We look at pictures of our ancestors who died before we were born and know that one day our descendents will have no memory of us. And so we cling to what life we have. We do all we can to preserve our own life. Some people even spend money cryogenics to freeze themselves before they die in the hopes that science will find a “cure” for death. There are many people who have sacrificed all their integrity, their faith, and their morality in order to prolong their existence on this earth. It does have to be that way.
The fear of losing our lives often prevents us from doing things that can save our lives. We become like the child who is so afraid of riding a bicycle that she falls off of her bike. Or the young driver who is so afraid of driving that he causes an accident through excessive caution. Fear of loss paralyzes us and saps our courage to live. We do not want to risk our property, our status, or the many things we use to define ourselves, and so we hunker down, avoiding engagement with the world. We continue to follow the well-worn grooves of daily living even though we know that those grooves are leading us away from genuine life. We face the hour of our death and realize that we never lived, never loved, never risked, never dared. Jesus warns us not to values our lives so much that we fail to live.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There are heroes who have sacrificed their own lives so that others may live. There are those who have chosen to die as human beings rather than live as animals. When Jesus says those who hate their life will live in eternity, he is calling for us to live in God rather than merely live within ourselves. By giving up our lives in God, we can embrace life. The best cure I know for depression is to care about another person more than you care about your own life and your own misery. The best cure I know for endless consumption is to be filled with the love of God for all of creation: to pass through the beauty of this world without claiming it as your property. The best cure I know for the nameless fear that saps our courage is to trust in God completely. The best way I know to live is to live in the conviction that death is not the final answer: that the grain of wheat that allows itself to die will be transformed.
Follow Jesus: As if that teaching alone is not enough to trouble us, John add another teaching that appears in a slightly different form in the other gospels. In Mark, Jesus tells his disciples to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. John’s version has no cross. It is simply: “whoever serves me must follow me.” The basic concept is the same in both versions. Disciples of Jesus must be willing to sacrifice their own lives, just as he gave up his life, but notice the importance John places on serving and following Jesus. These are marks of the Christian life. Jesus does not say that those who wish to be with him in heaven should just profess belief. They should serve and follow him in order to be with him. Where he is, his servant will be.
This is a high standard that Christians try to ignore. We live in a religious culture that wants things quick and easy. We have preachers that sound like used car salesmen making you a deal. All it takes to be a Christian is to say you accept Jesus as your Savior. Billboards say “Got Jesus,” as if Jesus can be picked up on the grocery store shelf. People claim that they have given their life to Jesus, and then keep on doing the things they were before. We have politicians that found Jesus and turned right around and kept on stealing from taxpayers and lying to investigators. John’s Gospel tells us quite plainly that if you give your life to Jesus, then give your whole life. To be Christian is to risk everything in faith without hedging your bets. It is to follow Jesus through the path of suffering and sacrifice. It is to become a servant.
Agony: This is not an easy teaching. It is interesting that some of these statements in John are found in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in the other gospels. The scene in the garden in Mark’s Gospel was crafted from the memory of many things that Jesus said to his disciples the last week of his life. Mark put them into a single prayer, but John places them in Jesus’ last public discourse. “Now my soul is troubled.” We have here a glimpse of the anguish he experienced as he started down the via dolorosa, the way of suffering. Too often, Christians dismiss this agony as mere play-acting on Jesus’ part. We make emphasize the divinity of Christ so much that we overlook his full and complete humanity, but he longed for the Father to save him from this destiny. But Jesus remained faithful to the end. In the midst of his turmoil, Jesus prayed “Father, glorify your name.” You may not have noticed it, but Jesus does not teach his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in John’s Gospel. The closest we get to that great prayer is this simple cry to the Father, “glorify your name.” We should recall the rest of that prayer includes the petition that God’s will be done on earth. Ponder the fact that Jesus did not ask the Father to save him from suffering and death. He prayed that things he was doing would bring glory to God and fulfill God’s purpose for the world. Jesus tried to teach us to pray: God’s will be done on earth. Or, as it says in the other gospels, “not my will, but your will.” Too often our prayers are simply evidence that we still love our lives in this world too much to serve and follow Jesus.
The Voice of God According to John, the voice of God responded to Jesus from heaven. Some in the crowd thought they heard thunder; others that an angel had spoken. We do not know if the crowds heard the words or just the sound. It is significant that this is the first time the Father has spoken in John’s Gospel. John does not give the story of the baptism of Jesus or his transfiguration. This is the crucial moment in the gospel. Once Jesus has decided that he will follow this path of self-sacrifice to the end, the Father speaks in confirmation. Jesus is reassured that he is doing the right thing. The victory is assured. The prince of darkness will be driven out of this world.