Thought for the day
It has sometimes been remarked, in lighter vein, that none of us gets out of here alive. Death is part of the human condition and we are aware of death and feel the threat of ultimate absurdity. How shall we confront it? Denial—often lived in frenetic distraction—is no help. Christian faith, in contrast with all other faiths, has a distinctive claim: in Jesus’ death, God reached out to us in tender and vulnerable love, becoming our companion on the way. Both John 12 and Hebrews 5 affirm that. It is astonishing to the point of being almost incredible.
Great and loving God, we are surrounded by mystery—the mystery of ourselves, of death, of creation, of you. You are our companion on the way and we place our hand confidently in your outstretched hand.
John 12:20 Now some Greeks were among those who had gone up to worship at the feast. 21 So these approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and requested, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew, and they both went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 I tell you the solemn truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain. 25 The one who loves his life destroys it, and the one who hates his life in this world guards it for eternal life. 26 If anyone wants to serve me, he must follow me, and where I am, my servant will be too. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
John 12:27 “Now my soul is greatly distressed. And what should I say? ‘Father, deliver me from this hour’? No, but for this very reason 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 that stood there and heard the voice said that it had thundered. Others said that an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice has not come for my benefit but for yours. 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 to myself.” 33 (Now he said this to indicate clearly what kind of death he was going to die.)
Even from a cursory reading, two distinct parts can be observed: (i) what discipleship involves, vv. 20-26 and (ii) a teaching connecting discipleship with the destiny of the Messiah, vv. 27-33. There is also a hint of both the Transfiguration (“voice from heaven”) and Gethsemane (“take away this cup”).
Kind of writing
John 12 is an extremely important point of arrival and departure in this Gospel, forming a kind of hinge between the Book of Signs (1-12) and the Book of Glory (13-21).
Old Testament background
The lifting up language reminds us the bronze serpent in the desert at Num 21:9. There it carries the loaded meaning that the cure for the disease is confrontation with the disease itself. This is often true physically and psychologically. Metaphorically, the cure for the human “disease” of death will be the death of the Son of Man, so that we might live.
New Testament foreground
Part One: Philip and Andrew have a higher profile in this Gospel (John 1:40, 43-46, 48; 6:5, 7-8; 12:21-22; 14:8-9) and the mention of them recalls the call narratives in the John. Just as in those stories, one person brings another to Jesus (Jn 1:29-51). In the following verses, the language at the beginning and the end (vv. 23-24 and v.26) is Johannine, but the language in the middle (v. 25) comes from the Synoptic gospel tradition: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35-36).
Part Two: Both Gethsemane and Mount Tabor seem to be in the background here. The agony in the garden is not part of the Johannine portrait of Jesus, but it is echoed here: “He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want’” (Mark 14:36-37). There are two big differences: the prayer does not take place after the supper or in the Garden (Kedron has a different function in this Gospel) and, secondly, the prayer is dismissed immediately as if the thought were only a slip of some kind. A voice from heaven could recall either the Baptism (a voice from heaven is part of that tradition, though not in John) or the Transfiguration (a voice for others, as well as the context of the cross and resurrection). In this Gospel, the writer is really describing all the time the Risen Lord, under the guise of past description, and in that scheme of things, there is no place for a further transfiguration. However, the tradition is echoed here and brings to light a moment of affirmation, which also looks forward to the resurrection through the death of the Messiah.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. (1Corinthians 15:35-43)
Verse 20 The festival = Passover. Why would Greeks go to worship? Probably we are meant to think of the “god-fearers”, i.e. Gentiles attracted to Judaism. Greeks are elsewhere mentioned at 7:35. The Greek language is mentioned at the crucifixion.
Verse 21 This is very like the call stories in John 1.
Verse 22 At the start too, the disciples went from one to another.
Verse 23 This is a kind of thematic statement, which is unfolded in the enigmatic phrases that follow. Both terms—hour and glorified—are rich in meaning in this Gospel. The hour is the moment/event of salvation, the lifting up of the Son of Man, through death into resurrection. The glorification means that this event will make apparent the true nature—glory—of God.
Verse 24 The farming metaphor takes up material from the Synoptic tradition (e.g. Mark 4) and amplifies it. Metaphorically, it explores the meaning of the hour and the glorification: the death of the Son of Man will bear much fruit.
Verse 25 The argument is taken a step further. This time it is presented in the form of a maxim, but a highly paradoxical maxim, taken from the Synoptic tradition again. This confirms the significance of the death of the Son of Man, while at the same time making a bridge with the experience of discipleship.
Verse 26 This verse makes it further explicit that discipleship (serving “me”) involves following Jesus through the cross into resurrection. The reward will be to “be with” Jesus. The final phrase is also paradoxical: the one who serves (i.e. lowering him/herself like a slave) will be honoured by no less a figure than God himself. Honour here means sharing in the glory of Jesus.
Verse 27 The opening phrase reminds us immediately of Gethsemane, with the difference that in this Gospel Jesus does not go to the garden to pray. A rhetorical question is asked. In the context of acceptance of death only one “answer” is possible.
Verse 28 Glorify your name in this context means carry through the destiny of the Son of Man, and in that way God may show us his true identity (glory). The voice from heaven is not heard at the baptism in John; here it may be an echo (not more than that) of the Transfiguration in the Johannine tradition.
Verse 29 Others sense something has happened.
Verse 30 Not for mine = because I don’t need the affirmation / clarification.
Verse 31 Judgment is krisis in the Greek, i.e. a critical event triggering choice. The phrase about the ruler of the world anticipates the victory of Jesus over evil in the lifting up.
Verse 32 The image here is a direct echo of “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For 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.” (John 3:14-16)
Verse 33 This makes it plain that the lifting up has two senses. At a metaphorical level, Jesus will make the journey through death into resurrection, i.e. be lifted up into the transcendence of God. At a physical level, this will happen through being nailed high on a cross.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus seems to sense that a crisis point has arrived, and he agonises over saying ‘yes’ to what lies before him. He opts to stay faithful to the mission given him by God. Can you recall decisions over which you agonised? What was that like for you? What was it like when you made a decision that you dreaded, or were anxious about, but believed it was the right one for you?
2. The parable of the grain of wheat reminds us of a truth that any parent can testify to, namely that it is in dying to ourselves that we can give life to others. We will never be of benefit to others if we remain wrapped up in ourselves. In what ways has your dying to yourself brought life to another? How has the generous giving of another brought life to you?
3. Sometimes our emotions rebel at the thought of what lies ahead and we feel like praying to Father, save me from this hour. Then a realisation may come for you as a parent, a teacher, a spouse, a friend: No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Recall times when you have accepted pain or hassle and been a source of life to others for doing do.
4. The story presents the death of Jesus as the moment of his glorification by God. It is the moment when the love of Jesus for us is shown in its greatest depth in his gift of himself, a gift he was able to make because God enabled him to do it. We are also glorified when the grace of God enables us to give generously of ourselves. When have you experienced this in yourself or in another?
In our hearts, O God, you have written a covenant of grace, sealed by the obedience of Jesus your Son. Raise us up with Christ, the grain fallen to earth that yields a harvest of everlasting life. Bring us to glorify your name by following faithfully where he has led. For you we wait; for you we listen.
We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ, our deliverance and hope, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.