Walking into the hard days of Holy Week, we sit with the Beloved Disciple, John, for an advanced lesson. Jesus teaches His witless disciples a theology of the cross. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t make sense to His followers. The disconnect between His understanding of the future and theirs is on full display in John 12. As Jesus’ popularity increases, momentum builds. People travel to hear Him. Everywhere He goes, crowds gather. The disciples interpret this as success but Jesus knows He’s wrapping up the farewell tour.
Jesus is attracting a very diverse group of followers. In this instance, some non-Jews are looking for Jesus. There is yearning in their request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps it’s not by chance that they address themselves to Philip. The text reminds us that Philip is from Bethsaida in Galilee. That region was known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” It may have been clear to these visitors that Philip was from their home area. They found the natural contact person for gaining an audience with Jesus.
Philip seeks out Andrew with their request. Then the two of them find Jesus to let Him know that His fan base is expanding! Perhaps there is a problem because the Galileans are not Jewish. They let Jesus decide what to do. Earlier He told His disciples that there would be “other sheep” who would be welcomed into the fold of His love. He knew that His message held an appeal for a broad cross-section of people. In the verse that immediately precedes this passage, we hear the religious authorities voice their jealousy of Jesus’ popularity. They exclaim in private: “Look, the whole world is going after Jesus.” This bruises their egos but is good news to Philip and Andrew. Even so, Jesus surprises them with His response.
Rather than welcoming these men and fielding their questions, Jesus seizes the opportunity to lecture about His death. In somewhat veiled language, He let’s them know how and when He will die. My guess is that this deterred the men who had been seeking Him out! Philip and Andrew must have glanced at each other, shaking their heads. It was a lost opportunity for boosting the fan club enrollment.
The image Jesus offers is that of a grain of wheat that must die to its present form in order to multiply. We’ve seen how a sunflower seed bursts open against the pressure of a growing sprout within. We have black oil sunflower seeds in a feeder by our front door. My dog sniffs around since I recently put stale bread crumbs out there too. Now we have dried sunflower seed shells tracking in through our front doors. When the seed receives rainwater, soil and sun, it begins to grow and the original container for the seed is destroyed. However, it is through this natural growing process that a harvest is possible. One seed can grow a plant that yields hundreds of times over the value of the original seed. That seed dies to self for the sake of a new generation.
Jesus summons believers to be ready to suffer on behalf of others and not for our own gain. Disciples then—and now—find that hard to grasp. Jesus prepares His disciples for His imminent death. He wants them to understand that He willingly gives up His life out of a profound love. We are more accustomed to seeking the easy way out. We wish to avoid suffering. When we have to go through trials, we question how it will benefit us. Think of the news frenzy when Ted Cruz packed up his family to escape to the tropics. As his constituents sought refuge from freezing temperatures and uninhabitable homes, the Cruz’ flew to Cancun. His constituents exploded with anger. Their exodus pf this elected official from a national disaster even shaped the story line of a Simpsons’ episode! We are a people who have come to expect folks to act selfishly, not sacrificially. We don’t like it but we accept that self-interest will prevail over voluntary personal risk. Those in my generation saw it when Popeye pummeled Bluto; when the road runner fled from the assault of Wile ol’ Coyote. Our children see justice get played out as violent victories in video games. We accept this as normal.
Jesus goes further in this lesson by suggesting that only those who hate their lives will save it. Why would Jesus, the One who came that we might have abundant life, exhort us to hate our lives? I like the interpretation that Biblical scholar, Dale Bruner, offered in his commentary: The one who hates their life is “the person who dies to the supremacy of his or her own self-preservation and advancement at all costs.” Jesus’ teaching steers followers away from a “what’s in it for me” attitude and directs us toward the challenging notion that we must be ready to give up our lives for others. I’m not sure that this lecture made sense to His disciples or those who so earnestly sought Him out.
The Greek word used in this passage for “world” is “kosmos.” It translates best to mean “the System.” Jesus’ crucifixion judges the world, the kosmos, the System. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, He was taking on the System. In this unlikely teaching, as His disciples are ready to grow His fan club, Jesus targets the systems that hold us captive and lead us from abundant life into forms of death. It was interesting to me that, in her interview with Oprah, Meghan Markle used two different terms in reference to her husband’s family. There was the Family and there was also the Firm. Decisions made by the Firm, the corporate entity that manages the well-being of Queen Elizabeth’s family, may not always reflect the wishes of individual family members. Grand Rapids’ philanthropist Fred Meijer’s business was so successful that he had to entrust the management of his grocery empire to a Board of Directors. They didn’t always operate as Fred might have. Jesus’ ministry brings us together as a united family. Because we love each other, we are called to expose the forces that crush us and our neighbors.
Our culture upholds an expectation that we will succeed by fighting our way up the corporate ladder. Pushing other people down, when necessary, is a given so that we can advance our own agenda. This happens between business execs. It happens across fences in neighborhood yards. We do it so that we can support our family. We do it to feed our egos. Laying down our lives for others does not fit within the equation for the American Dream!
This past year we have witnessed far too often how one death can become a movement that takes on some aspect to the System. Several weeks ago the city of Minneapolis awarded George Floyd’s family the largest pretrial civil rights settlement ever: $27 million. When two of the carefully selected jurors in the trial of Derek Chauvin learned of this unprecedented financial award, they were dismissed and two more neutral individuals were chosen. The death of Floyd sparked outrage in our country and added fuel to the fire of a protest movement that was already well underway. We recently marked the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death. Her face is painted across parking lots, on buildings and down main streets of major cities. Her tragic death has pushed the issue of police reform forward. The logo chosen to remember her speaks to her basic humanity: Say her name. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer unmasked the system that needs reform in a statement he issued: “For White America, these deaths were the latest reckoning and a just alarm that things must change—that America, united, must listen, understand and act to end the injustice that’s hurt and held our country back for far too long.”
As people of faith, we are called to identify the primary aspects to the System that hold us captive and walk us toward forms of death. Can we invite Jesus to work with us to unmask the wrongs and bring healing? Will we recognize fake news and extricate ourselves from its grip? Martin Luther King courageously unmasked a racist system by continuing to march peacefully as violence against them increased. In his famous “I have a dream…” speech, he restated his resolve to unmask the System by letting the nation see their hateful actions: “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”
The very next day King was assassinated while standing on the second-floor balcony of his hotel room. His death unmasked the System that sought to silence him. Like a grain of wheat that died to self, his death brought an abundant harvest. King’s sacrifice brought down judgment on our nation that still challenges us today.
Jesus vulnerably voiced His sadness in this passage: “Now my soul is troubled.” I suspect we have said that many times this past year, in so many words. We have had to face inequity in our world. We have remained vigilant, courageously naming the wrongs that have become normative. There was nothing easy for Jesus when approaching the hour of His death. He prayed for God to remove that final trial but closed His prayer with an invitation: “Not my will but yours be done.” As His disciples campaigned for more card-carrying followers, Jesus gave this lesson about a grain of wheat dying. He voiced the necessity of hating our lives. He knew that His days were numbered. So we stick close by His side in this final leg of our Lenten journey. We resolve to finish the course with a God who allowed the System to showcase their ugliness so that we could recognize and name it today. We stay the course. We finish the race. We look ahead knowing that resurrection from all forms of death is just around the bend. Thanks be to God!