March 21, 2021 Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33 From Cross to Glory
Greek culture and language were dominant during the time of Jesus. This is why the New Testament was written in Greek. Hellenism, that is the ancient Greek culture had spread since the time of Alexander the Great. Ancient Greeks were known for their philosophical thinking, religious questioning, and their zeal to find eternal answers.
In our Gospel reading today we hear about Philip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee. Bethsaida in Galilee was strongly permeated by Hellenism, this Greek culture. It was here where some Greeks approached Philip. They wanted to see Jesus. Philip then told Andrew. They are the only two disciples whose names are only known in the Greek form.
In John’s mind then, when Greeks approach Phillip and ask to see Jesus, it is evidence of true religious searching. Greeks, who from an early age are schooled in philosophy and brought up with a pantheon of deities are looking for the truth. And in John’s mind too, the conversation that follows touches on the universal fears, uncertainties, and perhaps the lack of convincing answers to people’s eternal questions. The reference to the Greeks is also one of the signs of the coming conversion of the Gentiles. So, in a changing and uncertain world with deep anxieties and pressing fears, a world where people are asking timeless questions and where philosophers and religious thoughts fail to provide convincing answers, John provides the world with an answer that is not only the truth, it is also an eternal and convincing answer!
It is not hard for us to relate to this quest for truth and lasting existential answers. People now are also looking for new answers and solutions because the old and traditional answers are not convincing anymore. Our world has been turned upside down and conventional answers simply don’t cut it anymore. People are uncertain, shaken and yes, scared of what the future has in store for humankind. What will replace the old? Where can we find answers that will be comforting and lasting? What is the future of our planet?
The unique answer that John provides is still relevant, life-giving, and transformational. And his answer is still able to provide comfort and hope. We need to go back to his original answer for his answer, over the years, has in a proverbial sense, been lost in translation.
Over the centuries, people have taken this life-giving message, this eternal answer and they have changed it to suit them, altered it to make it less radical and less challenging. Instead of being transformed by the Gospel message, human beings have changed the message! It is therefore necessary to revisit Jesus and his answer to rediscover the life-changing message of Jesus and the meaning of his death on the cross.
There in the presence of Greeks Jesus says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Glorified here means that God gives Jesus the fulness of God’s saving power and to “draw all people to himself”. Jesus tells a short parable about a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dies to bear much fruit to explain what it means that the hour has come. Jesus is of course talking about his own approaching death. A voice from heaven confirms that God is glorified by Jesus’ death. A few moments later Jesus refers again to his “lifting up”. Now it refers to Jesus’ death on the cross but also to his resurrection.
But there is an important theological point to be made with reference to the expression “lift up.” Elsewhere this expression is used in the sense of being exalted and revered. It is only in John’s Gospel that exaltation includes the cross. Exaltation is directly linked to Christ’s crucifixion. The cross, which was the Roman way of executing criminals, was a sign of shame. And yet in Christ the cross becomes God’s way of changing human history and saving humankind. The cross now is not a curse anymore – it is the sign of salvation! The fact of his death on the cross directly leads to his glorification. This is God’s way of working – God takes what is improbable and even a curse – and turns it into a blessing and new life.
In verses 25-26 we find the same kind of paradox: “Those who love their life 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.”
The Gospel is somewhat paradoxical is it not? His lifting up to the cross leads to glorification. Those who love their lives will lose it and those who hate theirs will keep it. The Father will honor those who serve Jesus and who follow him. There is an urgency and clarity in this saying that should challenge all who confess that Jesus is the Lord. For this paradox goes against our natural instincts.
Jesus’ hour of is the salvation of believers universal in scope; the salvation of all people who come to him and let him guide them. By taking away the “ruler of this world” Jesus draws all people to himself, and by taking these people with him into the sphere of God’s life, he removes them from the forces of darkness and death. For John, the cross is the place of glorification and the beginning of Jesus’ saving rule.
Even though Jesus is condemned, lifted up to the most shameful of deaths on the cross, he is glorified and he draws all people to himself. The cross therefore becomes the symbol of salvation. His death on the cross results in the gathering of the children of God, the bringing in of the Gentiles and the unity of the new people of God. God is able to take the cross and transform it from a sign of a curse into a sign of life and victory.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a strange message! Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. The definition of life and death is not the same as our definition. It seems that the life that Jesus gives is life that comes through death –death on the cross. Life that Jesus gives comes through sacrifice, life comes in giving up on your efforts to impress. Life comes through serving.
Life in Christ comes when I accept that I am not God! Yes, a strange message indeed. There is a real danger when we forget or under estimate the impact of Jesus giving his life on the cross. If we fail to see the theological truth that Christ exaltation is a result of his sacrifice on the cross we may not really and truly understand the meaning of life that Jesus gives!
And it seems to me that John wants to emphasize the link between Christ’s death and his gift of life. Jesus says in verse 32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” There is an ancient manuscript that reads: “I will draw all things to myself”.
Jesus, the One who died on a cross, was lifted up and is the One who has the power to draw all people to himself. Jesus hour of glory is when was lifted up on the cross. His hour of glory is connected to his suffering and death.
This paradoxical nature of the Gospel also plays out in our lives. Let me explain: Sometimes in life, when we are at the end of our rope, when we have hit bottom, it is exactly there that we truly experience, the real presence of Christ, the genuine grace of God. There we believe, we are changed. Though we may experience brighter days, we do not forget the truth that we experienced in the difficult days of darkness.
In Bunyan’s immortal Pilgrim’s Progress, Pilgrim and Hopeful wade into the river of death in order to cross it. When Pilgrim gets into the water he begins to sink, and he is filled with terror at the prospect of going under the water. But Hopeful cries out to him: “Be of good cheer, my brother! My feet have touched the bottom, and it is good.”
Most days of our lives, we experience smooth sailing. But then there are storms, the sky turns dark, and the sea threatens us. And it is there, according to the Bible, that Christ comes to us, calls to us, drawing us to him, and reassures us: “Don’t be afraid, it is I.”
Someone once described that when the sun goes down, and the sky becomes dark as midnight, we are surprised to see the glory of the stars. In the darkness, in despair, we are able to see the peculiar glory of the One who was on the cross. Then we look up and see the glory of God who stoops to us in our need, the Lord who reigns from the cross and who draws all things and all people to Him!
It often is during times of adversity, of tragedy, of hunger and need, of darkness and storm, that people are met most by God. Perhaps we should not always pray for good health, for prosperity, for safety and good things. Perhaps we ought to pray that in the storm we might find true shelter, that in the night we may find the warmth and the light of true home – in God. Amen