The gospel lectionary this week is John 12:20-31. I have begun the reading a little earlier to give us some context. We'll begin at verse 12.
John 12:12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in thename oftheLord- the King of Israel!' Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!' His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!'
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.' Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 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 honour.
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-"Father, save me from this hour"? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.' Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.' The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.' Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.' He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (You can see other reflections on this reading here.)
Jock arrived part way through church. He was unpleasantly drunk, ranging from raucous to morose, and settled in a back pew. Dear Lynley, only twenty six, went back and sat with him. His noise continued, some of it now directed at her. Since the other minister, my wife, was leading the service, I was able to go back and sit behind them. That really annoyed Jock. "Are you her husband?" he snarled. He was belligerent to the point that I wondered how we would remove him without a brawl.
Salvation came in the form of Doug Mills, Lynley's grandfather. Doug was in his eighties, but he still stood six foot two without a stoop. He was a big man, and a local legend, on account of the size of his enormous hands. At a men's health seminar one evening, during some uncomfortable discussion about prostate exams, I had said, "Thank God Doug Mills isn't a doctor!" The outbreak of laughter was an excellent index of our discomfort.
Doug was taking up the offering. He stood in the aisle next to Lynley, with the plate buried in one enormous paw. "Are you OK?" It was a half whisper that sort of rumbled. Jock lapsed into a silence that lasted for the rest of the service.
Doug is someone I will always remember and appreciate. The appreciation came from meeting an old man near the end of his life. He said to me once, that at eighty five he felt like he had lived too long. He told me how he'd opened a gate out on the station, and then went to run down one side of the sheep, to head them in the right direction. "I couldn't even raise a trot," he said. He expressed a mixture of disappointment and wonder.
I knew Doug in his extremity; when the future was close, unavoidable, and not pleasant. No doubt he felt all the frustrations, and fears, and disappointments of old age, and more than he shared with me. At the funeral of an old friend, he said, "Lucky him!" He was honest. And in that honesty, there was a dignity and a grounded-ness I still remember and aspire to. We can know the measure of a person when we see them in their extremity.
It was Doug at 85 who could listen to a pointed radical sermon, and whatever he thought about it, be encouraging, and who could be more open to new ideas than people half his age. It was Doug who could be old, and be honest about the struggle of it. It was Doug who could be old and struggling with it, and yet show integrity, and compassion, and live outside of himself, when the temptation must often been to be self pitying. Doug was not vindictive, and he was not small. His being and spirit had grown to fit his physical size.
I will be well pleased if I can become as large a man as Doug.
What has this got to do with the Gospel of John, and today's Lenten reading?
Jesus has come to town. There's been hoopla and celebrity razzmatazz. Everyone wants to know him. Even the Greeks, the overseas visitors in town for the festival, want to meet this country preacher. The Pharisees, trying to keep people on the straight and narrow, throw up their hands in despair. They say to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!'
We know the story of fame and celebrity. This Jesus will come crashing down; they all do. It's a only question whether he's a train-wreck like Britney, or a fractured football genius like Ben Cousins, carrying a hidden heap of pain and addiction. Or perhaps the fame is all fraud, like Bernie Madoff. We know we'll find their clay feet. We look forward to their exposure, just like we secretly want to see a crash at a Grand Prix.
Well, we see the true measure of a person when we see them in their extremity.
When the Greeks want to see Jesus he says, The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.... For a moment it doesn't seem to follow. But I think John is saying, if you really want to see Jesus, look at him now. He'll be glorified, that is, it will all be made clear about him, in his death. Jesus' strange reply is telling the Greeks, and us, what it is we need to see and understand about him.
...unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit; we see the centrality of his dying here. If you want to understand Jesus, look at the way he dies. It is only in dying that he will bear the fruit.
And John is very clear this applies to us. It's not just some magic thing Jesus does. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world, will keep it for eternal life. It's that great challenging paradox of life, which demands we lose our selfishness and self focus, if we are to truly live. If we live to keep safe, we don't really live! We only really live, if we live for something outside of ourselves.
And this selflessness, this living outside of ourselves, has content and direction. John makes it very clear that Jesus is the one to follow in our selflessness. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
This is the way to live the life God wants of us; whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
As the reality of the end flashes across Jesus' mind, John has him say, "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-"Father, save me from this hour?" He has this temptation to bail out, and to give up. And we see his quality right along with his very human struggles. "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-"Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour."
Here is a very human person weighed down by inevitability. Sometimes we realize we have set our course, and now there is no choice but to see it through. Perhaps we didn't see how hard it would be, but there is no pulling out. A young woman, pregnant with her first child, went to prenatal class, and watched a birth movie. She said, "We all thought, ‘Can I give the baby back now?'"
The centrality of Jesus is around the fact of his dying. Staying with the task to which he was called, is what makes him. Facing the future and the fears is what leads to resurrection. John is saying we can't be disciples, we can't really see Jesus, unless we look the fact of his dying, (and our dying,) full in the face.
I think that's what attracted me to Doug Mills. He kept on living life how he'd always felt it should be lived, even though his time was short. He stayed the same; wise, gentle, and strong, despite his frustration. He was a translation of the Christ for me. It's called being faithful.
We see the essence of a person in their time of extremity. And so we will be seen.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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