By the Rev. Ken Kesselus
(Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13 or Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33)
In today’s gospel reading we gain a glimpse of Jesus reacting with two of his disciples. Philip and Andrew came to tell him that some Greeks had arrived asking to see him. As he so often did, Jesus answered indirectly. He didn’t say, “Send them away” or “Sure let them come in.” Instead, he took the moment to teach – to lay out a reality that his followers needed to understand. It was as if Jesus were saying, “Oh, they want to see me, do they? Okay, I will let them see what I am all about. I will let them know what God is doing.”
His reply to Phillip and Andrew indicated his readiness for what would be his final days and the climatic encounter between the ways of the world and the way of God. He said that it was time for him to reveal what all humankind would see about him and his role in the divine drama. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
This must have elated and excited his disciples and the Greeks, if they heard him, because they surely thought that by being “glorified” Jesus meant he would make all things well. Having recently experienced Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, perhaps they thought he would work even greater wonders and bring an end to their difficulties in life. Or, maybe, they were thinking about one of the traditional expectations of how the Messiah would restore Israel – by a glorious military victory. Maybe they thought he meant it was time for him to prevail over all the world’s kingdoms, whose leaders would cower before his conquering feet.
Any such euphoria, however, would have been short-lived. It was a different kind of wonder that would be revealed, a different kind of conquest that Jesus had in mind – the conquest of the cross. Jesus immediately began to lay out the hard truth of what lay ahead. In a similar way, as we worship one week away from Palm Sunday, our gospel reading lets us see what lies ahead for us in making the Holy Week journey.
Jesus used a parable to explain how not only Greeks but everyone would see 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.” A seed, by itself, is only a small piece of matter. If eaten, it provides a little bit of nourishment. If left in the blazing sun, it can dry up and lose its value. If sealed in a jar, it can remain viable for centuries. But even then, it is only potentially powerful. But if it is buried and dies beyond its present condition, it can release all that is contained within – the very nature and substance of a whole stalk of ripened wheat.
His own death and resurrection would be the vehicle through which not only his disciples and curious Greeks, but all humankind, could see Jesus – truly see what he was all about. It was by dying that the power of God contained in Jesus would be fully released. By “glorified,” Jesus meant crucified. Jesus was saying that only by his death could true life come. Just as a grain of wheat, remaining unfruitful in the protective security of a barn, can only release its power by being buried and dying to what it has been.
Making sure there would be no mistaking the stark reality of what he meant, Jesus added this amplification to the parable: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” So, what was true for Jesus, he said, was also true for his followers. Those who would truly see him would know that only by their deaths to the values of the world could they gain true life. The Christian reality is that only in dying to self can the power of God be embraced and released. Jesus laid out this model not just for the disciples to see but also to emulate. He said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
Often in the course of human experiences – those of past centuries as well as current times – this truth has proved itself out. When concerned and committed people are prepared to die for their cause, much can be achieved. It was by the deaths of the courageous faithful that Christianity first grew. This is summed up in a well-known phrase by Tertullian, a Christian writer in the first century: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Often, people become of real use to God by burying their own goals and desires. Think about the saints. Think about your personal heroes. Aren’t they the ones who put aside personal safety and security for the sake of others? Haven’t they abandoned selfish gain and the advancement of personal need to meet the needs of others? Whenever the world gains spiritual health, it often owes such a condition to those who spend their strength and give themselves away to God and to others.
In today’s gospel, Jesus lets us see an initial view of him as the prototype – the perfect example – of the kind of risk-filled living that love of God requires. The world teaches that we will live longer and prosper more if we watch out for ourselves, if we are careful and avoid risk, if we remain in our homes safe and secure. Jesus teaches that by so doing, we may life longer or in greater comfort, but we will not live as well. He helps us see that real living – genuine, meaningful living – involves much more.
Only by spending our lives, he says, can we keep our true lives. Jesus calls us into a “give-it-away” faith. He calls us into a realm not of our ordinary world, but into one that stands in sharp contrast – the world of God. Jesus calls us beyond the common, selfish goals of false security. He calls us to see him – to see his vision – a new view of life, a life of meaning and of glory.
Unlike his fellow Jews, Jesus viewed glory not as the acquisition of power or the ability to control their own destiny after centuries of foreign rule, but he looked at glory as the ability to serve others for a greater purpose. In the encounter in today’s gospel, he taught that only dying to self can bring forth the kind of redeemed life God has in store for us; only by spending life can we retain it. Only in this context can we do what the Greeks hoped to do – see Jesus for what he is for the world. Only in the context of dying to self and living in God can we see the essential Jesus. Only in this way can we see him for what he really is – the living image of God.
As we move rapidly toward Holy Week, we would do well to come as the Greeks before the Lord – asking to see Jesus – to discover what he is all about. As we witness the ultimate example that he provides, we can follow him into a life of true meaning and become transformed by what we see.
— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.