The depressing reality of John 12:36
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 4th: Psalm 71:1-14; Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; and John 12:20-36. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I think the last part of John 12:36 is one of the saddest verses in the Bible. It is preceded by the account that some Greeks try to approach Jesus. Philip is a Greek name. The Greeks try to meet with Jesus by going through Philip, a disciple of Jesus, and one they may have viewed as sympathetic to their request. It is interesting to wonder why they felt this need. Philip then confers with Andrew and the two of them approach Jesus with the request of the Greeks.
This passage indicates Jesus’ renown is spreading. It is not confined to Jews in Galilee. Jesus is no longer only a small-town celebrity. Jesus is now a recognized name among a far larger and more influential group. These are most likely Hellenized Jews because they have come to Jerusalem in order to participate in the Temple’s Passover celebration. They are Jews, but cultured in the ways of the Greco-Roman world. This is a definite expansion of Jesus’ sphere.
The Gospel reader may expect this to be good news, that Jesus’ message is expanding. However, when Jesus receives this request through His two disciples, He does not address their inquiry. Rather, Jesus speaks about His approaching death. Jesus realizes that if the Greeks have heard about Him and seek Him out, then His ministry and message have grown to the point where His enemies will feel compelled to act. Jesus also sees this as His ministry reaching its maturity. Jesus does not see His impending death as the end of His work. He speaks of it through the imagery of a stalk of wheat that is fully ripe. The grain of wheat then falls to the earth and dies, but from that grain new life will emerge.
Jesus is not unconcerned about the torture and pain that His death will require: “‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour?”’” But neither will Jesus pull back from it in order to protect Himself. Answering His own question, Jesus says, “‘No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’” The physical reality of the cross is not unknown to Jesus, but even so Jesus will accept it in order to fulfill His ministry. The grain must fall and die for new life to be born.
Before Jesus is ready to die, however, there is the latter portion of 12:36: “After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.” Jesus came into the world to share God’s love and grace, to bring us peace and to share the promise of eternal life. Jesus healed the sick, comforted those in distress, treated with kindness those who were rejected, and yet, when His mission reached its maturity, He needed to depart and go into hiding. God came into the world in Jesus and we forced Him to go into hiding, to depart from our presence.
Jesus went into hiding in order to concentrate on preparing His closest followers for what would ensue. Jesus needed to make sure that they would be able to recover from the horror and confusion of the cross, and would then be able to continue His work and ministry. This is why Jesus went into hiding. It was not to avoid death. It was in order to prepare for His death. But that message of Jesus having to go into hiding is distressing. It says something terribly worrisome about humanity. When faced with Jesus’ radical message of a loving and inclusive God, humanity became so violent in its opposition, in its willingness to protect power and the powerful, that Jesus was chased from human society. Jesus had to go into hiding. Is this still a reality today? Do we still chase Jesus away either overtly or more surreptitiously? In other words, do we ignore Jesus in one sense, and in another do we so water down His radical message that it is no longer His gospel? Either way, Jesus is forced from our presence.
This Holy Week let us counter this scenario. Let us bring Jesus back into our lives and through our lives back into our world.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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