What needs to die?

22 March 2015
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Lent 5B (RCL)
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

John is too good a story teller to be careless. But this week’s reading presents us with a puzzle: do the Greeks ever see Jesus? In the story of the woman at the well, Jesus asks for a drink of water, and by the end of the story, she abandons her water jar at the well. John is telling us that she has indeed met Jesus and drunk of his living water. Here, the Greeks appear in the story, and simply disappear from the narrative. However, all the way along the story so far, John has been teasing us with the idea of Jesus’ “hour,” which until now has not yet come. The appearance of certain Greeks signifies the arrival of Jesus’ hour. Their disappearance leaves us pondering the nature of Jesus’ hour. It is the hour of his glorification, and a too-simple reading would connect it only with Jesus’ death on the cross.

In response to Andrew and Philip’s announcement that certain Greeks are here to see him, Jesus responds with a cryptic saying about the necessity of a grain of wheat to fall into the ground and die, or it will remain forever alone. If it dies, it will produce much fruit. Fruitfulness is a major theme of John’s Gospel, and this particular saying reminds us immediately of Jesus saying to his disciples that the fields are ripe for the harvest standing at Jacob’s well after the woman has left. In that instance, the harvest referred to the Samaritan’s ready to enter the Johannine community. Here, the fruit must surely be the Greeks. But they disappear.

That always puzzled me, until I realized that we are reading the Gospel in Greek. The Johannine community at some point faced the crisis (judgment) of whether or not to admit Greeks. This happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we know the outcome, even though the narrative itself is silent. We are those Greeks. What needed to fall into the ground and die was the community’s self-identity as Jewish.

The reading from Hebrews also speaks of Jesus’ death as the path forward into a new understanding of God. During his life time, Jesus prayed to God with cries and tears to be saved from his death, but he learned obedience by going through with it, and has now become our high priest.

Too often, we think we can solve the problems of the world on our terms. We can fix the institutional racism that affects our region so profoundly. We (white people) need only enact some legislation, tell everyone how to do things, and it will be better. John and the author of Hebrews tells us that not even Jesus can fix things on his own terms. Our long-cherished ideas about our own capabilities need to fall into the ground and die, so that some new fruitfulness becomes apparent.

Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant, written on hearts. No longer will anyone need to school our neighbor about knowing God, because we will all know God. That will require each of us to give up our long-cherished certainty about our rightness, and hear what others know, and honor it. Only in that way can we know God.

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