Fifth Sunday in Lent; 21 March 2021; Lent 5B (RCL); Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33.
This is a strange little passage in John’s Gospel, and for that and other reasons, I think it is the heart of the Gospel, the hinge on which John’s Gospel turns. Certain Greeks (what were Greeks doing at the Passover Festival in Jerusalem, anyway?) make known to Philip (a good Greek name) that they wish to see Jesus. Philip goes to Andrew (another good Greek name — also Philip and Andrew are the two disciples named in the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes), and the two of them go to Jesus to tell him there are some Greeks who want to see him. Jesus replies, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Huh? What has one to do with the other?
And then, the Greeks simply disappear from the narrative. John never does that. When he tells Nathaniel that we all will see visions of angels, we do finally when Mary enters the tomb. When John the Baptist says, “Behold, the lamb of God,” we see Jesus on the cross at the hour the passover lambs are being slaughtered. John always closes a bracket he opens. Except this one. We should get to the end of the Gospel wondering, “Whatever happened to those Greeks?”
Jesus goes on to say, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it does it bears much fruit.” This closes a bracket John opened in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus told the disciples to look around at the grain white for harvest. Ah, a clue. There the wheat for harvest was the Samaritans coming out to meet Jesus, who declared him (not Caesar) the Savior of the world. The disciples were entering into others’ labor, harvesting where they had not sown.
The question we are left with, then, is, “Did those Greeks become part of the harvest? Enter into the Johannine community?” Only if that grain of wheat is prepared to fall into the ground and die. The community must be ready to surrender its identity. In the locked room on the evening of Easter, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “The sins of whoever you release are released to them; the sins of whoever you hold on to are held on to for them.” It’s up to the disciples (now in the role of the high priest on the Great Day of Atonement) to admit and deny admission to anyone they choose.
So, the glorification of the Son of Man is being lifted up to draw all people to himself, including Greeks, but this requires falling into the ground to die. We have to die to the things that separate us. In this regard, we are following Jesus (or not, if we choose not to die to those things).
Jeremiah describes a new covenant, in which we will not teach each other, “Know the Lord,” because we all know the Lord. That’s not a thought we are ever comfortable with. We know the Lord, but they don’t; we have to teach them. What if, instead, we had to learn from them? That’s much harder.
John leaves the question of the Greeks unresolved. That’s why I think this is the hinge of his Gospel. He is asking us, the readers, if we are prepared to fall into the ground to die, in order to bear much fruit. It’s a question the Church still struggles to answer, and that is why John leaves it open — to force us to address it again and again.