Wednesday, 11 March 2015

John 12: 20-33, Responding to the
request, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’

New ends and the promise of new beginnings … sunset at Balcarrick Beach in Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week, the Fifth Sunday in Lent (22 March 2015), are: Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 1-13 or Psalm 119: 9-16; Hebrews 5: 5-10; and John 12: 20-33.

In our Bible study this morning, we are looking at the Gospel reading for that Sunday:

John 12: 20-33

20 Ησαν δὲ Ελληνές τινες ἐκ τῶν ἀναβαινόντων ἵνα προσκυνήσωσιν ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ: 21 οὗτοι οὖν προσῆλθον Φιλίππῳ τῷ ἀπὸ Βηθσαϊδὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ ἠρώτων αὐτὸν λέγοντες, Κύριε, θέλομεν τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἰδεῖν. 22 ἔρχεται ὁ Φίλιππος καὶ λέγει τῷ Ἀνδρέᾳ: ἔρχεται Ἀνδρέας καὶ Φίλιππος καὶ λέγουσιν τῷ Ἰησοῦ. 23 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἀποκρίνεται αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ἐλήλυθεν ἡ ὥρα ἵνα δοξασθῇ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 24 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ ὁ κόκκος τοῦ σίτου πεσὼν εἰς τὴν γῆν ἀποθάνῃ, αὐτὸς μόνος μένει: ἐὰν δὲ ἀποθάνῃ, πολὺν καρπὸν φέρει. 25 ὁ φιλῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἀπολλύει αὐτήν, καὶ ὁ μισῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον φυλάξει αὐτήν. 26 ἐὰν ἐμοί τις διακονῇ, ἐμοὶ ἀκολουθείτω, καὶ ὅπου εἰμὶ ἐγὼ ἐκεῖ καὶ ὁ διάκονος ὁ ἐμὸς ἔσται: ἐάν τις ἐμοὶ διακονῇ τιμήσει αὐτὸν ὁ πατήρ.

27 Νῦν ἡ ψυχή μου τετάρακται. καὶ τί εἴπω; Πάτερ, σῶσόν με ἐκ τῆς ὥρας ταύτης; ἀλλὰ διὰ τοῦτο ἦλθον εἰς τὴν ὥραν ταύτην. 28 πάτερ, δόξασόν σου τὸ ὄνομα. ἦλθεν οὖν φωνὴ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, Καὶ ἐδόξασα καὶ πάλιν δοξάσω. 29 ὁ οὖν ὄχλος ὁ ἑστὼς καὶ ἀκούσας ἔλεγεν βροντὴν γεγονέναι: ἄλλοι ἔλεγον, Ἄγγελος αὐτῷ λελάληκεν. 30 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν, Οὐ δι' ἐμὲ ἡ φωνὴ αὕτη γέγονεν ἀλλὰ δι' ὑμᾶς. 31 νῦν κρίσις ἐστὶν τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, νῦν ὁ ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου τούτου ἐκβληθήσεται ἔξω: 32 κἀγὼ ἐὰν ὑψωθῶ ἐκ τῆς γῆς, πάντας ἑλκύσω πρὸς ἐμαυτόν. 33 τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγεν σημαίνων ποίῳ θανάτῳ ἤμελλεν ἀποθνῄσκειν.

Translation (NRSV):

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

27 ‘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. 28 Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30 Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Introduction:

Throughout the Sundays in Lent, the RCL Old Testament readings this year (Year B) focus on covenantal relationships with God:

Jeremiah 31: 31-34:

● On the First Sunday in Lent (22 February), Genesis 9: 8-17 told the story of God’s covenant with Noah, his descendants and “every living creature of all flesh.”
● On the Second Sunday in Lent (1 March), the reading (Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16) looks at God’s covenant with Abraham and his “offspring after you throughout the generations … an everlasting covenant.”
● On the Third Sunday in Lent (8 March), the reading (Exodus 20: 1-17), which we hear again at the Community Eucharist in the Chapel, looks at the Ten Commandments, the symbol of that Covenant given in the wilderness in Sinai.
● On the Fourth Sunday in Lent, next Sunday (15 March), we hear the story of the rebellion against that covenant and the serpent of bronze which we interpret as a symbol of the promise of Christ’s coming (Numbers 21: 4-9).
● On the Fifth Sunday in Lent (22 March), the Sunday we are looking at this morning, we hear of the promise to Jeremiah of a new covenant that will be like the covenant between a husband and wife and that will be written in the hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).
● On the Sixth Sunday in Lent (Palm Sunday, 29 March), the theme of rebellion against God is addressed once again, with the promise of new covenant ushered in by the suffering servant (Isaiah 50: 4-9a).

So, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent (25 March), the Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31: 31-34) follows those readings about Covenant and rebellion against Covenant with the promise of a true Covenant.

Psalm 51: 1-13:

This psalm speaks of rebuilding Jerusalem (verse 18), so we know that it was written during, or shortly after, the Exile. The emphasis is on an individual’s sin, and prayers for personal pardon and restoration. The psalmist seeks cleansing from “iniquity” (verses 2 and 9) and “sin[s].” The notion of life-long sinfulness (verse 5) is also found in Genesis 8: 21: “... for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (although the psalmist may simply be confessing that he has been thoroughly sinful). In verse 6, he knows that God will seek truth in his very being; this is where he will receive understanding (“wisdom”).

Perhaps verse 8b says he is ill – because of his sin. He even asks God to hide his face from his sins (verse 9), to be so gracious and compassionate as to turn a blind eye.

May God restore him, bring him back to godliness, give him a clear conscience, a “clean heart” (verse 10), a “new” and a “right” (God-oriented) “spirit.” Only God can purify. May God give him joy and sustenance, through his “holy spirit” (verse 11).

or

Psalm 119: 9-16

This is the second stanza (of 22, one for each consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet) of the longest psalm. Each of the eight verses of this stanza begins with beth (ב), the second letter. The whole psalm is in praise of the Law, the expression of God’s covenant with humanity in the Old Testament, and of keeping it. The emphasis is on the love and desire for the word of God in Israel’s law, rather than on legalism.

As in other stanzas, various words are used for law. Here they are “word”, “commandments,” “statutes”, “ordinances”, “decrees”, and “precepts”. Cleansing (verse 9), joy (verses 14 and 16) and meditation (verse 15) are key notions. Knowledge and wisdom are more to be desired than “riches” (verse 14). The psalmist seeks to avoid sin, and to live in God’s ways.

Hebrews 5: 5-10:

The author has spoken of the Jewish high priesthood. Earlier, he has said that a (human) high priest was “put in charge of things pertaining to God” (verse 1), on behalf of the people, to offer sacrifices for their sins. Since he himself from time to time offended God by sinning unintentionally, “he is able to deal gently” (verse 2) with others who commit such sins, and “must offer sacrifice for his own sins” (verse 3) as well. Further, one could only become a high priest when called by God – “one does not presume to take this honour” (verse 4).

Now the author tells us how Christ, whom he sees as a high priest, is like (and unlike) a Jewish high priest. Christ too was called by God (verse 5). Some manuscripts of Luke 3: 22 record that, at his baptism, the “voice” speaks the words quoted here. But Christ, as in Psalm 110: 4, is different: he is a priest “forever” (verse 6).

Melchizedek figures in Genesis 14: 17-20, where he brings bread and wine, and blesses Abram. In Hebrews, he resembles the Son of God and lives for ever. He is a supernatural figure foreshadowing the eternity of the Son of God (see 7: 2-3).

During Christ’s earthly life (“the days of his flesh”, verse 7), he prayed to God, to the one who could deliver him from death. But, although he was already God’s “Son” (verse 8), he “learned obedience.” He obeyed the will of the Father and submitted reverently (verse 7), which involved suffering and death.

But the Father heard his plea, and he rose again from death. He was then “made perfect” (verse 9). His priesthood was completed in his sacrifice for the sins of us all, and he was raised to be with the Father. In this way, he brings salvation to all who follow him. This salvation is forever (unlike the limited duration of that brought by the Jewish high priests in the Temple. He is the high priest for ever.

Clear blue pools beneath the setting sun in Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 12: 20-33:

At the time of the Passover (“the festival”), some Gentiles (“Greeks”) travel to Jerusalem, probably because they believe in God. Their request “to see Jesus” (verse 21) to understand his message, is conveyed to him by “Andrew and Philip” (verse 22), the two disciples with Greek names.

Christ takes this opportunity to announce that his “hour” (verse 23), his time of self-revelation, determined by God, has come. He can now tell what it means for the Son to be glorified. When Christ is glorified, then all people will truly be able to see him. But this is not the time for interviews.

He uses an example from nature to speak of the significance of his death: the paradox that a “grain of wheat” (verse 24) only bears fruit after it seems to have died and has been buried. Christ’s death makes possible salvation for others.

That the meaning of life eludes those who live it up is also a paradox; self-centeredness ends up destroying a person. (“Hate”, verse 25, is a Semitism for love less.)

Serving Jesus involves following his example; this will be honoured by the Father (verse 26).

In verse 27, Christ struggles with his impending death: should he ask the Father to free him from the need to suffer and die?

No, he says: such avoidance would negate his mission; his death is God’s will (verse 28a). The voice from heaven reassures: his lifework and teaching have been signs of God’s glory, of his power and presence; God will act again in raising him.

The crowd misses the point of the message (verse 19), so Christ tells them that God has spoken so that they may believe that he comes from God; he already knows this (“not for mine”, verse 30).

This is when (“now”, verse 31) those who wilfully turn away from him (“this world”) are condemned (it is they who are judged, not him), and when the devil (“the ruler of this world”) ceases to have power over people.

When he is “lifted up from the earth” (verse 32), when he is crucified and exalted in glory, the salvation of all will be possible.

This is the paradoxical “kind of death” (verse 33) he will endure.

New beginnings ... sunrise near the Emmaus Retreat Centre in Swords, Co Dublin, a few weeks ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Some thoughts for consideration:

In these last days of Lent, as we start looking ahead to Holy Week and to walking with Christ on his way to the cross, the Gospel readings talk about what is going to happen and what he is going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, we see the Disciples at a point where they realise that this is a solemn time, but they are unsure about what is going to happen, and they are anxious and afraid.

But these are days of anxiety and fear for many in our world today. We have still not recovered fully from the economic depression, unemployment remains at a high level, the emigrants have still no hope of returning, and we only have to look at the economy of Greece to realise the chilling reality that the bad times could still return.

Nor should we forget that this too is a world troubled by wars, natural disasters and famines too, a world where those seeking democracy are treated as enemies in their own countries, a world where human rights are being eroded once again, and a world where people are martyred for their religious beliefs and slaughtered because of their nationality or ethnicity.

In this time of flux and change, there are plenty of would-be prophets of doom telling us how afraid we ought to be, that if we do not conform and fall into line something even worse may befall us.

But what if Christ is right this morning? If he is right, then we have no need to fear. We need to follow. When Christ is lifted up, he draws all people to him: the Greeks who are telling the Apostles Philip and Andrew that they want to see Christ, but are put on hold; the Pharisees who fear Christ is stirring up the people; the prophets of doom; and the peasants just trying to get by.

The God who Christ proclaimed, the God who created the universe, is still drawing the universe toward the justice for which it aches. That God is calling. The days are surely coming. God wants to inscribe God’s just and liberating word on our hearts, and for all, from the least to the greatest, to know it, to experience it, and to celebrate it.

Collect:

Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
Grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross,
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of hope,
in this Eucharist we have tasted
the promise of your heavenly banquet
and the richness of eternal life.
May we who bear witness to the death of your Son,
also proclaim the glory of his resurrection,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday, 11 March 2015.

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