Today’s Gospel reading may be among the most assiduously avoided passages in the Gospel of John. First, it tells a story without connecting all the dots or fully explaining the significance of what’s going on; then, second, it moves on to a spiritually profound level that somewhat mystifies us and perhaps frightens us with its personification of Satan; third and finally, it moves to the practical level where Jesus challenges us as deeply as anywhere else in the Gospels.
Let’s start with the story line, the seemingly easy part. We have an anonymous group of “Greeks,” generic for “Gentiles,” who presumably are converts visiting Jerusalem on a Passover pilgrimage; we have the Apostle Philip, from Bethsaida on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee; we have Andrew, also from Bethsaida; we have Jesus; and we even have the voice of God the Father speaking words of affirmation from heaven that those standing by mistake for thunder or the voice of an angel, even though Jesus says without further explanation that the voice was meant only for their benefit, not His.
If you study the overall structure of John’s Gospel you’ll discover that this is the climactic and pivotal moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry, an event during which Jesus makes two astonishing statements: “The hour has come,” and “Now judgment is upon this world:” all of that came just from learning that a group of Gentiles were asking for Him! These are cosmic statements, having sweeping implications for the spiritual history of the world, of all humankind, the very axis of God’s dealing with His creation. This is it!
I don’t think we’ve come to terms with this passage very often other than quite superficially. And I left out perhaps the most important piece of all: in this very moment, when these Gentiles come seeking Jesus, only Jesus Himself fully recognizes the magnitude of what’s happening. The saving grace of God is not first imparted to Gentiles at Pentecost or with the conversion of Saul of Tarsus when he becomes Paul the missionary to the Gentiles. Nor does the extension of salvation to the Gentiles come through Peter’s encounter with the Gentile centurion, Cornelius. It doesn’t even begin with the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 when the parties of Peter and Paul hash out the requirements for Gentile conversion. It’s right here, in this very moment when Jesus is informed of the Gentiles’ seeking for Him that Jesus says, “the hour has come,” and He adds, “For this very purpose I came to this hour!” Until now, Jesus only encountered Gentiles sporadically and individually. This is different, and its sweeping implications embrace every one of us. Bookmark this passage in your Bible! It’s truly monumental!
Who were these Gentiles? How many were there? Where were they from? We’ll never know. Did they ever actually get to meet Jesus? The story doesn’t tells us. Why did they first approach Philip rather than Peter, the spokesperson, or John, the beloved? The usual explanation is that Philip had a Greek name, though he certainly was Jewish. But how would they even have known his name? We’re not told. Why did Philip then go to Andrew rather than going directly to Jesus? We can’t know or even make an informed guess.
What more do we know about Philip? Not a lot, and all we do know comes from John’s Gospel. We know that Andrew and Philip were the first two disciples to be called by Jesus and that both seem previously to have been followers of John the Baptist. While Andrew went at once to tell his brother Simon Peter about Jesus, Philip went straight to Nathanael, saying, “We have found Him of Whom Moses and the prophets wrote.” And meeting skepticism from Nathanael, Philip added the simple words, “Come and see.”
After that, apart from today’s Gospel, we encounter Philip only twice more, and both times he appears to have been the skeptic. The first was at the Feeding of the 5,000, when Philip tells Jesus that it would take over half a year’s wages to buy bread for such a crowd (John 6:7). The other time is in the Upper Room, when Philip interrupts Jesus to say, “Show us the Father and it will be enough for us.” He said this immediately after Jesus had said, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” Jesus seems unable to mask His disappointment when He responds personally to Philip, saying, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you do not know Me? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” (John 14:7-9).
Returning to our story in John 12, the response of Jesus to Philip and Andrew must have astonished them. The narrative ends abruptly, and Jesus immediately moves on to the spiritual level, the deep, complex, mystifying and frightening level. He says, “The hour has come.” For what? He tells us: “for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
What could that mean? How did the approach of the Gentiles trigger such a response from Jesus? First, we have to remember that when Jesus sent out the 12 disciples, He specifically told them, "Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5, 6). Jesus said that even He "was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Now He alone understands that these inquiring Gentiles were sent by God to signal a new plan, a broadening of the playing field, a game-changing moment, the ushering in of an inclusive mission to both Jews and Gentiles.
Knowing His purpose on earth, Jesus also immediately recognized the significance of this hour, the hour for Him to be “lifted up” in order to draw “all men,” whether Jews or Gentiles, to Himself: not all without exception, but all without distinction. John, writing 6 decades later and with 20/20 hindsight, adds editorially that by “lifted up,” Jesus was signifying the means of His death, just as He had some years before when, speaking to Nicodemus, He said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 3).
As confident as Jesus was as to the meaning and import of this hour, He was still the earthbound God/Man Jesus, Who could admit that His soul was troubled and that some part of Him wanted to say, “Father, save Me from this hour.” Nonetheless, He displays His awareness of His Messianic mission and its connection to this hour, something that God the Father affirms when He says from heaven that He has glorified Jesus’ Name and He will glorify it again. For that glorification of His Name to be complete, Jesus first had to pass through the Cross and the Resurrection, leading to His Ascension to the Father’s right hand. Then and only then could the Father say, “This day have I begotten You.”
Now Jesus adds a critically important tag: that the coming of the hour involves not only the covenant inclusion of the Gentiles and the time for Jesus to be “lifted up,” but it also ensures the defeat of Satan: “Now the ruler of this world will be cast out.” We may wish from our perspective that “now” had meant immediately, but the fact that it did not in no way diminishes its certainty. Jesus, viewing Satan through the Cross and the Resurrection, clearly states that Satan will be cast out. As Martin Luther wrote in his great Reformation hymn [that we sang this morning], “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him: his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him” [A Mighty Fortress Is Our God].
We tend not to like being confronted with descriptive names that personify evil in our world. We would rather regard evil as some vague negative force that tries to counterbalance God’s positive force. “Satan,” the “devil,” the “ruler of this world,” the “prince of darkness,” the “father of lies” and the “prince of the power of the air” are all personifications we could do without. But even in the original words of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught His disciples, a prayer that many of us say daily, what Jesus really taught us was to ask that God not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one. I’ve often wondered whether it’s been to Satan’s delight that both the Latin and the English versions of the Lord’s Prayer contain the same translation error, one that transmutes “the evil one” into just “evil.” Certainly Satan would not wish the billions of Christians who have recited that prayer to be praying against him personally!
You may have noticed that I skipped over a few things in our passage, saving for last the third aspect, the practical one, the “so what” factor that has to do with us, how we should live in accordance with what’s being taught here. And guess what? It’s very uncomfortable territory! Now we’ll see why this passage is so frequently glossed over as though it were merely a parenthetical bit sandwiched between the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in the preceding verses, and the withdrawal into the Upper Room in the next chapter. It also is one of those passages where Jesus, instead of leaving us with just a vague aphorism about a grain of wheat, cuts to the chase with words that directly invade and challenge our comfort zones.
Listen again to what Jesus says to us, not just to those gathered around Him long ago: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:24-26).
Is that upside down or what? Does this make any sense to 21st-century American Christians? It’s so loaded with self-denial and self-sacrifice that we can hardly bear it. And it absolutely and explicitly contradicts our notion that self-love is the key to happiness. Whatever we may mean by that, Jesus says that we’re to hate our lives if we’re to keep them “to life eternal. That’s precisely why, on the one hand, this is a seriously neglected pericope in John’s gospel and why, on the other hand, it’s among the most critically important passages for our understanding of God’s grand plan for us.
These words constitute a concise Christian guide to “obedience,” something to which all Christians give lip-service, as long as obedience is on our own terms. All sorts of worldly practices and forms of entertainment take precedence over obedience in our lives, and we develop elaborate schemes of self-justification to fortify ourselves against the demands of Jesus. But the demands of Jesus are completely predicated on our willingness to surrender our sacred cows, to relinquish the things that keep us away from worship and fellowship, to step away from the many distractions that we allow and that we even invite to invade our lives and diminish our focus on God Himself.
Perhaps you’ve heard from some pulpit or read in some devotional book a line that is misrepresented as a quote from the early Church father, Irenaeus. The so-called quote is this: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Those who cite this line usually go on to say something very engaging and contemporary about how God actually wishes us to be self-actualized persons so that we will be truly happy and fulfilled in this life. But the truth is that Irenaeus said just the opposite. In fact, what Irenaeus actually said is completely consonant with the words of Jesus we just heard.
Listen to Irenaeus: [“Gloria Dei est vivens homo.” Against Heresies IV, 20, 7 & 5]
The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God.
If the revelation of God through creation gives life to all who live on the earth, much more does the revelation of the Father through the Word give life to those who see God. He, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible and comprehensible [in Christ Jesus], and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might give life to those who receive and behold Him through faith. The actualization of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness.
Did you hear anything in those words that sounds like “the glory of God is man fully alive?” No, those words and that thought are conspicuously absent in Irenaeus, just as they’re absent in the teaching of Jesus, Who said: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.” In other words, the glory of man is in his vision of God, and for the Christian, that vision is through Christ alone (John 1:12ff.).
What does it mean to follow and serve Jesus? You remember only three Sundays ago our Gospel reading contained these well-known words of Jesus: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34, 35). Both Jesus in today’s Gospel and blessed Irenaeus in the second century said this same thing. Is making some sacrifices in this life worth keeping our lives “to life eternal?” Absolutely. God is not glorified when we’re absorbed with pursuing the contemporary version of being “fully alive.” He is glorified when we live according to a vision of Him in all His righteousness, a vision we have through His Son, Who was lifted up on the Cross “so whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.” It’s sacrificial living that most pleases God, because only through sacrifice are we living in the image of Christ, Who gave His life for us.
How should we respond to all of this? Some of the things about sacrificial living sound very familiar because we’ve read and heard them over and over. Some of those things seem “over the top,” as though they surely must be intended for someone else. But Jesus is addressing anyone who wishes to serve Him and be honored by God. And His message is not one of being “fully alive,” but of being “fully dead,” as His analogy of “the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies” suggests. Only then will the followers of Jesus “bear much fruit” and keep their lives “to life eternal.”
When we truly follow Jesus, He promises that we will be where He is, which may not be where we generally find ourselves. For His part, He has promised that He will be with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). And He also promises that once we’ve died to ourselves in order to become alive in Him, we will have “life abundantly” (John 10:10). Then we’ll know what Irenaeus meant when he said that “the life of man consists in beholding God,” that “ the actualization of life is found in fellowship with God,” and that “fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness,” a goodness that surpasses even the greatest good that we seek in this world.
And so, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians (5:2), “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God.” That’s our true calling, yours and mine.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen