Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a + Philippians 2:5-11 + John 12:20-43
On a morning when so much has already been different than usual — the earlier start time (ahem!), the blessing of the palm branches, the gathering with our neighbors — I feel obligated to share with you one more way that we’ve departed from the usual this day. Most Christian congregations, at least those that follow the lectionary, have heard a different gospel passage than the one we’ve just heard. They’ve heard the account of Christ’s passion on the cross from Matthew’s gospel, the tale of Jesus’ arrest and trial, suffering on the cross and death, and his burial in the tomb. This tradition of reading the passion story the Sunday before Easter is an old one, and comes from a time in the Protestant churches when our observance of the Three Days of Holy Week was less established. The logic was that in order to understand the meaning of Easter and experience the joy of the resurrection, we needed to witness Jesus’ death on the cross and consider its meaning for each of us and all of us.
Over the last few decades though, as Christians of all backgrounds and denominations have gradually recovered the ancient church’s keeping of the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, the lectionary’s logic has made less sense. The story of the arrest, crucifixion and death of Jesus is told on Good Friday, and many of you began to ask why that story needed to be heard twice in one week. The fact that you were asking the question was an indication of just how fully the traditions of the coming Three Days had taken root. So, at this, the beginning of Holy Week, I want to invite you once again to the discipline of these days. I want to ask you to clear your calendars, to make space in your busy lives, to enter fully into the passion of our Lord as he moves from the hopeful crowds of Palm Sunday to the intimate gathering with his friends on Maundy Thursday, to the agony of the cross on Friday, and then the gathering around fire and water and story and song at the Easter Vigil on Saturday. It’s a lot of church, to be sure, but as with so many things, the more we invest ourselves into the coming week, and one another, the deeper the rewards to our shared faith.
Having made the decision to save the remembrance of Jesus’ crucifixion and death for Good Friday, however, the question of Palm Sunday remained. This is the day when we wave our palm branches and sing our hosannas, welcoming Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem. It is a day full of pageant, in the scriptures and in our own assemblies. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, and in Matthew’s gospel on a colt as well, in order to signal that he is the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s expectation of a messiah that would save them from their oppression. That is, in fact, the meaning of the word that marks this day, “hosanna.” It means “save us” or “rescue us.”
Why did the crowds that greeted Jesus in Jerusalem expect that he could save them? Throughout his ministry, Jesus had taught with authority, healed the sick, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. As he moved through the countryside, among the people, he was not afraid to name the powers and principalities that held the people captive, that kept them oppressed. For their part, the people had long expected that God would send a messiah, one who would serve as their champion to liberate them from those who occupied God’s promised land. As we wave our branches this morning, we must ask, how are we like those who gathered on the streets of Jerusalem when Jesus, at last, came to town? Who have we been waiting for? From what powers do we long to be set free?
But his disciples, perhaps, weren’t so happy to see Jesus turn his face toward Jerusalem. Perhaps you remember last week, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill and decided to turn around and head back to Judea. The disciples were afraid for his safety, saying “Rabbi, the Temple leaders were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Thomas seemed to know precisely what they were headed for, as he goaded the rest of the disciples to follow Jesus saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” They must have wondered, as we do, why Jesus walked willingly toward his own death, toward the cross.
In the passage from John’s gospel we read this morning, Jesus addresses precisely this question. It is full of sayings that have become so familiar, they almost overshadow everything else in the story: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” and “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” These remarkable declarations, however, are in response to something mentioned only briefly at the beginning of the passage, something easy to skim over.
“Now among those who went up to worship,” the passage begins, “were some Greeks.” Jesus, who had met with Pharisees and Samaritans alike, at this late hour in his ministry is now being sought out by Greeks, people whose religious and cultural backgrounds could not have been more foreign. They approach Andrew and Philip, who were among the first to follow Jesus when he spoke to them, saying “come and see” (John 1:39). Now these foreigners declare that they want to see Jesus, carrying echoes of that first meeting with Jesus across the Jordan where John had been baptizing (1:28).
In response to the news that these Greeks want to see him, Jesus offers a cryptic metaphor, “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” (12:24). This, for the gospel of John, is an image of salvation. When you imagine a stalk of wheat, you can see the staff that bears the kernels at the top, almost woven together by the husk that surrounds them. Each of those kernels, of course, is a seed that carries within it the code, all the information needed for the earth to produce another stalk of wheat which will produce enough seed to multiply the crop again, and again, until the stalk of wheat becomes a wheat field. A grain of wheat is nothing, Jesus reminds us, a field of wheat is everything, it is enough to feed the world, but only if the seed falls to the earth and the cycle of multiplication begins.
For the last six weeks, the adult education forum has been “making sense of the cross,” studying the theories of atonement that Christians have used over the centuries to explain to themselves and one another why Jesus’ death and resurrection makes a difference for the world. Some theories focus on a cosmic struggle between God and Satan in which all of humanity is held ransom. Some theories focus on a sense of debt that must be paid for the weight of human sin. Some theories emphasize the way that Jesus’ life and death provide a model for our own human living. In her commentary on John’s gospel, Professor Gail O’Day suggests that none of these theories of atonement quite matches up with what we find here in these verses from John. She writes,
“It is important to begin by remembering that theologies of atonement are in actuality theologies of reconciliation — that is, they attempt to explain how God and humanity were reconciled to one another in Jesus’ death … Sacrifice is one way of understanding reconciliation, but not the only way. Jesus’ sayings in John 12:23-36 suggest an alternative model of reconciliation, one that is built around the restoration of relationship … Jesus’ death is described as both necessary and life-giving because as a result of it community is formed. The discipleship teachings (vv. 25-26), which in [Matthew, Mark and Luke] define discipleship exclusively as taking up one’s cross, instead define discipleship as serving Jesus and make clear that the goal of such service is restored relationship with God and Jesus. The passion prediction (12:32) also focuses on relationship, that through Jesus’ death all people will be drawn to him … Throughout the Gospel, this new relationship to God and one’s fellow human beings is described in metaphors of new birth and new or eternal life … Jesus’ death has this effect, not because it is a sacrifice that atones for human sin, but because it reveals the power and promise of God and God’s love decisively to the world.”
When I think of atonement, or reconciliation, like this — as an act of love initiated by God, multiplied as it takes root in each of us and grows into lives of loving service to our neighbor that result in more kernels planted, more wheat grown, more bread baked, more lives fed, more love shared, more life lived — then I think I understand better what Jesus means when he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” It’s not so much about loving and hating, as clinging to versus releasing. We might hear it as “those who cling to their life lose it, and those who release their life in this world will see it live on forever.”
Earlier this week I was with an ecumenical group of parish pastors, seminary professors, and judicatory leaders (meaning, people who serve the church at the synodical or national level, or their equivalents in other denominations) at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. We were asked to work together to try and define what we mean when we talk about “people of faith,” and to identify what conditions allow these communities to thrive. Our definitions were muddled, I think, shaped as they are by constructs and institutions that are, themselves, dying in so many ways, great and small. Over and over again however, those gathered returned to this idea, that the church need not be afraid of its own dying, of the things that are lost along the way, because we know and have always known that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.” We know, and have always known, that what we cling to, we lose; but what we are willing to release for the sake of the world, we will have forever. Gail O’Day sees in these verses from John a much clearer definition of “people of faith.” She writes,
What is striking about [this passage from John] is that the connection between Jesus’ death and the life of the believing community is repeatedly stressed. The faith community consists of those who redefine the meaning of life on the basis of Jesus’ death. The faith community is the fruit of Jesus’ death; it is what shows forth Jesus’ love to the world.
In essence, the answer John’s gospel gives to the question of why Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, why he led his disciples to a place where he knew he would die, why he was greeted by the throng seeking salvation, is us. Not just us, but all of us.
The answer to the question of why, is that it accomplished what it set out to do. It created a people of faith who each carry within ourselves the seeds of a love that starts and ends with God. Not a cosmic war, not a debt, not a job description, but a love that created the world and everything in it so much that it took on flesh and blood to get closer to us and bring us closer to one another. A love that saves us over and over again.
Look! Here it comes again, riding on a donkey and a foal just as we expected. Let us prepare once again this Holy Week, to be saved by love.