Dying to be a Success
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival [of the Passover] were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
"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. Father, glorify your name."
Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him."
Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
Once again the schedule of worship texts has us jumping around, so that today’s gospel story actually takes place following a couple familiar stories which we’ll hear during Holy Week. First, there’s the account of Mary (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) anointing Jesus’ feet with oil; at which point Jesus took the opportunity to tell his disciples that he will not always be with them. That is followed by Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem; which brought great crowds primarily because the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead had spread throughout the lands. Looking out at the crowds waving palm branches, the Pharisees said to one another, “It’s out of control; the world’s in a stampede after him” (Eugene Peterson, The Message).
Today we learn that some Greeks were among those who had come to see Jesus. These Greeks request an audience with Jesus. While the text does not elaborate on who exactly these Greeks are, the fact that they are referred to by their ethno-nationality is important. It tells us that the Jesus wave had crashed over onto the cosmopolitan culture of the Greeks. You know you’ve made it when the Greeks show up.
And so Jesus says that his time has come.
Previously in John’s gospel account Jesus has said, “It is not yet time.” Like at the wedding in Cana when he turns water into wine (John 2) or when he accompanies his brothers to the Festival of Booths and nearly starts a riot (John 7).
But now the time has come. And what’s different about this time? The Greeks; they have shown up and present the possibility of cultural influence, wealth, and power.
Imagine it like this: you write a story and share it with your friends. They enjoyed it and shared it with their friends, who shared it with their friends, until it reaches the desk of Steven Spielberg, who, naturally, loves it and hops on a plan bound for Indianapolis to find you.
The arrival of the Greeks is like Steven Spielberg knocking on your door saying, “I want to make a movie based on your story; I want to make you rich and famous.” It is the cultural stamp of approval; the proof that Jesus “made it” in the world; the indication that the Jesus movement was going viral.
When Jesus learns that even the Greeks want to cozy up to him, he responds by saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
Except, that doesn’t mean what we think it means.
Being glorified means something completely different to Jesus than it did to the Greeks.
Jesus could not have cared less about the cultural markers of success of his day (which are not very different from today) because Jesus wasn’t playing the same game as everyone else. His goal was not to become a billionaire or a Hollywood success story. He had no desire to trend on social media; nor to partner with or benefit from the powerful and influential cultures of his day.
The glorification of the Son of Man is not measured in awards, endorsements, legions of fans, tons of money, a key to society’s inner circle, or even the size of a Christian congregation today. Rather, the glorification of the Son of Man will come in death, like what happens when a single grain of wheat falls to the earth only to give life to new sprouts of wheat. These sprouts will mature and drop dozens more seeds into the ground, which in turn multiply new sprouts and new seeds.
Jesus rejects the cultural and religious claims to power; instead, he embraces death. In so doing, he offends the Greeks, the Jews, his own disciples, and anyone else who had bought into the false promises of prosperity broadcast by the powers and principalities.
Instead of becoming a part of the system of success, with its elite few carried on the shoulders of the masses; Jesus promises to drive out “the ruler of this world” and “draw all people to [him]self.”
As always, you need to draw your own conclusions about how this story is relevant to your life. But here are some ideas.…
We could stop striving for the world’s illusion of acceptance and affirmation. For example, the number of friends we have or “likes” we get on our social media posts have no correlation to our value.
We could pause and evaluate whether we are contributing to a system of abundance for all people, or a system of accumulation of stuff for just ourselves. Could we be convinced that the increasing gap between the rich and poor is a spiritual issue?
We could allow our faith to send us out onto the dangerous front lines where our convictions intersect with injustice, willing to risk everything on behalf of others.
Last week the Vatican announced the canonization of Oscar Romero, who was an Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. Archbishop Romero was a passionate and outspoken advocate for the poor and oppressed as well as a fierce proponent of nonviolent resistance. His theology and activism put him at odds with political and military leaders in his country, and at odds with the larger church, who thought his was too political.
On March 23, 1980 Archbishop Romero preached a message calling out human rights violations in his country and demanding soldiers end to the violence of El Salvador’s civil war. He said, “In the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression.”
One day later, while celebrating mass at a hospital, Archbishop Romero was shot and killed by a death squad.
He almost assuredly knew that his path would lead to his death, as he drew inspiration from his close friend Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, who was also assassinated for his own work seeking justice for the poor in El Salvador in three yeas earlier. Certainly both men drew inspiration from another man who also suffered for his fierce advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable as well as his pointed antagonisms against the powers of his day. That man, of course is Jesus.
Faith in Christ must always be outwardly evident and counter-cultural. Jesus did not promise safety and security for those who would claim to follow him. Instead, we, with our beautiful churches and positions of social privilege, must be ready to give it all up on a moment’s notice. That’s the message of Jesus; it is strength disguised as weakness, and it is no wonder that even his closest followers turned on him. May we do better.