Meditation on John 12: 20-33
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 21, 2021
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812
Our Lenten journey carries us ever closer with Jesus to the cross. The season of Lent reminds us that we never “arrive” in our faith. It is a time to examine our own hearts and lives and seek to grow in our walk of faith and relationship with our loving Savior.
Lent is a great time for studying God’s Word with others. I am taking an online class with Columbia Seminary this month reading and discussing Henri Nouwen’s reflections on Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, alongside the parable in Luke’s gospel.
In some respects, we may all be like the prodigal son. We have all gone astray. But we are also like the elder son, at times, who refuses to forgive his wayward younger brother. The parable, we have concluded, is the story of not just one lost son, but two brothers who have lost their way.
The father says to the elder when he refuses to celebrate the return of the other and pushes the father away in anger, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”
The parable ends, leaving us wondering if the elder son will ever forgive. Would we forgive, if we were in his place? He has held a grudge against his brother for a long, long time. Old habits and patterns of thinking are difficult to change. Will he ever come “home” to the Father who loves them all and doesn’t count their sins against them?
One question that was raised in the class is if the painting and the parable are less about the sons, lost and found, and more about the wonderful, abundant love of the Father, who longs to embrace, comfort, and heal us all? But the most surprising thing I have heard is that Nouwen and others have come to see Jesus as “the true prodigal.”
Nouwen writes, “He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through his cross to the Father’s home. All of this he did, not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God.” Nouwen goes on to quote Brother Pierre Marie, founder of monastic communities:
“When Jesus ascended into heaven, the Father looked at His Son and all his children, “since his Son had become all in all. The Father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; let us eat and celebrate! Because my children, who, as you know, were dead have returned to life; they were lost and have been found again! My prodigal Son has brought them all back.’ They all began to have a feast dressed in their long robes, washed white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Death, resurrection, and God’s love and mercy for all people is the message of our gospel reading in John 12 today. Jesus will use story, metaphor, and images to teach us what it means to be Christ’s followers.
The passage begins with some Greeks who come to Jerusalem during the Passover Festival to worship God. “Greeks” is a code word for NOT Jewish. They are Greek-speaking God-fearers, those who have come to believe and follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but were not born to Jewish parents. They approach Philip, who has a Greek name and comes from a predominantly Gentile area—Bethsaida, also the hometown of Simon Peter and Andrew. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they say. Why do the Greeks choose Philip? He speaks Greek, says NT scholar Ray Brown, but then, so do Andrew and Peter. I wonder if it may have to do with Philip’s spiritual gifts and personality. God uses our unique gifts for His purposes! Amen?
After Jesus invites Philip to follow him in the first chapter of John, the next thing Philip does is look for his friend, Nathanael, and share his faith. “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And Nathanael must have had a pretty good relationship with Philip, because Nathanael answers, maybe sarcastically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip responds not with a defensive retort, but with a warm invitation, “Come and see.”
When Philip tells Jesus about the Gentiles asking for him, this is a sign for Christ that the cross is near. “The hour has come,” Jesus says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
In this most dramatic moment, it is significant that Christ chooses to explain what is happening to his stunned disciples through a parable, a story with symbols from their everyday world and layers of meaning to bring spiritual understanding. The metaphor and image he uses in this agricultural society is “a grain of wheat” to explain about God’s purpose for him and plan for us—and what will happen when we follow him more faithfully.
Wheat has been cultivated for 9,000 years, says the Kansas Farm Bureau, beginning in the Euphrates Valley, near what is now Iraq. Today, wheat is grown around the world and “adapts to a wide range of environmental conditions – from the Arctic Circle to tropic temperatures.” Everyone knows what wheat is— how it is planted, grows and produces more fruit.
“Amen, Amen,” Jesus says, and this is translated, “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 will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
I will point out the obvious. Grain doesn’t really die when it falls to the earth, does it? Just as death on the cross isn’t the end of Jesus, when we die to ourselves and live as Christ, we are only sacrificing our former identities to become His new creations. This isn’t the end; it’s the beginning of our new, abundant, and fruitful life! In the same way, when a seed is planted in the ground it grows and gives birth to something new: it ceases to be a seed. The stalk will produce many more seeds that will fall to the ground and be planted, take root, and bear more fruit.
It’s a matter of having the right attitude, the right heart, and a mind fixed on Jesus. The only way for this to happen is through drawing nearer to him, knowing the Lord, more and more. Listen to this promise in Jeremiah 31: 33-34: God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Jesus assures us of His presence with us as we seek to know Him who has forgiven us and will lead us to bear much fruit. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there will my servant be also.”
We find more encouragement in our walk with Christ and strength for times of suffering and trials in verse 27, when Christ reveals his vulnerable humanity as the cross looms near. This is truly the Word become flesh—experiencing all the trials and temptations and feelings that human beings experience.
“Weak flesh,” says N.T. Wright, “human flesh, flesh that shrank from suffering as we all might. His natural instincts as a flesh and blood human being were to say: the time has arrived—and is there some way I can avoid it?”
“Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus says, “And what should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I come to this hour.”
With mention of the “hour,” Christ takes us back to what stirred him to declare, “My hour has come,” when the God-fearing Gentiles came looking for Jesus and Christ affirms that he is hope for the world. Of the work that God will accomplish through him on the cross, Jesus says, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Just like the Father will always be with us and strengthen us in our times of need, the Father answers the Son’s prayer and strengthens him when he is at his most vulnerable.
Lifted up on a cross, the hope for the world prays in Luke 23:34 for those who cry, “Crucify him!”
“Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Let us pray.
Holy One, we draw near to you now. Thank you for your promise of presence and for your love and forgiveness offered to all believe. Lord, sometimes we get stuck in our journey of faith. We love the world too much. We love our lives too much. We are reluctant to serve you if it’s inconvenient. We lack courage to move forward as you want us to do. Strengthen us to follow you to the cross, to be like the seed of grain, that dies to self and, planted by you, will become something new, growing and producing more fruit. Help us, Lord, to be bold and welcoming like Philip and introduce others to you. Stir us to love and forgive and not hold grudges. Cleanse and heal us of our wounds. Prepare our hearts and minds for that wonderful day when you return and draw all people to yourself. And what a joyous day that will be! In Christ we pray. Amen.