The Arrival of the Riffraff — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

Read John 12:20-33

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself” John 12:32

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. That’s my main thought, so I’ll repeat it. When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive.

“Riffraff” – what an interesting word! In English, it was originally a phrase – “rif and raf.” The phrase meant “one and all, everybody, every scrap.” It also meant the “sweepings” or “the refuse.” We have lost the inclusive aspect of the word and kept the insulting element. Who would have guessed?

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When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Expect the scrubs and scraps, the off-scoured and up-swept, the usable and disposable people. Expect the latecomers, the newcomers, the strangers, and foreigners. Expect the outcastes and outsiders, the rebels and resisters. When Jesus says “all people,” Jesus means “all people.”

In two weeks, we Western Christians will celebrate “Visitors’ Sunday,” also known as Easter. “Visitors’ Sunday” is how a sainted old curmudgeon described Easter to me. “I stay away from church on Easter,” he told me. “That’s when the riffraff shows up.”

I was startled. “Really? I think that’s a good thing!” My old acquaintance was unimpressed. “We haven’t seen hide nor hair of these characters since Christmas,” he grumbled, “if ever. They take all the back rows and make the regulars sit in front. They bring their kids and their breakfast cereal and their toys. They’re noisy and rude and don’t know any of the liturgy. I just stay home.”

My eyes wide, I pushed a bit further. “That’s an interesting perspective,” I said. “I’m wondering how you feel about the Sunday after Easter, when hardly anyone shows up?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “That’s when the real church people show up,” he smiled. “My favorite Sunday of the year.”

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. My old acquaintance saw that as, at best, a personal inconvenience. I see it as the best possible news in the world.

I am riffraff. I come from the scrubs and the scraps. I am the off-scoured and swept up. I am wired to be an outcaste and outsider. I respond by rebelling and resisting. It’s not just that others treat me as riffraff. When I am honest, I admit that I see myself as riffraff too.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. The human way to deal with this influx of outsiders is to play the “better than” game. I may not be much, I say, but at least I’m better than “x.” X is whatever person or people group on whose backs I stand to get a bit higher in the pecking order.

The “better than” game is the basic principle of the system of white, male supremacy. In the early days of colonial America, the greatest fear of wealthy, white, male landowners was that black and white servants would join together to overthrow the power, position, and property of the wealthy.

Those fears were realized in 1676 during Bacon’s Rebellion. This rebellion was an armed revolt of both black and white servants against the wealthy white men in Virginia.

The rebels were defeated and captured. The leaders were executed. But the real result of the rebellion was the enactment of the “better than” game in the Virginia colonial legislature.

The wealthy and powerful white men created a legal caste system. Black people were at the bottom. Slavery was the primary tool in the game. Poor white people could not be enslaved. In fact, the lower-class white men gained status by enforcing the new slave laws for their wealthy overlords.

The “better than” game produced what W. E. B. DuBois called the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness. That wage says, “I may not be much, but at least I’m better than those” Black or Native or Brown or Asian or female people.

That public and psychological wage has been used to manipulate white, working-class men from 1676 to the present moment. And many of us non-wealthy white men have happily cooperated.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Expect the riffraff to be welcomed, embraced, and included. Expect everything in the system to change – beginning with me and my place in that system.

Wealthy, white, land-owning men understood the disruptive power of Jesus and his message. So, they passed laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write. They created schools for Native children where the stated goal was to “kill the Indian in order to save the man.” They deported 180,000 U. S. citizens of Mexican descent back to Mexico to reduce competition during the Gold Rush.

These powerful men resisted voting rights for women and lynched black men who wanted to vote. They decreed that Christian baptism had no impact on black people in this life. That impact was limited to the next life. They whittled the New Testament down to an apology for white, male supremacy.

Here’s the problem. The price of the “better than” game is that no one can be good enough.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive – starting with me. When Jesus is lifted up, the “better than” game is over.

The system that pits humans against one another to benefit the one percent – that system is demonic. “Now there is a moment of judgment for the world,” Jesus declares in John 12:31. “Now the ruling power of this world shall be expelled outside.” The Greek words double up the “outsideness” of that ruling power to leave no doubt.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Expect enough space for all – except for that system of keeping all the space for a few. When Jesus is in charge, there is no room for the “better than” game.

What provokes this assault on power and privilege? Well, there were these Greeks, you see. It was Passover time, and faithful worshipers came to Jerusalem from all over the Empire. They came to make their sacrifices in the Temple. Greek was the language of much of the Empire. So it’s not surprising that Greek-speakers were among the pilgrims.

They probably weren’t Jews. Instead, these Greeks were probably non-Jews who found synagogue worship, study, and practice meaningful. As non-Jews, they could be admitted only to the outer courts of the Temple, on pain of death. They came as latecomers, newcomers, strangers, and foreigners. They got wind of this new guy, and they wanted to see Jesus.

The Greeks flipped a switch in Jesus’ plans. “The time has arrived,” he announced to the disciples, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” When the riffraff shows up for Jesus, expect something big to happen.

This worried the religious authorities – the system of power, position, and property in Jesus’ day. “Look at this,” they complained to one another in John 12:19. “There’s no leverage here. The whole world has gone after him!” The Greeks fulfilled their worst fears and Jesus’ final plans. The time had come.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive – starting with me. If I am beloved, I have no need of “better than.” Not only is there enough life for all in God’s world – there is abundant life for all.

There is room for all in God’s world, except for systems that deal in death and traffic in tyranny. So, there is room for all of me in God’s world, except for my sins of self-absorption. God’s world will not accommodate the powers of anti-life among us or in me. Therefore, this journey includes some dying.

The one who lives life as it is must lose that life. There is no room, for example, for the system of white, male supremacy in God’s world of love. If there were room for that, it wouldn’t be God’s world.

There is no room, for example, for all the  -isms and prejudices that block my vision and harden my heart. If there were, I couldn’t be open to God’s healing mercy. All that is not of God must die to make room for God’s abundant life.

That’s a painful process. It goes badly for those of us who are powerful, privileged, and propertied. The ruling power of this world doesn’t surrender without a fight.

Some would rather die – or kill – than be changed. Thus, we see the horrific, demonic violence directed toward Asian Americans, most recently, by a white, Christian man, terrified by change and enraged by his perceived “losses.”

In spite of that, human life is better when the “better than” game is abolished and abandoned. The zero-sum approach to life leaves us all poorer, angrier, stupider, and less human.

When our sinful self-absorption falls into the ground and dies, we discover that we are not alone. When we abandon our Western, capitalist, hyper-individualism, we discover genuine community and authentic humanity.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Christian congregations must embrace this truth or die. If we move beyond our panic about power and our focus on survival, we may draw closer to Jesus alongside the rest of the riffraff.

After all, no matter what we crusty curmudgeons say, Easter is coming.

Text Study on John 12:20-33 (Pt. 3); 5 Lent B 2021

Part Three: Lifted Up

I must confess that for most of my adult life, I didn’t care much for John’s gospel. All of that “you in me and me in you” stuff in the High Priestly Prayer. Doubting Thomas and “the truth shall make you free” every blessed year. Six long, dull weeks of the Bread of Life discourse every three years when there was plenty of Mark on which to drill down in detail. No parables to speak of. Long, long discourses in which you couldn’t even tell where to put the quotation marks. Preaching on John was like preaching on another’s sermons – a redundant exercise in mostly missing the point.

Give me Mark and his “immediately” any day of the week and twice on Sundays, thank you very much. I tried to schedule vacation and continuing education times during the Bread of Life discourse to decrease my frustration.

In these last days, I have had a change of heart. I have come to see John’s Gospel as the inexhaustible treasure and indispensable companion to the Synoptics that it is. So, what changed? Well, me, of course.

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First, when I heard Father John Behr note that John’s gospel begins where the Synoptics end, something clicked in my theological brain. I could see John as a deep commentary and reflection on the Jesus story as told in the Synoptics rather than an idiosyncratic competitor with them. As I began to experience John’s gospel as a subtle and sophisticated meditation on Holy Week as the lens through which to view all of Jesus’ ministry, the power of the gospel began to take hold of me.

Second, when I came to a deeper understanding of the doctrine of theosis, as taught in the Eastern church, John’s gospel made even more sense to me. St. Athanasius suggests that the goal of the Incarnation is our divinization. The Word became human so that humans might become divine. For now, let me say that reading John through the lens of that doctrine and letting John explicate that doctrine has made a profound difference in my reading of John’s gospel and my articulation of the Christian journey. Learning that this doctrine is found embedded in Luther’s theology has been icing on the interpretive cake (more on that in the next post).

Third, and building on the previous two notions, is the understanding in John of the nature of Incarnation as Glorification. “The hour has come,” Jesus solemnly declares in John 12:23, “in order that the Son of Man shall be glorified.” In John, as Karoline Lewis reminds us rightly and repeatedly, Jesus’ “glorification” runs from the Crucifixion through the Resurrection and into the Ascension. Separating these three elements into distinct “stages” can produce a misreading of John’s intended message. I am grateful for this regular reminder from Dr. Lewis as a key not only to John’s gospel but to Christian theology as a whole.

Jesus’ “glorification” runs from the Crucifixion through the Resurrection and into the Ascension. This is particularly true, I think, when we reflect on John 12:32. “And I,” Jesus promises, “when I am lifted up from the earth, shall draw all people to myself” (NRSV). We should note the immediate ambiguity in this description. Jesus is “lifted up” from the ground when he is suspended on the cross to die. He is “lifted up” from the tomb at his resurrection. He is “lifted up” from the earth as he ascends to heaven.

All three “elevations” are parts of the one process of the glorification of the Son of Man. John is the master of metaphor and a shameless punster. The writer of John exploits the double meanings of the term to the fullest. Those who lift Jesus up on the cross think they are hoisting him on the executioner’s pole. In fact, John wants us to see, they are exalting him to his heavenly throne.

The “ruler of this world” has occupied a throne that must now be vacated, since Jesus is taking his rightful place on the real throne. The “ruler of this world” is therefore “driven out” by the very means that worldly powers use to drive Jesus out of the world. They think they have brought an end to his disruptive presence. Instead, they have put him in the place where he will now draw all people to himself.

We who stand on the far side of this process can see the various elements of John’s account if we are looking. This is in contrast to the response of the crowd in verse 34 who understand “lifted up” as referring to solely to death by crucifixion. In order to get the full picture, we must conduct ourselves in the light which produces understanding.

John’s gospel does not have three “passion predictions,” in the way the Synoptics do. Three times, however, Jesus declares that the Son of Man will be “lifted up.” Those declarations are in John 3:14, 8:28, and 12:32. Whether these are John’s answers to the Synoptic passion predictions is not clear or all that important. More to the point is what Jesus means by “lifting up” and what it takes to see that elevation as glorification.

In each of the three cases, what is required is the light of the world that Jesus embodies. In John 3, Nicodemus comes by night and seeks enlightenment. In John 8, we have the central affirmation of Jesus as the light of the world. And in John 12, that theme is completed with the necessity for us to walk as children of the light if we are to come to that enlightenment.

When Jesus is exalted, he declares, he will “draw” all people to himself. The verb is used in John 6:44 as well. The Judean authorities complain that Jesus is “getting above his raising” (I love puns too, by the way) by describing himself as “the bread that came down from heaven.” In response to their skepticism, Jesus urges them to stop murmuring. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me,” he declares, “and I will raise that person up on the last day.” God draws people from the cross through the Resurrection and into the Ascension in glory.

Jesus makes it clear that we who follow him must take the path from cross to resurrection to ascension in glory as well. “When someone serves me,” Jesus declares in John 12:26, “let that one follow me, and where I am, there my servant shall be” (my translation). The scriptural vibrations in this sentence are nearly unmanageable. We who follow Jesus take on the role of “servant,” and we too come not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45).

As we serve, we find ourselves in the place where Jesus is the “I am” – an allusion to the name God gives to Moses in Exodus – and which John uses repeatedly in the gospel to identify Jesus with God. It is in the suffering service of the cross that we will lose our life in order to sustain it for all the ages (see John 12:25). Clinging to merely human life is the path toward losing real life. It is the path away from full humanity.

In verses 27-30, we get John’s version of the Transfiguration. In John, the Transfiguration affirms Jesus’ testimony to this point and promises to carry through to the end. John’s account of the Transfiguration is changed from the Synoptic reports in much the same way as John’s account of Jesus’ baptism is developed.

Here in John 12, Jesus prays for God’s name to be glorified. The prayer is answered by the voice from heaven. John notes that the voice was not given to benefit or reassure Jesus. In John, Jesus needs no such reassurance, since he knows how all things will turn out. Instead, the response is given for the sake of the crowd.

People, however, don’t understand what they heard. Apart from a living trust in Jesus, the voice of God sounds like the thunder of doom or the whispering of angels. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and it is only through him that God’s voice becomes intelligible. The Johannine transfiguration presents the “crisis” of his coming to the this “cosmos,” as noted in verse 31. The rulers of this world “go down” as Jesus is lifted up. We should not miss those contrasting directions.

And in verses 31-36, we get the final commentary on the “lifting up” of the Son of Man. The coming of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus is a sign that in this lifting up, Jesus will draw all people to himself. Jesus concludes by taking us back to the Prologue in John 1 and some final words about the presence of the Light in the world.  In verse 35, we have direct reference to John 1:5 and the danger that the darkness might “overtake” us.

Why do the crowds now ask who the Son of Man is? We can hear echoes of Caesarea Philippi once again. When Jesus talks about being “lifted up,” the crowds are clear about his meaning. John keeps the reader up to speed by reminding us in verse 33 that “he said this to signify by what sort of death he was destined to die” (my translation).

The NRSV omits some of the teeth in this verse. The “lifting up” metaphor is a sign, and the death is not accidental but part of the path. Just as in Mark 8, the cross is “necessary.” And the grammar in John puts the emphasis on “who” does the dying rather than the way in which he dies (see Wallace, page 636-637). So, the crowd hears what Jesus says. The Son of Man is going to die, and that’s not an accident or mistake.

Here in John 12, it is not Peter who rebukes Jesus this time but rather the crowds. If Jesus is to be lifted up on the cross, then in the minds of the crowd, he cannot be the Messiah. They are also thinking in human rather than divine terms. They quote some unknown proverb about how the Messiah cannot and shall not die. Perhaps this is a connection to Elijah as a Messianic figure, but we can’t be certain of that. In any event, a crucified Messiah is not part of the understanding the crowds have of what God intends.

Myers writes in conclusion, “For John’s Gospel, therefore, it’s not enough just to come to Jesus or “want to see” him; we must have our ears unclogged and our vision corrected by the trauma that is Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. As Jesus explains, we cannot avoid darkness and death, but instead, must trust that God will bring about life. This message is perhaps even more important this year, as we’ve all endured a time of pandemic and seemingly endless death. We may not be able to avoid the darkness, but we can, like those foretold in Isaiah 56, cling to Jesus’ promise that he will light our paths toward life.”

Following Jesus means being drawn up to the cross. It means descending into the tomb. It means being drawn up toward life in the Resurrection and knowing the abundance of that life in our ongoing Ascension into glory. More on that from an interesting Lutheran perspective in the next post.

References and Resources

Behr, John. The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969. See especially pages 73-86.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1957.

Myers, Alicia D.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for John 12:20-33 (Pt. 2); 5 Lent B 2021

Part Two: There Were These Greeks, You See

The text has three parts. In verses 20-26, we hear about some Greek-speaking visitors who have come to Jerusalem for the Passover pilgrimage. In traditional language, pilgrims “go up” to Jerusalem. That is, they “ascend.” We have another example of the ascending/descending motif in John that we discussed last week.

Instead of heading directly for the Temple, these Greeks seek out an interview with Jesus. This is another way John has to say that Jesus is the fulfillment of and replacement for the Temple. Jesus has achieved notoriety through his Triumphal Entry, which perhaps set all the pilgrims buzzing with expectation. There was no longer any secret about his presence in Jerusalem, and these seekers sought him.

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Who were these “Greeks”? They are not identified as “Gentiles” in the text. That would be the Greek word, “ethne.” Instead, they are referred to as “Hellenes,” part of the pan-Grecian culture that united the eastern Mediterranean world after the conquests of Alexander the Great three centuries before. Jeremias suggests that they were not Greek-speaking Jews but were, rather, “God-fearers.” In any case, their first language would have been Greek as would their predominant culture and worldview.

God-fearers were Gentiles who had an active interest and involvement in the life of a local synagogue but hadn’t taken the steps to become Jewish proselytes. Jeremias notes that at festival times, Jerusalem was filled not only with Jews but with these God-fearers. They may have come with one of the many pilgrim caravans that travelled to Jerusalem for the festivals.

Later, God-fearers were among the most likely adherents to Christianity from synagogue communities. They were on the margins of such communities and probably were most open to new and interesting perspectives on Judaism. They were attracted as well by the loosening of ritual requirements, perhaps, and by the witness to Jesus as a wonder-worker and demon-conqueror. Perhaps John is reflecting on that reality in the local synagogues where his readers are members.

In spite of the fact of his triumphal entry, Jesus was not making himself highly visible during this Passover feast – at least not to the authorities. His presence must have become known rather quickly, however, and these pilgrims sought him out. That would have been no small task in simpler times, since Jerusalem was overrun with people during all the festivals and especially during Passover. Jeremias estimates the typical number of Passover pilgrims in Jerusalem at this time as somewhere between 125,000 and 200,000 in addition to the 50,000 or so residents of Jerusalem.

Whether the Greeks were full proselytes or God-fearers doesn’t make a great deal of difference to John’s narrative. If they are God-fearers, it perhaps strengthens the impact of the notion that the “whole world was taking out after Jesus.” On the other hand, such spiritual tourists might not have raised the alarm with the Jerusalem authorities in the same way that a possible defection of full proselytes would. It’s really more a matter of curiosity than of substance for interpretation of the text.

The Greeks approach Philip, the first one to follow Jesus in John 1. He has a Greek-sounding name and perhaps is a more fluent Greek-speaker. He goes to Andrew, his brother, for backup. Philip has this sort of “gatekeeper” role in John’s gospel. He was also the one to bring Nathanael to an encounter with Jesus – and encounter that leads to Nathanael declaring Jesus to be the Son of God and the King of Israel.

When the Greeks come, seeking Jesus, a corner is turned in John’s gospel. “The larger context and Old Testament imagery used in John,” writes Alicia Myers in her commentary, “suggests our passage reflects the eschatological scene of the nations coming to the Jerusalem temple to worship found in many prophetic works, including Isaiah 56, which describes the arrival of foreigners, diaspora Israelites, and eunuchs to worship at the “holy mountain” (56:3-8). In true Johannine fashion, however, the Gentiles in John 12 are drawn to Jesus rather than the temple.”

The Isaiah passage addresses those who are by ritual definition excluded from Temple worship – the eunuchs and the foreigners. In the fulfillment of Israel, the eunuchs will not longer be “dry trees.” Instead, they will receive honor that exceeds that of having offspring. The foreigners will not be separated from God’s people, as they were by the wall between the Court of the Gentiles and the interior precincts of the Jerusalem Temple. Instead, the Lord will bring them [up] to God’s holy mountain.

Here we come back to the Temple Incident in John 2. We noticed that John had omitted the mention that the Temple would be “called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). It’s not that John ignored this function of the Temple. Instead, this image is reserved for the finale of the Book of Signs. Jesus is the house of prayer for all peoples, and the coming of the Greeks finalizes that awareness for Jesus and for John’s community, so the Temple can no longer be identified as that “house.” This is also yet another reason why I think that John’s gospel is really an extended meditation on the events of Holy Week interspersed with strategic flashbacks into Jesus’ earlier ministry.

Jesus will draw all people to himself – especially the outcasts of Israel (see Isaiah 56:8). “For John, therefore,” Myers writes, “Jesus fulfills God’s promises from Isaiah 56 by gathering not only Israelites in the land, but those in the diaspora as well as gentiles; he is, indeed, bringing together the whole world (John 19).”

Myers is referring to the sign above Jesus’ cross in John, the titulus. It is only in John that the sign is written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (John 19:20). The whole known world of the time, “all people” (John 12:32), is represented in those language groups and has been “lifted up” with him on the cross. The sign announces Jesus as “the Nazorean,” as the NRSV notes in a footnote to the verse. This designation does not mean literally, “one from Nazareth,” but rather “one set apart” or “one separated.” John does love a good pun.

The whole world has been coming to Jesus throughout John’s account. That begins with Nicodemus seeking him out at night. We see this in how Jesus describes his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. He uses images of sowing and reaping in John 4:31-38 to commend the response of the woman and her village. People flock to him for the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Now that circle of seeker has moved beyond the geographical bounds of biblical Israel and into the Diaspora.

In response to this request, Jesus declares that the time has come. “The coming of the Israelites from abroad to see Jesus,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “triggers Jesus’ certainty that the time for him to do what he was always meant to do, the activity marking the culmination of his life’s significance, has finally come” (page 212). There is, they note, a foreshadowing of this event in John 7:32-36. The religious authorities seek to arrest Jesus at that point, but it wasn’t yet time at that moment. They wonder if he will head off into the Dispersion to teach the Greeks. Instead, the Dispersion comes to him.

Here in John 12, we get John’s meditation on the revelation at Caesarea Philippi in Mark 8. In John, however, no one gets to tell Jesus who he is. Instead, Jesus is the one who tells us how it all works. In verses 23-26 we have, as N. T. Wright puts it, “a saying which resonates both with the synoptic challenges to a discipleship in which life itself is put at risk and with the Pauline analysis of the resurrection body” (Resurrection of the Son of God, page 444).

Jesus’ use of the seed metaphor here offers some prefiguring of the mechanism and meaning of the Resurrection of the body. “First,” Wright notes, “it will mean a transformation, as the seed into the plant. Second,” he continues, it is something which Jesus must undergo first, and his followers later, Third,” Wright concludes, “through this process not only will the person or people concerned be rescued from death into new life, but they will ‘bear much fruit’” (page 445).

There is an additional dimension we can note here. The NRSV translates the last part of John 12:24 as “it remains just a single grain…” The old proverb is that translators always lie. That’s a bit harsh, but it’s worth remembering. The Greek is “it remains alone.” The pronoun is an intensifier that puts the emphasis on the “seed” in the phrase. The seed is clearly Jesus, the Son of Man, who is to be glorified in his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Bearing much fruit means producing a community of fruit-bearers. And those fruit-bearers will also not remain alone since they must follow Jesus on the path to glorification.

In a further post, we will explore what it means for Jesus to be “lifted up.” But first he must descend into the earth and die like the single grain of wheat. His life is fulfilled, glorified, in the production of the faith community. No one, therefore, can be a Christian alone. Moreover, as we may see below, no one can be fully human alone. Remaining alone, remaining self-sufficient and self-enclosed, is a kind of living death – not the abundant life Jesus promises.

This is a way to understand Jesus’ words in verse 25 – words we get in the Synoptics as well. Clinging to that self-sufficient, self-enclosed, self-absorbed life is how we in fact “lose” that life. There is no real life apart from the self-giving love we see in and receive from Jesus. Any other way of living is not abundant but rather “scarce” – a zero sum approach to the world we will examine further in a future post.

References and Resources

Behr, John. The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969. See especially pages 73-86.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1957.

Myers, Alicia D.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for John 12:20-33 (pt. 1); 5 Lent B 2021

Gospel: John 12:20-33

Part One: The Whole World Has Gone After Him

First, let’s establish the text and the context. We have jumped from one end of the Book of Signs in John to the other. It could be a bit dizzying. Events recorded here come during the third Passover journey to Jerusalem in John’s gospel. It’s not reading in too much to see some significance in the number “three” here. John uses numbers in subtle ways throughout the gospel to communicate meaning. John may be signaling that this third Passover is the final and complete one for Jesus in his mission of abundant life.

We get notice of this third journey in John 11:55. So the larger context really begins there. This section of John (11:55 to 12:50) is the transition from the “Book of Signs” in chapters 2 through 11 to the “Book of Glorification” in chapters 13-21. Our context is bounded on the back end by the Farewell Discourse in chapters thirteen through seventeen. We get notice of one of John’s controlling stories again in 11:55. Many were “going up” to Jerusalem for the festival. “Ascending” in John always means that a big revelation is about to happen.

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This context contains a reminder in John 11:57 that “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (NRSV). In John’s account, Jesus is playing a bit of a hide and seek game with the authorities. He will determine when and how things come to a resolution. No one, as we read later, will take his life from him. Nonetheless, the shadow of the cross grows longer and deeper as we move further into John’s account. That threat perhaps conditions our understanding of what comes next.

In John 12:1-11, we find ourselves at the dinner party at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. Jesus describes Mary’s actions as his anointing for burial. Even this action has a double edge in John. After all, Israelite prophets and kings get anointed. The Messiah is, in Hebrew, the “Anointed One.” We see here that in John, Jesus’ death and burial are also part of his enthronement and glorification. Mary has prepared Jesus’ body for all that is to come.

At the dinner party, we get more information about Judas as a thief and the one who will hand Jesus over. We are thus prepared for Judas’ role in the drama to come and can see his actions in the light of his darker intentions. Jesus tells Judas to let Mary be, since she is preparing him for the events to come. He quotes a proverb that takes on different meaning after his glorification. The poor will always be with us in need of our care, so don’t forget that in the future. But soon Jesus will not need such treatment since he will be glorified.

In addition, we hear that crowds are coming not only to see Jesus but also to see Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead. The death threat is extended to Lazarus as well “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus” (John 12:11, NRSV). This, John indicates, is the potential path for anyone who receives life in Christ. We are the living evidence of the life-giving power of Jesus. The “rulers of this world” will always want to destroy the evidence if the opportunity presents itself.

Jesus’ body is prepared. The villain is identified. The threat is made crystal clear. The action can now proceed. In John 12:12-19, we get John’s account of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. This is another event which did not make sense to the disciples at the time. His disciples did not understand these things “at first,” we read in verse sixteen. Rather, when Jesus was glorified, then they brought to mind that these things had been written concerning him. They couldn’t really process the Messianic references the crowd shouted as Jesus rode into town. It was only later that they remembered “that these things had been written of him and had been done to him” (John 12:18 NRSV).

In John, we see in some detail how the early church saw Jesus as acting “in accordance with the scriptures.” That sense of scriptural fulfillment doesn’t come immediately but rather comes after remembering, studying, and reflecting. “In the Gospel story,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “every mention of the new understanding available to the disciples thanks to the Spirit given by Jesus makes members of John’s anti-society further attentive to the spirit in their midst, It further points,” they conclude, “to the increasing understanding of Jesus available to them.”

I want to emphasize this point. Far too many American Christians declare that they “believe in the Bible.” They declare that reflection and revelation must cease with the written word (preferably in the King James version). But Christian scripture itself does not support this understanding of the Word. Instead, the disciples come to deeper understandings as they pray and meditate on and live out the text of scripture. It only comes to them gradually as they remember their experiences through the lens of the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and expected return of Jesus Christ.

So it is for us. “Scripture is clear that God is not seen by human beings, for divinity is not subject to human perception,” Father John Behr writes in The Mystery of Christ. “In the case of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, what is beheld is the transcendent power of divinity manifested precisely in the things external to the divine nature—in flesh, in darkness, and in death—for here we contemplate the transcendent and transforming power of God” (page 22). As we pray, study, reflect, and live (in our own cross-shaped journeys), we can see more deeply into that transcendent and transforming power of God. That’s why preaching and theologizing are evergreen disciplines.

With the Triumphal Entry, we get another reminder of the problems Jesus creates for the religious authorities. The Pharisees commiserate with one another. Look at that! You (all) can’t do anything of advantage here. Do you see? The whole cosmos has departed with him. (see John 12:19). The verb for “depart” (NRSV translates as “goes after”) seems to mean that the whole world has left the accepted or familiar or known path with Jesus at the head of the parade.

Because of the enthusiastic crowds, “therefore” the Pharisees make this despairing observation to one another. The word for “world” here is “cosmos” – the cosmos which God loves by giving the Only-Begotten One. For the moment we find ourselves back in John 3:16. “Take note,” the Pharisees say to one another. “You can’t gain any advantage here.” When persuasion is no longer seen as an option, then action is all that’s left.

This verse brings us to the text for today, which Malina and Rohrbaugh label as “Jesus’ Final Public Revelation.” They take the text through verse 36 which concludes Jesus’ brief discourse here. “After Jesus had said this,” we read in the final sentence, “he departed and hid from them.” Is the “them” here the crowds? More likely, it is the chief priests and Pharisees who desire to arrest and dispatch with him. The game of hide and seek continues for a bit longer.

Before we move into the Book of Glorification, we get “a sort of epilogue to explain Jesus’ lack of success among the Judeans” (Malina and Rohrbaugh, page 213). This epilogue continues John’s meditation on Caesarea Philippi (see future posts) to its final conclusion. The numerous signs were not enough to bring the authorities to trust in Jesus. John quotes Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 61 to underwrite this as the expected outcome.

John notes that some of the authorities did in fact trust in Jesus (perhaps a reference to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea). But the risk of public acknowledgment was too great. Even those authorities who believed, “loved the glory of humans more than the glory of God.” Here is another word to the disciples in John’s community. Declaring allegiance to Jesus in public will have a cost. That cost might be expulsion from the Jewish community (which John labels as “the glory of humans”). John wants to prepare his community for that cost. Perhaps it prepares us as well for the cost of lost relationships, position, and community when we cling to the truth of Jesus.

John 12:44-50 offers a review of the theology of John’s gospel up to this point. All has been said and done. Then it’s time to say good-bye. We will return to that Farewell Discourse on Maundy Thursday. In reading the text itself, I would go through verse 36, as Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest. In addition, it is difficult, I think, to make sense of the coming of the Greeks to Jesus without at least referring to the desperate complaint of the Pharisees in verse 19. They symbolize and crystallize that concern.

To read and preach on a text that comes after the Triumphal Entry on the Sunday before the story of that event can make us linear thinkers more than a little disoriented. The purpose of this account on the penultimate Sunday in Lent, however, is to prepare us for what to see and what to expect in the narratives to come. We are like the disciples. We may read the text “forward,” but we can only understand it by looking “backward.” We will be best prepared for Holy week if our memories are refreshed and our vision is clarified ahead of time.

References and Resources

Behr, John. The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1957.

Myers, Alicia D.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.