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Faith >

Next week's readings: 5th Sunday of Lent


Jeremiah 31.31-34;

Hebrews 5.5-10;

John 12.20-33

WE NEED to go back to the previous verse in John’s Gospel. The religious authorities have failed to rein in Jesus. They voice their anger and frustration. "There’s nothing we can do. The world has gone after him"(John 12.19). By "the world", they mean an awful lot of people. But, in this Gospel, words spoken often carry a greater weight than the speakers intend. "The world" here is the world God so loved — the whole wide world held in wounded hands.

Even as the exasperated Pharisees speak, representatives of this wider world are on their way to Jesus. A group of "Greeks" ask to see him. Did they get to meet him? We’re not told; we can only hope so. What matters for John is that here, for the first time, Gentiles, too, are asking for Jesus.

It is one of several sudden dramatic twists in John’s account of Jesus by which he reveals the universality of his mission. Another such moment is when Jesus, expelled from the Temple by the Dean and chapter, goes out to suffering humanity. The light that leaves the Temple comes to one born blind (John 8 and 9).

The Greeks’ request to see Jesus is the turning point of John’s Gospel. (In the other Gospels, Peter’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah at Caesarea Philippi has the same pivotal significance.) "Some Greeks", John curtly calls them. That’s all. We know nothing about them, yet they are all humanity, their simple petition articulating humankind’s ancient aching longing for some hope beyond the passing show of things.

The Jesus of John’s Gospel has been waiting for these Greeks — perhaps, in his humanness, dreading their appearance, because their request means that his "hour" has come. It is a crucial moment — literally "crucial", for the hour now upon him is the hour when he must be "glorified" by his death.

In a series of sayings familiar to us from the Synoptic Gospels, John makes clear what manner of glory it is that awaits both Jesus and his followers. Lest we should think too lightly of the cost, John takes us to Gethsemane.

This Gethsemane is not a garden on the Mount of Olives, though John echoes what the other gospel-writers say happened there. It is, rather, the Gethsemane of the spirit, the dark night when we plead to be spared what the next day holds. The voice from heaven recalls Jesus’s baptism, at which he first shouldered the cross, now so terribly near. Some bystanders hear thunder. Some hear an angel. John’s account is curiously splintered. The dark night of the soul of Jesus is glimpsed as if by lightning — as if we could ever see it any more clearly.

"Now is the judgement . . ." "Now this world’s ruler is driven out . . ." The repeated "nows" are hammer blows, as if already driving in the nails to be used at Calvary. The cross is both judgement and victory. The judgement is the sentence I pass on myself, by my embracing the cross or by my refusing it. The victory is the dethronement of the old enemy. (In the theology of the New Testament, Satan has lost an empire, but not — not just yet — a role.)

So we come to what I find — forgive the personal note — the most memorable words in the New Testament. "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." If I draw back from the abyss of total scepticism, it is because I believe that a certain Jesus Bar-Joseph once said something like this, and that, in doing so, he was moved, not by megalomania, but by divinity.

To be "lifted up" in John can mean more than crucifixion. Jesus’s "lifting up" is his threefold exaltation from the earth, the single sequence of his death, resurrection, and ascension. But here, so that the contradiction will be absolute, John insists that Jesus, still in his soul’s Gethsemane, sees no further than the cross.

In 1850, Søren Kierkegaard published an extended meditation on these words, entitled Seven Christian Expositions. He included them in his Training in Christianity (for which he proposed the sub-title An endeavour to introduce Christianity into Christendom). All subsequent commentary on John 12.32 is merely footnote.

Kierkegaard insists that we understand who it is who speaks these words. "This illegitimate child whom the race refused to recognise" — it is he who draws all to himself. The great paradox that moves Kierkegaard is that there should be "such a word from one so humbled". The one who will draw all to himself is "the one who was despised, mocked, derided, spat upon".

That one so repugnant should be so compelling is an absurd proposition. But, for Kierkegaard, the truth that compels is not an idea to be upheld by argument. Compelling truth is "existential" truth, the truth we experience in the commitment of faith. "Hence one sees what a monstrous error it is to impart Christianity by lecturing."

Or by preaching?


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