Sermon, March 18

Friends, it’s almost Palm Sunday, when we sing Hosannas and then shout, Crucify him! We’re coming to a part where it all gets ragged and hard and strange. And this is a ragged, hard, strange Gospel text.

So rather than try to digest it down to a nice pithy take-away, today I’m going to share my grappling with the text. John’s Gospel is a challenging book, and I do not know it – understand it – love it – as well as Mark or Luke, or even Matthew. So let’s chew through this together, and see what we find. Open your Sunday supplement to the Gospel, if it helps you to look at the text as we go along.

The first few verses of this text often make people chuckle. Those poor Greeks! Did they ever get their meeting? So these Greeks – they probably are actually Greeks, as in, people of Greek origin, though more on that in a bit. They are already attracted to Judaism – perhaps seekers, perhaps even converts. We know this because they are coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, the great feast of the salvation of the Jews from bondage in Egypt. They’ve heard about Jesus and they want to see him. So they approach Philip; Philip approaches Andrew; and they both go to Jesus.

Why these details about the approach to Jesus? Maybe that’s just how it was in Jesus’ inner circle – Philip did public relations, Andrew kept Jesus’ appointment calendar. But I think John is also intentionally reminding us of the beginning of his Gospel. In John’s Gospel, Philip and Andrew, along with Andrew’s brother Simon Peter, are the first three disciples to be called to follow Jesus. They’re Jesus’ Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and Marquis de Lafayette. My hunch is that by name-checking Philip and Andrew here, John wants to make us think back to the beginning of the story: there’s a sense of coming full circle, of arriving at a culminating moment.

And by the same token, Jesus’ response is not actually a non sequitur. He doesn’t say, “Sorry, busy right now,” or, “Sure, bring ‘em over.” He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” But that proclamation IS a response to the Greeks wanting to meet him. Jesus recognizes that this is a moment of prophetic fulfillment. The Greeks are more than just Greeks.They represent the whole non-Jewish world. In Jesus’ time and place, the word “Greeks” functioned as a kind of shorthand for “non-Jews.” We see this over and over again in the Epistles and the Book of Acts: the formula “both Jews and Greeks” is used to mean, well, everybody. Consider a well-known verse from the letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

So this isn’t just a few business travelers who want to meet a celebrity. This is the moment when the nations come to honor the God of Israel, as the prophets have long foretold. We sang about that our Epiphany Song of Praise, a portion of the 60th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah: “Nations shall stream to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawning.” Israel had long ago come to understand that Yahweh God was not just the God of their nation, their people, but the God of everything. And they looked with hope towards a day when the whole world would turn to God and God’s ways of righteousness and mercy. And here are these Greeks, seeking Jesus, the Son of Man who is also the Son of God. It’s even clearer that this is what’s going on if you look at the verses that immediately precede this passage: a group of religious leaders are talking about what to do about Jesus. They are afraid he’ll confuse the credulous and desperate – and worse, perhaps bring about a violent crackdown from Rome –  but they conclude:  “What can we do about him? The whole world has gone after him!”

So when Jesus says, “The hour has come,” he is responding to the approach of the Greeks. It’s happening, right now: the whole world turning towards God’s light, shining forth in Jesus. Whether Jesus ever met these Greeks or not is irrelevant; what matters is they came looking for him. It means his mission of teaching and healing is finished; it’s time to begin the mission of dying and rising.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Let’s talk about “Son of Man.” In all four Gospels, Jesus uses this phrase to talk about himself when he’s speaking theologically or cosmically. The Common English Bible renders it as “The Human One.” You can read a lot about what this phrase might mean – but I don’t think we really know. I think it’s probably really a thing Jesus said, rather than a theological gloss the gospel writers added. To me it feels like a funny little piece of evidence that Jesus was what he claimed to be. If you were a human trying to elevate yourself and claim godhood, wouldn’t you call yourself the Son of God? Likewise, if you were part of a divine being, who was sent to be embodied as a human on earth in order to reconcile humanity and God, might you not think of yourself as “the Human One”? Imagine God the Creator and the Holy Spirit at the dinner table: “Where’s the Human One? Is he coming?”

“The Son of Man will be glorified.”Glorified – the word appears here in verse 23, and a little later, in Jesus’ dialog with the heavenly Voice. Like “Son of Man,” I can just kind of read past the word without really thinking about it – but if I think about it at all, I realize I’m not really sure what it means here. Studying the text, I did a thing I do pretty often: I used an online interlinear Greek New Testament to look at what the word is in Greek, then looked that up in an online concordance – a sort of database of every word used in the Bible – to see a definition of the Greek word and how it’s used across Biblical texts. The Greek word for “glorify” is doxazo. It’s heavily used throughout the New Testament, but especially so in John’s Gospel – in keeping with what scholars call John’s “high Christology,” his keen sense of Jesus’ divinity. Theologian Florin Paulet explains this well:

“Compared with [Jesus as found in the Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke], [John’s] Christ does not belong to this world at all: he enters the world with the purpose of leaving it, or descends in order to ascend. He is a pre-existent divine being, whose real home is in heaven. He knows precisely who he is.”  (Florin Paulet, SJ, in Studia theologica, 2004) 

So the emphasis on glory – Jesus’s, God’s – in John’s gospel represents the moments when the power and mystery and dazzle of divinity breaks through. But what does it mean to say, The Son of Man will be glorified? Or, Glorify God’s name? My online concordance gave a handy list of definitions for Doxazo: to honor, to praise, to celebrate, to render excellent or glorious, to cause the dignity and worth of something to be made known and acknowledged.

( I can come to grips with all that. Sure, Jesus’ death and resurrection caused God’s love, grace, and power to be known better and more broadly. But I also think these definitions are… limited. They reflect Enlightenment and Protestant thinking: it’s all about people’s capacity to know, perceive, understand. That’s all fine – but when we’re talking about God’s glory, there’s also something deeper and stranger going on, something beyond our capacity to understand. “Glory” in the New Testament echoes a keyword in the Hebrew Bible, kabod, most often translated as God’s glory. For example, in the wilderness time, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” (Ex 24:17)

I think all of this – doxazo, kabod – is an instance of human language struggling to eff the ineffable. It’s hard to put words to the encounter with Divinity. And to come back to our passage, consider the context: the glorification in question here is death on a cross – a moment that is far from glorious in human terms, yet which the Gospels understand to be of transformative cosmic significance. I guess I’m saying that “glorify” should be a word we don’t quite understand, that we keep wondering about.

Turning to the next verses… In John’s Gospel, we don’t get Jesus’ hour of anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Overall, John’s Jesus seems fairly calm in the face of his violent and humiliating death. But here, we seem to see Jesus struggling a little: “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.” Jesus is reminding himself why he’s going through this: because the grain of wheat cannot yield a plenteous crop unless it first dies and is buried in the earth. Because those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I’m unhappy with our translation here. The word “life” appears three times in that verse – but those are actually two different words. The first two are “psuche,” which means something more like your essential being, not just your physical life. It’s the same word as psyche or psychology. You might translate that verse this way: Whoever hates what this world does to their soul, will preserve their soul for life in the Age to come. 

Hate is a strong word. I think Jesus did love life in this world – friends; good food; being able to share grace and healing; quiet moments by the seashore. These are the words of someone steeling himself to face death: None of that matters next to what I am called to do. 

And then we come to the Mystery Voice from Heaven. It might well remind you of Jesus’ baptism or his Transfiguration – both times when a Voice from heaven names Jesus as beloved.  The interesting thing is, neither of those events happen in John’s Gospel. John knows the other Gospels, or at least one of them. There are events he chooses to leave out – but assumes the reader knows about. There’s a kind of meta-textuality here – John couldn’t be your only Gospel; you’d need one of the others too. The biggest, strangest example is that there is no institution of the Eucharist in John. There is a last supper, at which Jesus talks for four chapters about what it all means. And he washes his disciples’ feet. But there is no bread, no wine, no “Do this.”

Another example: In John’s Gospel, we don’t see John the Baptist baptize Jesus, but John the Baptist tells someone else about seeing the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove – which according to the other Gospels happened at his baptism. So this Heavenly Voice, this mystery thunderclap – John may well be telling about an incident unknown to the other gospels, but I think he is also gesturing towards to those other moments when a divine Voice spoke to and about Jesus. Like baptism, like transfiguration, this is a significant moment, another turn towards the story’s culmination.

Jesus returns to the significance of this moment, in the final verses of this passage. “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” I’ve been using a new translation of the New Testament by a scholar named David Bentley Hart. Hart thinks that other translations sometimes make the New Testament less weird than it should be – they smooth out the language and make it seem like we know what people are talking about.  Here’s how he renders this verse: “Now is the judgment of this cosmos; now shall the Archon of this cosmos be driven out.”

The Archon of this cosmos! Wow. Archon means ruler, chief, prince. It’s a common word in New Testament Greek. But THIS Archon, this unnamed Ruler of this Cosmos – cosmos, world or system – is only mentioned in John’s Gospel. This is the first time. Later, in that farewell speech over dinner, Jesus says,

“I will no longer talk much with you, for the Archon of this cosmos is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me.” (John 14:30-31) And later in the same speech:  “The Archon of this cosmos has been condemned.” (16:11) This Archon, whatever it is: It thinks it’s won, it thinks it’s got Jesus now, but in fact God has already triumphed. The Archon’s power is already broken; it just doesn’t know it yet.

It’s easy to come up with hypotheses about who Jesus means. Could it be Satan? But this Archon is the ruler of THIS world, and Satan is a supernatural being. And that isn’t really how the Bible talks about Satan, anyway.

A better hypothesis would look to the Book of Revelation. Revelation was probably written before the Gospel of John, and there were probably ties of some kind between the authors or communities of those two texts, although most modern scholars don’t think there was a single author for both books. The Book of Revelation presents a very clear and fully-developed image of an earthly ruler who embodies and serves the cosmic powers of evil. Scholars think that for the original community receiving that text, that Ruler probably represented a Roman emperor who was persecuting Christians. The Emperor in Rome would surely be an Archon of this cosmos for John and his community – so perhaps that’s what John’s Jesus has in mind.

But you know what? I don’t know. I don’t know what Jesus means here. I’m positive there are libraries full of hypotheses. But Jesus is speaking about great big mysteries – power and obedience, good and evil, life and death. The closest parallel outside of John’s Gospel comes from the letter to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers (archons), against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (6:12) I like what Hart does, by keeping it weird:  The Archon of this cosmos shall be driven out.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Well, this is actually pretty straightforward, in light of last week’s readings. Jesus is alluding back to that conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3, when he spoke about being raised up from the earth like the bronze serpent Moses made, to save the people Israel from death by snakebite. It’s a weird story – look up my sermon if you missed it – but the upshot is clear. Jesus expects death by crucifixion – a way of dying that, notably, involves being raised up from the ground, on a pole. He uses the image of the bronze serpent as an example of something salvific, something with saving and healing power, that was lifted up in the sight of the people.

What have we accomplished here? Well, I’ve made the case that some things make more sense than they seem to at first glance – the Philip/Andrew bit, Jesus’ response to the Greeks, the voice from heaven. I’ve also made the case that some things make less sense if we pause to think. Son of Man? Glorify? Archon of this cosmos? Add here, subtract here, and on average we probably all understand this text exactly as well as we did fifteen minutes ago.

What I hoped to accomplish was to give you permission to wonder about and wrestle with Biblical texts. To dig in and seek answers – and sometimes fail to find them. A week from right now, we’ll be reading the Passion Gospel. We read a LOT of Scripture during Holy Week – chapters and chapters of Mark and John, psalms, Old Testament stories, so much. For some of us, it’s too familiar; for others, it’s new and strange. I invite you to be attentive to our holy scriptures, in the days ahead. Listen, wonder, argue, hypothesize, connect, reflect. And may both the moments when we come to new understanding – and the moments when we realize the limits of our understanding – speak to us of God’s glory, mystery, power and love.

Florin Paulet’s piece: