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Lent 5, Cycle B

John 12:20-33

In this interesting text that concludes this series of passion-resurrection predictions there are two different symbols used by the Johannine writers and community in describing Jesus’ death and the life that is by faith a result of that death.

The first of these two symbols (in 12:23-25) uses an analogy from life experiences in an agricultural society. Unless a kernel of wheat or of any other grain dies (rots, decays, germinates) after it is placed into the ground, it remains a single kernel. But when it dies (germinates), the sprout that grows from it has the potential to produce many other kernels. The death of the kernel (representing the death of the Jesus of history) is therefore predicted — again ex eventu — as well as declared to be essential if the Jesus of history is going to be used by God to produce life in many other persons. This analogy is particularly interesting, because the “sprout” that resulted in the growth of the early Church did not appear until after the death of the Jesus of history.

The second symbol (in 12:26, 32-33) that was introduced in the John 3:14-21 text that we used last Sunday is more obscure. If Jesus is lifted up from the earth, it is said that he will draw all people to himself. Although this analogy is said in the text to have indicated the nature of Jesus’ death (on a cross “between heaven and earth”), all people are not to be crucified with him. Instead, as the “Lamb of God,” by means of his death he will have the power to take away the sins of all people. The way in which 12:26 is expressed suggests that reference is being made not only to the crucifixion, but also to the return of Jesus to the Father. Anyone who wishes to serve the Johannine Jesus is directed to follow him to the cross and on his return journey to the Father. It is through the passion-resurrection-return of the Johannine Jesus that the Johannine Jesus (here self-designated as the Son of man) is glorified. This text is, therefore, a theological interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death and physical absence from his followers in the Johannine community.

In comparison to the accounts in Mark and in Matthew, there is relatively little emphasis in the Fourth Gospel on Jesus’ agonizing over his death and of his suffering during his crucifixion. Instances such as John 12:27 and 13:21 are brief and fleeting. The Johannine Jesus is in almost complete control of every situation, even when he is dying on the cross. That is the way, therefore, in which we shall depict the Johannine Jesus if we are going to follow closely the pattern of the Fourth Gospel texts. (This reminds us of a major disadvantage of our current lectionary in which during Series B, the year of Mark, we repeatedly are jumping back and forth between Markan and Johannine texts, making a consistent, coherent pattern of presentation difficult.)

Hebrews 5:5-10

Although this text speaks about Jesus appealing to God and being heard by God just as the Johannine Jesus is depicted as having appealed to God and having been heard by God in John 12:20-33, if we look more closely we see that this Hebrews 5:5-10 text does not fit well with John 12:20-33. Certainly in John 12:20-33 the Johannine Jesus does not bring to God prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. Such a description hardly fits even the Markan and Matthean accounts of Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross, much less the Johannine presentations. Our emphasis in our use of this Hebrews text along with John 12:20-33, therefore, should be on Hebrews 5:9 in its proclamation of Jesus as the source of eternal salvation for those who are obedient to him.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

There is little direct connection between this well-known “New Covenant” text and John 12:20-33. We can establish a link, of course, by proclaiming that God forgives the sins of individuals through the death of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” in the Johannine sense. It has been traditional within Christianity to see the Church and the New Testament as the “New Covenant” prophesied in Jeremiah 31. Perhaps if we look at this text in its own context rather than from our Christian perspective, we will be able to see a promise and a hope that is still futuristic, still to be realized fully for us as Christians just as it is still fully to be realized for Jews, for Muslims, for Hindus, and for others.

Psalm 51:1-12

This psalm portion is similar to Jeremiah 31:31-34 in its plea for God “to create a clean heart and a new spirit within me.” In a general sense, that is our prayer during Lent and at all times. Is this not what we are asking in all of these texts, that God would take control of our lives more directly, both now and in the future? This is the emphasis that unites these texts.

Psalm 119:9-16

In this segment of Psalm 119, as in a variety of ways in each segment of this extensive acrostic psalm, the psalmist asks that God take control of the life of the psalmist by guiding the psalmist in the joy of living in accordance with the commandments that God has provided in the Torah. If the psalmist will meditate on God’s commandments, the way that the psalmist will live will be pure and blessed forever.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen