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Friday, 16 March 2018 18:26

Jesus invites us to transformation that feels like death but brings life

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Br Julian McDonald cfcFifth Sunday of Lent

The point of today’s gospel reading for us is that to become the people Jesus invites us to be, we have to die to whatever it is that clutters our lives and stifles growth, writes Christian Brother Julian McDonald. 

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” John 12, 20-33

If you find yourself scratching your head after hearing today’s gospel reading, be assured that you are not alone. For the second week in succession we have been challenged with a complex reading from John’s Gospel. For instance, the start of today’s gospel is rather like an episode of Wiley Miller’s comic strip Non Sequitur, which satirises the illogical behaviour of important figures in public life.

Philip and Andrew, two of Jesus’ disciples with Greek names, have been approached by a couple of Greeks (Gentiles), who want to be introduced to Jesus. Clearly the Greeks have thought that, by connecting with someone of influence with a Greek background, they will have a better chance of getting an introduction to Jesus. So they approach Philip, who enlists Andrew, and together they take the Greeks’ request to Jesus. Whether the Greeks were successful in getting to speak with Jesus, we still don’t know two thousand years later. Jesus was apparently preoccupied with something else. As a result, the disciples’ request was seemingly ignored.

Now, see if you can recall asking a family member about how many visitors were expected for dinner and, in response, you were given a detailed description of an earthquake that had just occurred in Ethiopia. There was just no logical connection between your question and the answer you got. The person you asked was preoccupied with something totally unrelated to your question. That describes the Jesus of today’s gospel. His mind is on something he sees looming in his life.

Let’s now look at the context. The annual celebration of Passover is about to begin, and pilgrims have come from everywhere. Among them is a sprinkling of Greeks, and two of those want to meet Jesus, who is the focus of much gossip. In fact, he has been needling the Jewish, religious authorities so much that the conflict between them and him has escalated to explosion point. As a consequence, Jesus is on a steep slide towards condemnation and death. And there is nothing quite like the prospect of impending execution to focus his mind. That’s precisely what has captured his full attention. That explains his theological monologue about seeds dying and sprouting into new life. Philip and Andrew must have been bewildered by the response they received to their request to usher in a couple of Greeks.

The metaphor about the necessity for seeds to die in order to reproduce is so familiar to us that we barely stop to ponder its scientific inaccuracy. Our knowledge of botany and plant biology tells us that it’s a combination of soil, moisture, light and humidity that causes seeds to break open and get caught up in organic change. Still, the message is clear: only through death will Jesus’ work come to fruition. And, as we know, that’s the pattern of all life. It’s only by dying that we will come to the fullness of life - both physical and spiritual.

This incident in the life of Jesus marks a pivotal point in the structure of John’s Gospel. Apart from the preamble, everything up to this point in John is known as the Book of Signs - a series of extraordinary events designed to point to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ of God. Today’s story of the grain of wheat and Jesus’ reference to the coming of his “hour” mark the transition to what is known as the Book of Glory - the account of the trial, passion death and resurrection of Jesus.

Even though we are not told whether or not Jesus actually met the two Greeks, it seems as though Jesus must have heard the disciples’ request. In John’s Gospel, up to this point there is no mention of any encounter between Jesus and a Gentile. The news of Gentiles wanting to meet with him is interpreted by Jesus as there being nothing more for him to do. His ministry is now complete for it has now embraced the Gentile world. The irony, of course, is that non-Jews are much more open to him and his message than his own people. What Jesus has come to realize is ratified by the voice from the heavens, heard by the crowd as thunder, but interpreted to them by Jesus as the voice of God. Even though he is afraid of what awaits him, and even though he wonders if he should ask God to rescue him, Jesus acknowledges that it will be only through death that his mission will be completed.

What Jesus heard is technically referred to in Hebrew as a bat kol or bat qol, which literally means “daughter of a voice”. We are familiar with the term Bar Mitzvah (son of the commandment) which is what a young Jewish man becomes when he reaches the age of “manhood”, a time when he is regarded as having all the rights and obligations of a Jewish adult, a time when he becomes accountable for his actions. Similarly, a girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah (a daughter of the commandment) when she is considered to be an adult, responsible for observing the commandments of the Torah. There is a theological institute in Jerusalem where students can study the Jewish Torah and how it illuminates the Christian understanding of so many of the books of the Bible. That institute is called Bat Kol - the daughter of a voice.

The point of today’s gospel reading for us is that to become the people Jesus invites us to be, we have to die to whatever it is that clutters our lives and stifles growth. We can recognise those obstacles and blocks in our prejudices, our fears, our reluctance to embrace change, our inflexibility, our ambition, our selfishness, our unwillingness to reach out to others in need. Jesus invites us to be open to transformation, acknowledging that such transformation and change will feel like death and will, therefore, be difficult to embrace. Perhaps this can all be summed up for us in what we have come to know as the Prayer of St Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope: where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.