The hour has come.
The Jesus we encounter in today’s gospel reading is finally standing in the shadow of the cross. The unavoidable culmination of his life and ministry is mere hours away. Never in his life had so many people celebrated him. Next week we will recall the blitz of Hosannas that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. Even the Greeks longed to see the Holy Man from Nazareth. According to the wisdom of the world, Jesus was at the top of his game.
Yet just as the loaves of bread had to be torn into pieces to feed the multitude, so too did the Son of Man have to be broken to draw all people to him. Again and again in this Lenten season we are reminded that the wisdom of God turns our common sense into dust. This talk of losing one’s life to save it just doesn’t mass muster with human logic.
The analogy of the seed should alleviate our bewilderment. The seed must be buried in the soil before it can produce new growth. The simple miracle of germination transforms tiny seeds into fields of wheat. But there isn’t a very clean comparison, biologically speaking, between a grain of wheat and a human being. For wheat, the ground is a fertile source of new life. For a man, the ground is the dwelling place of death, the realm of the grave. Yet Jesus would have us believe that falling into the earth and dying has the same fruitful effect as planting the year’s crop. Only the life that will emerge from this spiritual harvest will be eternal.
Eternal life in the presence of God. This is quite a harvest. And an invitation to this feast is issued to every last one of God’s beloved children. The cameo appearance of the curious Greeks is a testament to the scope of God’s intentions. The elect—those chosen to receive God’s full mercies—turns out include a whole lot more people than suspected. Indeed, it is in this scripture from the gospel of John that we catch a glimpse of the radical inclusivity at the heart of the gospel.
Jesus will be lifted up. He will be lifted up onto the cross in a humiliating scene of suffering and shame. He will be buried in a tomb for three days. But then he will be lifted up again to the great glory of God. And when he is lifted from the earth, first to die and ultimately to live, he will draw all people to himself.
I’m not making this up. St. John isn’t making this up. Jesus publicly proclaims this unexpected revelation to the crowd: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
All people—all people!—will be embraced by the outstretched arms of the Son of God. All people will find themselves in the awkward position of being loved by him, regardless of whether they ignored him, rejected him, or loved him back. There will be a judgment. In fact, that judgment has occurred already, when Jesus was lifted up to his death. The depth of human sinfulness was displayed in all its gory colors the day that the Son of God was crucified. “Now is the judgment of this world,” Jesus says. “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” The whole of Creation was torn asunder by disobedience and corruption, and the whole of Creation is to blame.
There will be a judgment. In fact, that judgment has occurred already, when Jesus was lifted up to his death. The depth of human sinfulness was displayed in all its gory colors the day that the Son of God was crucified. “Now is the judgment of this world,” Jesus says. “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” The whole of Creation was torn asunder by disobedience and corruption, and the whole of Creation is to blame.
But remember the good news— the Son of God was sent not to condemn the world but to save it. All people are drawn to Christ—all people face him as the rightful judge of a broken world. And all people will discover that this judge cannot bear to condemn a single soul. This judge surrendered his life to plant the seeds of the Kingdom of God in the temperamental soil of the human heart. Nothing we do can convince him to withhold his abundant, life-giving grace from us. There is no way to escape God’s insatiable love.
If we recognize the full depth of God’s love, if we experience the dizzying height of his mercy, we cannot help but respond. The life and death of Jesus Christ has to inform our own lives. An honest response to the wondrous love of Christ is to recognize that our lives are no longer our own. We cannot love our lives so much that we protect our energies for ourselves and those within our intimate circles. Our lives must be turned over to Christ. Whoever serves me must follow me, he warns.
There is perhaps nothing more terrifying than surrendering one’s life to God. The instinct toward self-preservation and self-service is deeper than any cultural habit. Here we are asked to do what seems impossible—to voluntarily assume the posture of servants. Here we realize that the new commandment to love, love, and love some more is drastic. We are supposed to love the way Jesus loves. And Jesus’ love for Creation didn’t win him an automatic pass to the Right Hand of the Father. His love pressed him down into the earth like a lowly grain of wheat.
There are so many reflections of Christ’s love among the Saints of the church, so many people who allowed God’s grace to transform them into servants molded in the path of Christ. Father Henri Nouwen was one of the most celebrated Christian writers of the 20th century. He wrote extensively about Christian spirituality, yet shocked his students by giving up his comfortable job teaching at Yale University to become a caregiver for persons with severe disabilities. He spent the final years of his life feeding and bathing mentally retarded men who couldn’t read a word he had written. Yet those men experienced the Christian love Nouwen had written about so profoundly.
Just yesterday, the Los Angeles Times featured the obituary of a woman who became famous for the humblest of vocations: she taught Sunday School for 80 years, retiring soon after her 108th birthday. In this day and age in which self-promotion and fame-seeking has reached a fever pitch, it is no small miracle that a simple church woman whose joy was to share the gospel with 2nd-graders made it into the big city newspaper. Even the world marvels at men and women who faithfully surrender their lives to the glory of God.
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. And the hour has come for us to decide if we want to be a part of this journey through death into life. Can we die to selfishness so we can live in Christ? Can we echo David’s impassioned cry for God to do for him what he cannot do for himself? “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” All people are invited on this journey from cross to grave and from grave to sky. Are we up for the severe mercy of God’s compassion? Are we prepared to become as seeds, hidden in the fertile ground of God’s love? The hour to decide has come.