If you look up the page in John at the first part of this chapter, you’ll see Jesus enter Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, what’s commonly called his triumphal entry. It is, it seems safe to say, the high point of his fame in his earthly ministry. He rides into the capital city on a donkey, like the king prophesied in Zechariah 9; the crowds are shouting phrases from Psalm 118, which is a triumph psalm, celebrating the return of the king of Israel to Jerusalem after a glorious battle. It is of course a psalm of praise to God for giving his people victory, but there is great honor in that for the king through whom God worked to bring it about; thus the king’s procession through the streets is a triumph, accompanied with the waving of palm branches, which were a symbol of victory. The crowds that day were welcoming Jesus as a conquering hero, as the heir of David reclaiming his throne to restore Israel to its rightful place among the nations. The Pharisees were in despair at the popular reaction, declaiming theatrically, “This is getting us nowhere. Look, the whole world has gone after him!”
Now, from their point of view, that was hyperbole; their concern isn’t for the whole world, but only for a few thousand Jews. But John knows very differently, and so he skips over the cleansing of the temple—he’s already mentioned the first time anyway, back in chapter 2; instead, immediately following the Pharisees’ melodramatic lament, we get this: “There were some Greeks who were there to worship God, to celebrate the Passover, and they kept asking to see Jesus.” The Pharisees don’t really care about the world beyond Israel except as it affects the Jews, but Jesus is different, and here we actually have the world, non-Jews (though clearly non-Jews who worshiped God) coming to Jesus. Somehow or other they get connected to Philip; Philip, predictably uncertain, grabs Andrew for advice, and Andrew, equally predictably, goes to tell Jesus.
Now, I imagine these Greeks trailing along behind Philip and Andrew—that’s how these things usually work, after all—but John doesn’t say; and indeed, the Greeks are never mentioned again, as Jesus doesn’t directly address them or even refer to them. Instead, he takes their arrival as a sign: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Which sounds completely, ludicrously obvious. Jesus has just been glorified—the donkey, the palm branches, the crowds yelling “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming king! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”—it’s already happening. I’m sure the disciples’ split-second reaction was simple agreement.
And then, as he so often does, Jesus turns everything inside out. He says “glorified,” and they’re thinking, glorified—power, success, honor, fame, the priests and Pharisees worshiping Jesus, the Romans out—maybe even a place to live, no more of all that walking around; but what does he mean by “glorified”? Try this: “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” I’m telling you, hold your ear close to the page and you can practically hear the disciples’ jaws hit the ground and bounce. Glory equals death? Where did that come from? Sure, many cultures have believed firmly in the possibility of earning glory through death in battle, but that’s clearly not at all what Jesus is talking about; his idea of glory is a long way outside the norm.
Which is precisely why this little parable is so important. This world ties glory to self-assertion, to conquest, to pride, to being better than others, and so the gods we make in our own image do just the same; our view of who we are and of what we should pursue frames and shapes our understanding of who God is and what he wants from us. Jesus shows us that God isn’t like that—that in fact, God is on about something profoundly different. Life as we know it isn’t as we know it; there’s something much bigger going on, calling us to a very different way of living.
In particular, human religion has a “do this, not that” model of the human relationship with the divine. Different religions do it very, very differently, but the basic idea is the same: god tells us to do certain things and not do other things and to behave in particular ways so that he’ll be pleased with us, while we ask god to do certain things and not do other things so that we’ll be happy with him. What the reasons are for what god says, what the justifications are for what we can ask and when, and the balance between them are different with every religion, but in the end, that dance of mutual obligation is the structure of every human religion.
That is not the gospel, and it’s not what Jesus is on about. His purpose is to give us true life, and he doesn’t seek to do that by giving us a list of dos and don’ts; instead, he declares that he will do it by direct donation. He will die, he will let go of his life, so that he can give it to us. Thus his death will be his glory, for it will be through his death that he will win his victory: the defeat of death itself.
And in so doing, in giving us his life, he shows us what it means to live his life, and he gives us the example to follow; this is not simply the way he wins the victory, but it’s also the way we win the victory in his name. Thus Jesus declares, “Whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” As you may remember, we’ve talked before about the way the Bible uses love/hate language to express absolute contrasts; Jesus isn’t advocating suicide, he’s talking about what is and should be our first love. He wants us to love him so much that if following him means giving up our own life—whether symbolically, letting go of the things we enjoy most in this world, or literally dying in his service—that we’ll do so, and gladly. To love Jesus in that way is to find eternal life. To love our own lives more than Jesus is to miss his life, and ultimately to lose everything that matters most.
The fact of the matter is, if we love our own lives most, we end up living to avoid death; we end up, indeed, very like this grain of wheat I hold in my hand. We clutch everything tightly to ourselves, and in the process make ourselves small, and hard, and narrow, with all our potential for life locked tightly inside for fear of losing it. If we will not give up our lives, time will yet take them by force in the end, crushing us into powder and leaving nothing that abides. But if we follow Jesus who did not clutch hard to his status and prerogatives as God, but who let everything go and accepted death in order that he might give us his life—if we let go of our lives and follow wherever he may lead, even if that means accepting death as he did—then we sow them into the ground where God can use them to bring forth much fruit.
And in so doing, we prepare ourselves to receive his greatest gift. God promises that we will experience his life in this world, but only in part; his greatest promise is that if we die with Jesus, we will also be raised from the dead with him, resurrected to eternal life in Christ. Those who love life above all, those who would avoid death, end by likewise avoiding resurrection, because resurrection is only possible through death. Letting go makes the promise possible, our surrender opens the door to victory, for as sure as the sunrise can only come after the night, this is true: it is only the dead who can ever rise.