Wednesday night, during our CS Lewis study, we talked about “tokens” or symbols and some ways we use them and how powerful they can be. I was in Food Lion the other day and the man behind me noticed the cross around the neck of the woman behind him and immediately started asking her where she went to church. That symbol was a sign of a common bond.
Jesus made great use of the images and symbols that were part of everyday life for the people he lived among, first century Jews living in Palestine during the Roman occupation. Remembrance of cultural events were part of the cycle of their lives – reading of the Psalms and participation in the annual festivals. Some have criticized Jesus claiming he manipulated his life to appear to fulfill scripture, but I think this was his great strength. Rather than hold great theological discourses that could not be understood, he chose to illustrate the mind of God, his own and God’s purpose with stories and even events of his own life recalling symbols they knew and understood. There was also a historical, cultural precedence for this. They were called “prophetic sign-acts” and there are about thirty of them in the Old Testament. Some of the most memorable are the life of Hosea – who takes a prostitute for a wife and then names his children No Mercy and Not My People to show the people their unfaithfulness to God and Jeremiah walking around the streets of Jerusalem with a yoke around his neck to warn the people of their upcoming enslavement. Jesus’ whole life is a prophetic-sign act demonstrating the faithfulness and mercy of God.
In our Gospel reading today from John we are between Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and the feet washing at the last Supper. We are told some Greeks come to Philip requesting an audience with Jesus. There were numerous Greek speaking Gentiles at this time who were attracted to and participated at the periphery of Jewish life. They were allowed in the outer court of the Temple, the area where Jesus had cleared out the merchants, but no further. Isaiah declares in chapter 56 that “foreigners” will join themselves to the Lord (v6) and …”my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (v7). The appearance of the Greeks, though not mentioned again, seems to be a sign for Jesus that it is time to complete what he came to do because he does not tell Philip and Andrew either yes or no, but states ““The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23).
Jesus frequently used illustrations from agriculture to illustrate his points. That was the life of the people – fish, sheep, grapes, figs, olives and grains. This time Jesus illustrates what he is about to do by talking about seeds. A single seed out of the ground is inert and appears lifeless. When you plant it, the seed itself is destroyed, but out of it come roots and shoots and life. From that single seed will come a whole plant – Jesus will later call himself “the vine” (John 15:1) and from that plant fruit will be produced which will bear many new seeds. Jesus is telling his disciples that for new life to spring forth it is necessary to go through death. He will soon die, but it is not the end it is the beginning.
Jesus tells his followers that they too are like seeds. I think this can be applied in two senses. While we are yet alive, we are called to put God’s will ahead of our own self-interest. Having been granted free will, to surrender that will to another, is in a sense death of self, but as C S Lewis put it in Screwtape Letters, God wants “little replicas of Himself…not because he has absorbed them, but because their wills freely conform to His… He wants servants that can become sons” (Lewis, p.46-47). This death to self is a re-birth like the one Jesus described to Nicodemus, a spiritual rebirth. The other death is the one we will all eventually experience before we can experience Resurrection.
Jesus makes the most out of the historical rituals of his people to make his death and resurrection a neon flashing light that proclaim God’s forgiveness of their sins, the restoration of the covenant relationship, and the defeat of their number one enemy – death, by proclaiming a cure for its cause – sin. I think COVID has given us a taste of what life was like for most people prior to the last hundred years or so. The difference being, we have hope that this plague will go away soon and have taken extreme measures to avoid it. For most of history, death was the enemy lurking around every door, there was no cure, no escape. Any injury, accident or act of violence, childbirth, plague or common disease could quickly end a previously heathy life.
Jesus does not approach his death with the romantic notion of glory in battle. He knows he will be tortured and executed in the most painful and humiliating way possible. Public executions were the norm at this time. It was seen as a way of controlling the population by fear. Jesus had probably witnessed a crucifixion growing up in a Roman controlled state. Jesus acknowledges the horror of what is about to happen, but Jesus knows that it is only though death that he can demonstrate resurrection. I think it was intentional Jesus set up a situation where both Jews and Gentiles would conspire together to have him executed. All people, are equally guilty and all people are equally forgiven. The way the people of his time understood sin and the barrier between it and their relationship to God was deeply tied to ritual animal sacrifice. Jesus makes use of this understanding and times his arrest and execution to coincide with Passover. He uses the Passover ritual to redefine the covenant and ties it to his sacrificial death, he will wash the disciple’s feet and talk about servant leadership, but he has also linked his name with Melchizedek. He is high priest and king predating the Mosaic covenant, who offered bread and wine as a sacrifice but because he is a high priest, he evokes images of one praying for the remission of sins for the people and performing the blood sacrifice that completed that ritual. Jesus portrays himself as the righteous king of peace and the suffering servant. He is the good shepherd that looks after and cares for his flock and he is the lamb that will be given as both sacrifice and food for the people. He is the prophet enacting God’s will in story form for the people and he is the fulfillment of God’s prophecy.
The symbols Jesus used may seem strange to us today. They may feel difficult to look at or imagine, but the message has not changed. Jesus willing gave up his life so he could demonstrate to us that death is not our enemy, that our sinful natures can be reconciled, that an eternal relationship with God is not only possible, but greatly desired by God. Jesus has offered himself as the path and has called us to walk with him.