John in July: “Christ, You Know it Ain’t Easy…” (Jn 12)

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The Gospel of John seems to emphasize the divinity of Christ more than the other Gospels and some think that this emphasis overwhelms and downplays the humanity of Jesus. Indeed, a towering Johannine scholar of the 20th century Ernst Käsemann called the Johannine Jesus “a god who strides across the face of the earth” (der über die Erde schreitende Gott).[1] However, in John, Jesus also suffers from some serious anxiety. The Greek word ταράσσω, which means “troubled, disturbed and even confused,” is not used at all in the synoptic Gospels to describe Jesus, but is used to describe Jesus three times in the Gospel of John. Jesus uses the word himself when he says, “My soul is deeply disturbed (τετάρακται)” (12:27). We heard it in chapter 11 verse 33: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled (ἐτάραξεν).” And we will see it again in the next chapter (13:21): “After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit (ἐταράχθη).”[2] Why is Jesus so troubled in these chapters, these chapters that mark the transition from the Book of Signs to the Book of Glory?

The obvious answer is that Jesus knows what lies ahead for him. He is thinking, in the words of John Lennon, “The way things are going they’re going to crucify me.” He is the object of great expectation (as he arrives on a donkey into Jerusalem) and blame (as Mary and Martha express their disappointment with his absence). And the one time he becomes an object of love and devotion (12:1-8), his disciple criticizes him and his devotee: “You’re not doing enough for the poor! This is a waste!” In this scene, Judas takes on the role of the accuser and Jesus takes on the role of advocate: “Leave her alone! Serving the poor is important and there will be time for that, but this is a beautiful act of love and Mary should not be condemned for it. She is aware that I’m not going to be around much longer.” Jesus can’t get a break for his incessant job of either being the advocate for the accused or the object of accusation himself.

As the crowds welcome Jesus, I am sure this is not a stress-free experience for him either. When I started a youth ministry job a few years ago, I met a parishioner who seemed to have some unrealistic expectations of me. She was not condemning or accusing me. She was celebrating me, but her celebration of me seemed to be attached to the expectation that I was going to increase the number of youth at the parish by 50. Her celebration of me turned out to arouse more anxiety in me. In the same way, Jesus was aware that the welcoming crowd was expecting something far different than a crucified Messiah.

And as Jesus is trying to hold all of this, Philip tells him about some Greeks (a word for Gentiles) who wish to see him, bringing their own set of expectations. And Jesus responds to Philip by saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (12:23-24). His mother and brothers have pushed him to reveal his glory to the world and he had responded saying, “My time has not yet come.” But now…it’s time. And the glory, which he will reveal, will look very different than human glory (12:43). It will look like death and utter failure. But this death is actually a self-giving love that will bear much fruit. This act of self-giving love is “the glory that comes from God,” the glory affirmed by heaven (12:28), which judges the world by revealing those who are on the side of the accuser and those who are on the side of the innocent accused: “Now is the judgment of this world” (12:31a). By this revelation, the accuser and his violent scapegoat mechanism will be recognized as evil and he will therefore lose his power, no longer able to control the blind pawns in his game: “the ruler of this world will be driven out” (12:31b).

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” A more literal translation of the Greek would be, “I will draw all to myself.” Jesus is saying, “When I am on the cross, not only will I receive all people to myself (including the Gentiles that Philip has told me about), I will draw all of each person to myself, including their immense disappointment as I fail to meet their expectations. I will receive their anger, their accusations, their sorrow, grief, sickness and confusion. I will receive it all and respond with my life-changing love and forgiveness so that you can move out of your blame-bound existence and into abundant life.”

Because the crowd does not seem to understand, Jesus says, “Pay attention these next few days and see how I will illumine the darkness. Watch how my act of self-giving love will reveal the violence in which you are all blindly complicit. And remember that I am not doing to this to judge you or condemn you or accuse you but to show you what you are doing and to save you, to heal you” (12:47).

While trying to communicate his message of healing to the crowd, he clearly continues to be troubled and exhausted and needs to retreat. “After Jesus said this, he departed and hid from them” (12:36). Earlier in this chapter, he tells Judas to leave Mary alone. And then here, he seems to tell the expectant crowd to leave him alone. He is overwhelmed. Although he is God’s divine representative on earth, he is still human and he needs to give himself space.

This Jesus knows it ain’t easy. He knows how hard it can be.

[1] Ernst Käsemann, The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 9. Although C.H. Dodd also calls the Johannine Jesus “a stranger to the world” in Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p. 261, John Ashton says that Käsemann’s famous phrase “conveys fairly accurately the impression that an unbiased reader would get from a first reading of the Gospel.” John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 72.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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