Geography seems important in Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 12:20-33). The story takes place in Jerusalem, where the festival of the Passover is taking place. The narrator lets us know that there were some Greeks there observing the festival. Some of these non-Jewish but God-fearing people come to Philip and ask to see Jesus. Philip, the narrator tells us, is from Bethsaida in Galilee. John doesn’t make a big deal about it, but it’s as if he wants us to have these geographical identities in the backs of our minds as we read the rest of the passage—Jerusalem, Greeks, Galilee.
When Philip is approached by the Greeks, he goes and finds Andrew. Then, Andrew and Philip go to Jesus and tell him that he is being sought by some Greeks. But Jesus’ reply seems to be off the subject—almost as if he didn’t hear them: “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…” What’s he talking about? Is he changing the subject? Or is this some kind of metaphorical response to the Greek’s inquiry?
There is a logic to salvation history. God’s work of salvation begins with Abraham, continues through his descendants, and finally, through them, spreads to the rest of the world. The remarkable thing about the Jesus movement is that it begins as an almost exclusively Jewish sect but is quickly (within a generation or two) taken over by non-Jews. Without Jesus, how many Gentiles would know the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? How many would teach their children about Moses, Deborah, and Ruth?
Yes, in Jesus’ day there were many non-Jews who knew and worshiped the God of Israel. They were like these nameless Greeks—those who had adopted the faith of Israel. But in Jesus’ death and resurrection, something different happens. Gentiles discover instead what it means to be adopted by Israel’s God. A grain of wheat remains a single grain unless it falls into the ground and dies.