Monday, March 12, 2018

The Glorification of Jesus

I have several colleagues who bemoan the loss of Palm Sunday's exclusive focus on Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I'm getting a head start and addressing that issue a week early because I believe that this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 12:20-33) gives the preacher a lectionary-anachronistic way to focus on what is represented by Jesus' entry into the holy city at the Passover festival. No, I don't think that will be satisfying to those who think we should save the story of the passion until Good Friday, but there's another reason to focus on Jesus' entry into Jerusalem this week, and it has to do with making sense of John 12.

This week, as I first read through the lessons, I find the gospel lesson uninviting. It's a strange combination of some Greeks who want to see Jesus, a parable-like self-reference to Jesus' own death, and the voice from heaven confirming Jesus' glorification. It feels disjointed. There's no clear narrative. It doesn't seem to have a lot of preaching material. But then I looked at the rest of John 12 and saw why the theme of glorification is so important to this text.

At the beginning of John 12, Mary anoints Jesus with the pound of costly nard, a lavish gesture befitting a king. A few verses later, Jesus enters Jerusalem to shouts of "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel!" In classic Johannine fashion, the disciples are said to "not understand these things at first, but, when Jesus was glorified, they remembered..." It is that tension that swirls around Jesus' glorification that pervades this Sunday's reading. Is he to be hailed as an earthly king? Or will his kingship be crowned in another way?

The unnamed Greeks come to Philip and ask to see Jesus. They had come to Jerusalem for the festivities and, perhaps, had witnessed Jesus' counter-demonstration. They were interested in learning more about Jesus and the political counter-imperial movement that he represented. But Jesus' response shows us that, although he stands in direct opposition to the rulers of his day, he is not interested in taking their place by assuming earthly power: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone..."

Lest anyone think that his death is a sign of failure, Jesus engages in a rhetorical display that confirms his cross-ready mentality: "And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour?' But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." At that moment, the Father's voice proclaims, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." Some thought it thundered. Others thought an angel had spoken. John and the readers understand that God himself is confirming the nature of glory that befits God's son.

On Palm Sunday, we go from the "Hosanna!" of the Liturgy of the Palms to the "Crucify him!" of the Passion Narrative by the end of the service. This week, we feel that same juxtaposition, but we have to expand our context a little bit to get there. Even if you're not ready to give up on celebrating the triumphal entry next week, take a moment to ground John 12 in its larger context. This passage about glory is too rich to pass up.

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