In this Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 12:20-33), Jesus reminds me of a presidential candidate. Andrew and Philip relay to him a question that they had been asked by some Greeks, but the answer Jesus gives doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the question. It would be easy to read this lesson as if Jesus were intentionally changing the subject or perhaps simply distracted. But I think the integrity of this gospel lesson depends upon that implicit question: “Can Gentiles get access to Jesus?”
Jesus reply could stand by itself: “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.” This is one of those sayings that sticks out in our corporate memory. Grain of wheat—dies—much fruit. Yeah, I get that. In my mind, however, that saying is usually divorced from the introduction to this story. This is Jesus’ response to the inquiry of some Gentiles, who want to come and see him. It isn’t just a pithy saying about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nor is it a simple teaching on discipleship. It’s a description of how God’s saving work reaches beyond Israel.
Like most Christians, I grew up in a Gentile home. Despite my parents’ affinity for Ronald Reagan, I never learned that salvation was a gift that trickled down—first to the Jews and then to us. Instead, the work that was done on the cross was always described as a gift to me—personally. Jesus died for my sins. His death on the cross made it possible for me to go into heaven. While that might be true, it might be more accurate to say that Jesus’ death was a way of inviting me to a salvation party that had already been happening for a few thousand years.
If we asked Jesus about his death, how would he describe it? How often does Jesus talk about the cross in propitiatory language? He doesn't. But how often does he describe his death in terms of “draw[ing] all people to himself?” Often. For Jesus, it seems that the purpose of the cross was to unite humanity—to put to death that which separates Jew from Gentile. We can choose to put the language of sin-purifying sacrifice on that event if we want. The author of Hebrews certainly did. But that’s not the language Jesus used. Instead, the fruit that Jesus’ bore after his death and resurrection was a universal invitation. We are all included in God’s story because of the cross. Without Calvary, the message of salvation couldn’t reach Gentiles like me.