The hour: a grain of wheat

Giotto_Lower_Church_Assisi_Crucifixion_01 24 Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

Immediately upon pronouncing that the “hour” is a path to “glory,” we are given a metaphor. The grain of wheat introduces us to a paradox, namely, that the way of fruitfulness lies through death. Unless the wheat falls into the ground and “dies” it will not bear fruit. It is only through “death” that its potentiality for fruitfulness becomes actual. This is a general truth; but it refers particularly to Jesus – and no less to us. The expression “loves his life loses it” is, in the Greek, anchored by apollyei – an interesting word. Here it is translated as “lose” but its primary meaning is “destroy, lose, die, perish, be lost.” [ENDT 1:135]. Might we not read, “Whoever loves his life [here on earth to the point of forsaking all else], destroys it.” John means us to understand that loving this life to the exclusion of others and all else, is a self-defeating process. It destroys the very immortal life we seeks to retain: “whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” “Hates,” of course, is not to be taken literally, but “hating the life” is the antithesis of loving it (cf. Matt. 6:24 = Luke 16:13; Luke 14:26). It is clear when one thinks of being intentional and choosing (love) or not choosing (hate). It points to the attitude that sets no store by this life in itself. People whose priorities are right have such an attitude of love for the things of God.

As Jesus mentions his own self-giving (vv. 23–24), he joins to it that of his disciples. They are called to identical roles (vv. 25–26) in the service of, in and through Christ. Relationship to Christ is important. The servant must follow his Lord and be where his Lord is. A.M. Hunter in his commentary on this gospel said it well. “It has been said that follow me is the whole of a Christian’s duty, as to be where Christ is is the whole of his reward.” This must be understood in the light of the previous verses: being where the Lord is entails suffering. It means losing the life for the Master’s sake. There is no other way of Christian service. But the verse concludes on a different note. Anyone who serves Christ in this fashion will be honored by the Father. It is the only time in the Gospel that God is spoken of as honoring someone, and it anticipates the mutuality of relationship among God, Jesus, and believer promised in the Farewell Discourse (John 14-17).

The Glory of God. 27 “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”

With the word “now” the focus returns to Jesus’ hour and St. John portrays a different Jesus than the one we encounter in Gethsemane as portrayed by the other gospel writers. The first prayer, framed as a question (“Yet what should I say?”), is never prayed by Jesus and stands in distinction of the prayer associated with Jesus’ agony in the garden (Mark 14:36) even as it echoes that tradition. Unlike the Markan text, the focus of vv. 27–28a is on the immediacy and urgency of Jesus’ hour (“now”), not on his struggle in the face of that hour. It is the second prayer that reflects the focus of this moment: “Father, glorify your name.” This is the focus and true prayer of the hour. Jesus lays down his life of his own free will (10:18); he embraces his hour as an expression of his love for God and the moment of God’s glorification. [O’Day, 712].

Jesus’ prayer is confirmed by the voice from heaven: Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” Note that past, present, and future are summoned in this response. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, God as revealed God’s self through his only Son. It is God’s testimony to the events of the hours as well as all that led up to it and all that will follow. It carries an echo of raising of Lazarus: “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4). As well “[I] will glorify it again” anticipates Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in which the past, present, and future of God’s glorification of Jesus are also combined.

Notes

John 12:24 This verse implies that through his death Jesus will be accessible to all. It remains just a grain of wheat: this saying is found in the synoptic triple and double traditions (Mk 8:35; Mt 16:25; Lk 9:24; Mt 10:39; Lk 17:33). John adds the phrases (Jn 12:25) in this world and for eternal life.

John 12:25 His life: the Greek word psychē refers to a person’s natural life. It does not mean “soul,” for Hebrew anthropology did not postulate body/soul dualism in the way that is familiar to us.

John 12:27 I am troubled: perhaps an allusion to the Gethsemane agony scene of the other gospels.

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