Summary: Because this is the only way we sinners can be made clean, rescued from eternal death, we draw near to Calvary and look on the crucified Savior.
Today’s Scriptures are powerful, and that’s an understatement. The verse to memorize for understanding the Gospel, and application to our life, is “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone”. We’ll see that presently.
The context of these words is a feast, where there are some Greeks eager to see Jesus. Now these are not tourists or sightseers. They aren’t looking for Christ’s autograph. They have come to Passover, so they are Jews of the Dispersion, the Diaspora, living in Greece, or at least Jewish sympathizers. They are in Jerusalem to worship. For John, this is the question, the trigger that tells Jesus His final days on earth are beginning. He was acclaimed just a couple of days before as Messiah as He rode on a donkey into the city.
The Greeks approach Philip, whom we first met in Galilee, when he was telling Nathaniel about Jesus. That was right after Jesus called Andrew, who brought Simon Peter to Jesus. So Philip went to Andrew and they both went to Jesus, presumably with the Greeks.
Jesus answered, saying “the hour has come.” Now this would be the hour that Jesus told His Mother in chapter 2, at Cana, had not yet come. That’s when Jesus worked His first miracle, changing water not just into wine, but into the finest vintage, a sign that the kingdom was rushing upon humanity. Now that the hour was upon them, Jesus says it is the hour of His glorification.
Whoa. This is what the apostles have been waiting for. Jesus, the Messiah, would manifest Himself gloriously and gather an army of believers and ride forth to drive out the Romans and tax collectors and establish just rule over all humanity.
But wait. What’s this about a grain of wheat falling to earth and dying to bear much fruit? What’s this about hating your own life and taking it into eternity, rather than loving your life and dying? This is glorification?
These men have followed Jesus, some for three years. He says some strange things, but these words are the most troubling. And it begins to sound like Jesus is challenging not just the apostles and those Greeks, but me living in the 21st century. All of us.
The Church gives us in our first reading one of the greatest prophecies of Jeremiah. You know, the guy whose name has come down in history like that of Cassandra, or maybe Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore. A guy who never has anything positive to say, who keeps finding sin and making grim predictions about Israel’s decline and fall, about breaking the Mosaic Covenant.
But wait! He’s not complaining about Israel breaking their covenant made at Sinai. He’s saying God will make a NEW covenant, with a law written not on stone tablets but on our hearts. And what He’s always said He says again, that He will be our God and we will be His people. So that deal wasn’t ruptured forever? Our sins will be eradicated?
And, you know, that is the only place in OT where we see the words “new” and “covenant” together. It’s associated with changed hearts and changed lives and a law that is INSIDE us, not outside beating on us to keep it. In fact, the next time we hear these words we are in the upper room in Jerusalem where Jesus is instituting the Eucharist with His disciples. He is speaking of the cup of the NEW COVENANT in His blood. That was the moment that tied the Good Friday crucifixion–the murder of the Messiah–to be the sacrifice in Christ’s blood. At worship, at Mass, we are once more memorializing the gift made once and for all that takes away our sins and makes us God’s new people, His new creation.
Why here? We want our sins forgiven, don’t we? That’s what we celebrate, and today’s psalm 51–the greatest of the penitential psalms–ties clean hearts to the working of the Holy Spirit to forgive our sins.
The letter to the Hebrews helps us understand how the branding of Jesus as a criminal and His murder were necessary for our rescue from sin and death. He was and is the only Son of God, but learned obedience–the only sacrifice God really wants, loving obedience–through suffering.
Hear the key words, “being made perfect.” We in the West have an incomplete understanding of the word “perfect.” The Greek is teleioo, which really has the meaning of “brought to completion” rather than “without flaw.” So it’s a deeper meaning. It’s vintage St. Paul theology. Humans are made complete through obedient acceptance of suffering. Just like Christ, and with Christ.
So now we might have a better understanding of what Jesus was saying to his disciples and these nameless Greek Jews who, after Pentecost, can bring knowledge of Christ’s saving death to other parts of the world. His soul is troubled because He knows the authorities in Jerusalem will have Him murdered, but He refuses to ask His Father to save Him from this hour of decision. Instead His prayer is for the Father to glorify His name. The Father responds in a voice of thunder, like on Mt. Sinai when Moses heard the words of the old covenant. The voice was for His listeners.