The Fifth Sunday in Lent of Year B
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 119:9-16, Hebrews 5:5-10, Saint John 12:20-33

At least since I was in seminary, I have wanted to know why the Passion of Our Lord proclaimed on Good Friday is always the Passion according to Saint John. You know that on Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion, that the Passion is from either Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, and the Passion rotates among those three in a three-year cycle. But why does Saint John’s version gain the prominence of a yearly presentation on Good Friday, the day itself?

The answer came some years ago. You can tell from my sermons and announcements that the Scriptures and their interplay with the Lectionary are two very important things to me. The Scriptures are God’s revelation to us: we pretty well have to pay attention to them if we want to know God. And their interplay with the Lectionary is important, too. For that interplay between the Scriptures and the Lectionary is interpretive: we are led to interpret the Scriptures by the Lectionary’s distribution of them through the Church Year. And by following this interplay closely, I found the answer why Palm Sunday has the Passion according to Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, and why Good Friday has John.

I’ll begin the answer this way. You have been to the theater at one time or another, and you have seen spotlights. You have seen spotlights move from one actor or object in a scene to another actor or object. Imagine a moving spotlight, and imagine it moving from a lesser thing to a greater thing. Something like that is happening in the Gospel today, in the Gospel according to Saint John. Saint John moves the spotlight from the resurrection and trains it directly upon the crucifixion. To me that is remarkable, and that is why the Passion according to Saint John is proclaimed each Good Friday.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the crucifixion; that is, the resurrection in those Gospels overturns the horror of a just man unjustly punished, of God condemned by his creatures. In those Gospels, some participants in the Passion catch on that Jesus is the Son of God, but the resurrection makes that fact obvious, easy for everyone to see. All the doubts about Jesus and his ministry are shown to be just so much faithless fear once he rises from the tomb.

But something very different is being proclaimed in Saint John, and you can see it in the Gospel today. Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[1] In the image I’ve used, Saint John is redirecting the spotlight from the resurrection to the crucifixion where he keeps it focused. Instead of the spotlight, we may as well use the words the Gospel uses: glory and glorify. Jesus is glorified in his crucifixion. The spotlight of glory is on the crucifixion. Jesus proclaims that his death begins the germination that leads to the ripening of the fruit. And when he says that when he is lifted up from the earth that he will draw all men to himself,[2] he is saying that his death will attract us, all of us, to him.

Jesus’ crucifixion attracts us, draws us into the divine life, when we appreciate what Jesus is saying to us. His life, the life he offers us, isn’t pain-free. We who follow him, try to follow him, know this from experience. His life is hard to share if we wish to avoid pain. It is in dying to ourselves and being raised in him that we enter his life. If we wish to be comfortable, isolated, and uninvolved, then we will miss his life. His life involves sacrifice and pain though the sacrifice and the pain aren’t the end. Just as he does, we pass through them to go on to greater and eternal life.

I know that all illustrations of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are trivial in comparison with what they illustrate. But let me mention the one Jesus mentions and try to mention it afresh.

Two weeks from today is Easter when this church will be adorned with people and beautiful flowers. Jesus is telling us that the glory of a beautiful Easter lily is not its being in beautiful foil and placed on an elegantly carved marble altar just in front of a skillfully-carved reredos with crowds of people admiring it. The glory of that lily is in the horrible weather of January and February, that same weather we are hoping is past, when the bulb is buried beneath the frozen soil, when no one is paying it any attention. That’s its glory. That’s the heart of God, and that’s the glory of the lily, because only God can make the lily bloom. Only God can bring life from death. The bulb in that frozen dirt gives us the best perspective of who God is and of what God can do. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[3]

[1] Saint John 12:24.

[2] Saint John 12:32.

[3] Saint John 12:32.

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