In the first line of our Gospel reading we are told that some Greeks approached the disciples and asked to see Jesus. There is no further reference to these Greeks in the text and this is a bit of an enigma? Why does St John introduce them and then leave them hanging in the air?
Surely John revised the text of his Gospel very carefully and he would certainly have realised that having asked their question these Greeks deserved some direct response from Jesus or the disciples. Surely the disciples would have come back and said: No, he doesn’t want to see you! Or perhaps: Not today thank you, but you can try again tomorrow!
In any event a good biographer describing the events of Jesus’ life wouldn’t bring people onto the stage and then just forget about them.
Especially as they were Greeks —John wrote his Gospel in Greek and very many of his readers would also have been Greek. They would have seen a reflection of themselves in the question their fellow countrymen asked: Sir, we should like to see Jesus. It seems a strange mistake for a writer so obviously skilled at his craft as St John.
Unless, of course, there is no mistake; unless it was so obvious to John that Jesus had answered the question, albeit obliquely. Look at the next sentence. The disciples tell Jesus that Greeks want to see him and he exclaims: Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
It is as if the appearance of these Greeks is the trigger event that Jesus has been waiting for. Their arrival means that now his time has come. They come wanting to know about him and that’s all Jesus needs. We are then precipitated into the events immediately leading to his death and resurrection and everything that flowed from it. The Greeks then really will see Jesus, not just these Greeks but all the Greeks, and indeed all of us.
With their arrival the Gentiles are waiting and so now the hour has come; now is the moment for the plan of God to be laid bare; now is the time for the religion of the Old Testament to come to a head and something entirely new to be revealed—and revealed not just to the Jews but to the whole world.
And, of course, it is also a moment of truth for Jesus. What is the old saying: Nothing concentrates the mind more wonderfully than the prospect of imminent death. And Jesus’ mind is concentrated wonderfully and he comes out with one of his most evocative sayings: Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.
What perception! What clarity of expression! What profound truth! The hour has come and Jesus faces his own death, he not only faces it, he embraces it and realises all its consequences—consequences whose waves will spread out through all the ages.
But it troubles him. And in this moment of trouble he reaches out to the Father. In John’s Gospel there is no prayer at Gethsemane as in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John the Garden of Gethsemane is simply the place of his arrest. Christ’s prayer to the Father in Gethsemane ‘take this cup from me’ seems to have been transposed to this appearance of the Greeks.
Whether it is in the garden or here in the episode with the Greeks Jesus firmly resists the temptation to draw back from his mission and indeed wholeheartedly embraces it. What else can the words ‘Father glorify your name’ mean other than as a plea that his Father should carry out his plan in all its fullness? Nothing can bring more glory to God than the complete consummation of God’s will in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But there are other words in this text which are troubling. They are troubling because they are addressed to the disciples and through them to us. The words are: Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
These words of Jesus are disturbing because today we tend to believe exactly the opposite. Under the influence of psychology and psychoanalysis, in this case I think a good influence, we believe that it is very important to love yourselves. And indeed the phrase from last week’s second reading (Eph 2:10) ‘We are God’s works of art’ is taken as a firm theological foundation for this belief.
Yes, we certainly must learn to love ourselves. Self-loathing is entirely destructive; it completely degrades our person and destroys our relationships. It is a poison in our soul.
God loves us—we know this well—and so we must indeed be loveable. And not to love ourselves implies that we know better than God and it is therefore a subtle way of rejecting him.
But self-loathing is rarely an act of the will. It is more often a psychological sickness and its cure is to place ourselves in the hands of others –this can be family, friends or counsellors. What we need to do is to allow them to love us, to permit them to express their love through gentleness, care and understanding.
But what is Jesus really speaking about here when he says we ought to hate our lives? How can we tie this up with being one of God’s works of art?
The key is to notice that there are some words missing from the text. If we fill them in we see things more clearly:
anyone who loves his life (in this world) loses it (for eternal life);
anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
I think what Jesus is saying is that those who love life in the world to the exclusion of life in heaven will lose eternal life. The disciple of Jesus must not be afraid of death; only those who do not believe in eternal life need to fear death.
Each of us will have to face death and Jesus shows us how to do it. He embraces his death because he knows that it will bring glory to God’s name. This can surely be no different for a believer today?
We must again and again reiterate that this life is only part of life. This life is only the prelude, only the overture to the real life; the fullness of life itself promised us by God which is eternal life. As Jesus says later in the Gospel (John 17:3): And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
When our earthly life is over, when we have reproduced in our bodies the passion and death of our Saviour we like him will rise to newness of life. We shall, when cleansed from every stain of sin, take our place with him in the company of the saints. We shall see him as he really is and we shall become like him.
And the implication and meaning of Jesus’ statement about hating our lives in order to gain eternal life is that we need to try to live here and now the kind of life that is worthy of the kingdom.
We need to root out all our selfishness and begin to live lives that bring true honour and glory to God. Not artificial lives where we go round fawning on other people and acting as though we were goodie-goodies; but living deep genuine productive lives confident of our own dignity and acting out of concern and love for others.
We are those grains of wheat, we need to die to self in order to bear fruit and yield a rich harvest.