St. John’s story of Holy Week has important differences to the tale told by the authors of the other Gospels, and its stories are perhaps a little less familiar to people, especially if they aren’t regular Bible readers.
One incident not recorded in the other Gospels is that of the visitors to Jerusalem who wanted to see Jesus. These were Greeks, in town to worship at the Passover festival, who approached Philip to seek an audience with the preacher who had so recently electrified the city. Philip and Andrew went to tell Jesus about them, and at this point the Greeks disappear from the story. We do not know whether they ever got to see Christ.
Instead, John retells Jesus replying with a discourse clearly alluding to the coming agony of Good Friday – “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.” Why respond in such a curiously sideward way? Perhaps, this a case of Jesus, the King of Kings and Son of David, the culmination of the ethnocentric religion of Israel, dying to give life to a harvest of believers from all nations. And here is the soil in which that harvest will begin to ripen, citizens of the multi-ethnic Roman Empire already drawn to worship of the God of Abraham and Isaac even before the establishment of Christianity.
Gentile explorers of and converts to Judaism seem to have been reasonably common at this point in history – they are also mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – doubtless facilitated by the enormous Greek-speaking Jewish diaspora. The network of synagogues in cities across the Mediterranean used the Greek translation of the Old Testament, accessible to all in the East and many in the West. The role that this group may – indeed to my mind, must – have played in the early expansion of Christianity is little recorded.
But, as so often in the Gospels, enclosed inside the specific lesson for one time and place is the lesson for all time, which Jesus amplifies immediately afterwards. “Whoever loves himself is lost, but he who hates himself in this world will be kept safe for eternal life.”
The translation ‘hates himself in the world’ is perhaps a little unfortunate – the world, and sadly the Church, is too full of people who wish to make us hate ourselves to validate their own fears and insecurities. The Greek literally says ‘hates his soul in this world’. The world is not our true home, merely the womb in which we grow to rebirth in eternal life. We are doomed to spiritual destruction if we think that we do ourselves any good by measuring success by material wealth or public approval. Our souls are called to much greater things, to seek treasure that lasts for eternity, treasure that is only found by loving our Creator and loving our fellow human beings, just as much as we love ourselves.
This is a message with resonance for people of all faiths and of none, for it expresses a truth that hard experience of life teaches most of us. It is only when we cease to centre our lives on the selfish and vain things that we are pressurised to see as ‘success’ that we are free: free of the burden of our own expectations of ourselves, free of the expectation to succeed materially, to succeed professionally and ‘make our mark’, rather than to succeed as people.
In public life, politicians who obsess about their legacy – and I’m sure we can all think of one or two – are those who often leave the most poison and destruction in their wake. Most of us, in our working lives, have fallen foul at one point or another of the new manager who rips up much of the good their predecessor achieved to create a reputation for themselves. If only we could worry less about how we are perceived and concentrate more on how we can give love to others and to God through our lives.
Freedom involves risk, and abandoning the expectations of the world means risking condemnation according to the standards of the world. Christ continues, “If anyone is to serve me, he must follow me” – and in Holy Week, in the context of grains of wheat dying and hating oneself in the world, it is clear that means following Him to the Cross. Freedom to live as we should only comes once we accept that life will throw hurtful, bewildering and downright hateful things at us.
For everyone, life is at times a crucifixion. Right up until the Resurrection, everything that happens to Jesus in Holy Week – betrayal, mental and physical pain, abandonment by friends, false accusations, wrongful punishment and death – is something that happens to all of us. This is part of what makes Christ truly human.
Nor is suffering something to be celebrated. It is horrible, the power of death and sin in a fallen world. Christ, God Himself made man, came to give us life in all its fullness, and took such pleasure in the joys of the world that the Pharisees condemned him as a glutton and a drunk. He prayed desperately to be spared the agonies of the passion and crucifixion. But He knew it was going to happen anyway, and kept on loving right through it, a love so deep that it embraced His executors and tormentors.
Once we accept that the Cross has no power over love – that love prevails over even death itself – we are free to be fully alive, and follow Christ to eternal life.