Note: This article is the third of a three-part series on the Revised Common Lectionary's use of the Gospel of John during Lent. Read the second installment here.

Lent 5: John 12: 20-33 - Irony, Glory, and Some Greeks

The twelfth chapter of John's Gospel is dense, highly symbolic, at times confusing...and incredibly important. It serves in some ways as a summary of the first "book" or half of John's Gospel—which covers Jesus signs and teaching—and the second book—which deals exclusively with Jesus' Passion. The scenes immediately previous to the reading appointed for the Fifth Sunday in Lent have brought John's dramatic story of Jesus to a near-fevered pitch.

In chapter eleven, Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the death. The result is twofold. On the one hand, more people believe in him than ever before; on the other, and precisely because of his popularity, the religious elders have decided they must do away with this upstart (11:45-53). So Jesus lays low until the Passover celebration and then makes his way to Jerusalem. By this time his fame has spread, as has word of the potential conflict between Jesus and his adversaries. And perhaps because few things draw a crowd better than scandal, his entrance into the capital city is met with pomp, circumstance, and great fanfare.

Among this crowd are some Greeks—most likely Greek Jews who have returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover—who want to see Jesus. Oddly, it is unclear whether they ever do. As in the scene a week ago with Nicodemus, these Greeks serve more as a catalyst for an important speech by Jesus than as genuine conversation partners. And what a speech! In the space of just a few verses Jesus not only predicts his death but names it his "glorification;" calls those who would follow him similarly to be prepared to give up their lives; declares his rock-solid intention to follow this path to its glorious end; and announces that through his death, resurrection, and ascension, he will draw all the people of the world to him.

As dramatic and climatic as this speech is, two elements are often confusing. First, how can the cross be glory? Here and throughout John's Gospel we encounter a subtle irony, if not parody, of the dominant ways of the world. Jesus refers to himself as being "lifted up" or elevated in the cross. That kind of language was often used to describe the honors that attend Caesar.

Similarly, everyone and their brother—Pilate, the guards, the soldiers—in the Passion narrative will call Jesus "king," almost always in mockery. Yet the irony is that those who mock him are nevertheless right—Jesus is God's anointed king. And his cross—the place of shame and horror—becomes his place of elevation because it is where the love of God is made most manifest. As we heard last week, "For God so loved the world" (3:16), even the world governed by a ruler hostile to God and subject to judgment (12:31), "that God gave his only Son" that all might have life, and have it abundantly.

The second thing may seem a smaller matter but is, I'd suggest, equally important. Who are these Greeks? As mentioned above, they are probably Jews who have been scattered around the world (in this case, to Greece) who have returned to Jerusalem for the Passover. At the same time, even though they want to "see" Jesus, they all but disappear from the scene.

A useful rule to employ when reading John is that whenever Jesus' conversation partner fades in the background, Jesus is no longer talking primarily to that person anymore but instead has turned his attention to the reader. The Greeks want to see—sight, in John's gospel, is connected closely with believing. As we'll discover by the end, you don't have to see Jesus in a physical sense to come to know Jesus through faith. In fact, near the very end of John's Gospel he tells Thomas that while he may believe because he's gotten to see Jesus, those who believe without seeing are truly blessed. I used to assume Jesus was rebuking Thomas, but more lately I've come to believe that Jesus is actually blessing us—after all, we are among those who believe without benefit of seeing.

The same, I think, is true here. Who are these Greeks? We are. And while we may wish we could have seen Jesus, if we dare look at his cross and name it as the place where God's glorious love for the world is poured out, we will not only be blessed but granted life.