John 12:12-16, 23-26
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 10, 2022 – Palm/Passion Sunday
This twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel starts with a story from the day before Palm Sunday. It tells how Mary, a sister of Lazarus whom Jesus had just raised from the dead, poured costly perfume on Jesus’ feet; and how Jesus, defending her against Judas’ criticism of her action, declared it an anointing of His body for burial in anticipation of His approaching death.
This twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel records more words from Jesus about His death than any other.
Yet, this twelfth chapter also reports the Palm Sunday celebration, a parade that presents a very different view of Jesus than that of One who came to love humbly and to die horribly. It tells of Jesus’ entering the holy capital city of Israel to the acclaim of a crowd welcoming Him as a political savior. The people hailed Him as “the King of Israel”. They waved palm branches to honor Him in their version of a ticker-tape parade. They called out the Scriptures always cited in celebration of a national triumph and in affirmation of Israel’s hope to regain its independence and former glory.
John, however, notes that both the crowd and Jesus’ disciples misunderstood the nature and purpose of Jesus’ power. They would, John notes, only understand after Jesus had been “glorified”, glorification being Jesus’ preferred description of His crucifixion.
So, right after all the false expectation projected on to Him in the Palm Sunday parade, Jesus spoke a word of correction. He told a couple of His disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man” – Jesus’ favorite name for Himself – “to be glorified…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In other words, Jesus died and fell into that earthen grave to show His resolve, not just to know God’s love Himself, but to raise up a big family whose members would know it through Him and, out of gratitude for Him, would seek to help others to know it as well. What Jesus said metaphorically here He said directly only eight verses later: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
On Palm Sunday, when so much else was unclear, Jesus made it clear that He was crucified to create a community, a family of folks who manifest God’s love to both those within and those beyond their community. That family is the intended fruit of Jesus’ death.
But no one automatically becomes a member of His family. Each must choose their response to His reaching out to them by His love and death; each must make their decision whether they will follow His example and incarnate His concern for everyone – even when it requires sacrifice and death to their old self-centered ways. Some might view this lifestyle of self-denial and cross-bearing as a form of self-hatred, but it is in fact an expression of love for Jesus and those Jesus loves. Likewise, some might view looking out first and foremost for “number one” as a form of proper self-love, but it is in fact a guarantee of becoming so small of heart as to disappear into dark self-imploding nothingness like a black hole in outer space. Hear what Jesus said: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me.”
To follow Jesus is to walk in His footsteps and to do whatever it takes to bring God’s love to light for others. It is to emulate the example of the One who came to love and die for us by dying to our egocentricity in order to show people His love.
A Catholic priest named Brennan Manning tells the story of how he got the name “Brennan”. While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together. They went to school together, bought a car together, double-dated together. They even enlisted in the Army together, trained at boot camp together, and fought on the frontlines together.
One night while sheltering in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn as Ray listened and munched on a chocolate bar. Suddenly, a live grenade landed in their foxhole. Ray glanced at Brennan, smiled at Him, tossed his chocolate and threw himself on the grenade. It exploded and killed Ray, but his self-sacrifice spared Brennan’s life.
When Brennan later became a priest, he was instructed to take the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So he took the name “Brennan”.
Some years afterward, he visited Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late talking over tea. At one point, Father Brennan asked Mrs. Brennan, “Do you think he loved me?” Whereupon she immediately rocked herself up off the couch, strode over to the priest, wagged her finger in his face and demanded to know, “What more could he have done for you?”
Father Brennan says that at that moment he experienced an epiphany.
He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus and wondering out loud, “Does He love me?” And Jesus’ mother Mary pointed to her Son and demanded to know, “What more could He have done for you?”
The cross is the Lord’s way of doing all He could for us. The question cannot be whether He loves us. The only question is whether we love Him, love Him enough to deny ourselves and carry the cross on which we must die in order to prove His love to others.