God’s thundering “Yes!”  

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 31.31-34

Psalm 119.9-16

Hebrews 5.5-14

John 12.20-33

  ©Suzanne Grimmett

As we join ourselves to the escalating tension in our journey to the cross we find St Andrew making one of his rare Gospel appearances, gathering up some Greeks who “wish to see Jesus”. This is, after all, the disciples’ role- to help others to see Jesus. Here in the community of St Andrew, we are always inviting others to journey with us and come and ‘see Jesus’, particularly as we approach this most Holy Week.

It is also a time which should make us think more carefully about what it means to be a disciple. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus makes this explicit, cautioning followers to “count the cost” of discipleship and not be naïve. If we can ever hear “take up your cross and follow me” and not recognise that there is a cost, we are not paying attention. Holy Week is the time when this truth is so central it cannot be avoided.

In John’s Gospel there is an apparently more steadfast Jesus, ready for what is to come. There is much less of the desire expressed in the prayer “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” that we hear in other Gospels. In John, though Jesus is troubled in soul, he does not seem to desire to turn from the cup of suffering, but rather says with assurance, “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Far from having his life taken from him, John’s Jesus makes clear that this is his chosen pathway, and that there is empowerment and freedom in choosing the manner of his death. So much so, that when Jesus hears the thundering and affirming voice of the Divine, he indicates that it is not for any reassurance he needs, but for his disciples who are confused and fearful.

This sense of there being a compelling reason and victory in Jesus’ death takes John’s Gospel into a very different direction to those ideas which would make of the cross some kind of divine punishment dealt out to Jesus on our behalf. Rather, Jesus describes what is to happen as revealing a judgment through which “the ruler of this world will be driven out”. A couple of words need to be unpacked here. By ‘world’ Jesus is not meaning all of God’s creation but rather all of the realm within it that is opposed to God’s purposes and separates itself from relationship to the divine. This realm is a system rather than a place or community, present as a hostile spirit or ‘ruler’ that keeps humanity trapped in its forces of domination, violence and death.[1] What we can hear clearly in John’s account is that it is by God’s initiative that humanity can be reconciled and set free- God’s creative action in the incarnation which is consummated at the cross in a free choice of vulnerable, self-giving love. This opens the potential for all humanity to participate in the way and new life made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The word ‘potential’ is important here. If the victory has been won, we may well ask why we still live in a world of such great suffering and injustice. God has acted in a decisive and eternal way, yet humanity is never compelled. Indeed the world, to use again the term from John’s Gospel, has continued to reject the way of the suffering Saviour. While there is still willing participation in systems of dominance and violence, we are not there yet, despite the way being made. As Rowan Williams in our Lenten study states, “The world…has said no to Jesus, and God has said no to that no.”[2] The resurrection utterly refuses the verdict of the world and, as Jesus himself says, ‘overcomes ‘it, so that there is no longer any obstacle between God and humanity. This is good news for us whenever we have believed all the “no’s” we or others have spoken over our own life. No to our own dignity or worth, no to change, new beginnings and possibility, no to claiming ourselves beloved and belonging in this place. Spoken over all of these “no’s” to love and hope, life and eternity is a deafening and divine,“Yes!”

It remains for those of us who accept the call of discipleship to discern what that resounding “yes!” means for our living and our dying. The evocative image of a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying can help us in this discernment. In the falling of the seed back into the earth it becomes possible for its goodness to be multiplied and a more abundant life to grow. The problem with the central image of sacrifice in the Christian gospel is that it often becomes confused with self-abnegation or even self-harm. This way of seeing misses the most important part of the symbol of the wheat- that it is creative and generative. The empowerment and freedom evident in John’s recounting of the passion story can be a very helpful corrective where some Christians, in seeking to be faithful disciples, end up self-emptying to the point that it becomes self-annihilation. In Jesus, rather, we see a clear claiming of his own belovedness and utter freedom. When we also can claim ourselves beloved and free, we are exhibiting the sure marks of discipleship.

 Some of humanity’s deepest fears are to be alone, to die alone and for our life to be meaningless. In response, Jesus enacts the great mystery that it is in dying to ourselves that we can live abundantly fruitful lives, united with God and one another.  Margaret Farley puts this well;

Grains of wheat must in a sense die to what they are if they are not to remain alone and fruitless. And so it is that human individuals must in a sense die to their love for their own lives, lest in loving themselves above all else they lose their lives and paradoxically destroy themselves.[3]

There is a great difference between an unhealthily inward-looking focus on self and the living of a life forgetful of self but where we know and accept with joy that we are beloved. The first actually robs us of love and connection and the second releases us into that love, life and joy. It is also I think why John’s Gospel seems not to be focussing on the work of the cross as forgiveness of individual sins. Rather, throughout the Gospel there is an emphasis on the release from our captivity to the systems which oppress and demean and an invitation to an alternative, connected way to live and to be in a world of fear and violence. This is why when we come on Good Friday and perhaps lay a symbol of something down at the foot of the cross, it is not so much to try to remove guilt but to ask the liberating Jesus to help us to die with him to anything that is keeping us from the life found in the love of God and love of our neighbour.

To be a disciple is to trust in this great mystery that to live we need to die; participating in the death of Jesus so we can participate in the new life and possibility of Christ, in this life and in the next. It is to know that though the way may be hard and sometimes full of pain, the one who has gone before us is with us, helping us to have courage and strength to persevere until the new day dawns. And as we set our feet to this pilgrimage of love, dying to self that we may become one body in Christ, we are affirmed, forgiven, and set free by the thundering “Yes” of God.                                    


[1] Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (p. 351). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] Williams, Rowan. God With Us: The Meaning Of The Cross And Resurrection – Then And Now (p. 56). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

[3] Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (p. 342). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.