Text: John 12:20-26
The twelfth chapter of the Gospel of John reveals the multitude of plots surrounding the peasant king, Jesus of Nazareth. Though he stays in a simple home of friends on the outskirts of Jerusalem, he is not safe, nor are his friends. Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus are his hosts, the latter having found fame or infamy because the peasant king brought him forth from his tomb four days after his passing. Now Lazarus’ life is in danger for a second time, for the news of his rising has made the peasants even more devoted to their king. Those in power who fear they are losing spiritual sway over the masses cannot tolerate Lazarus, and all he represents, walking about the holy city.
But there is a conspiracy much closer to the peasant king than this. One of his own, one of the twelve, is plotting out of disappointment or desperation. When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with an expensive perfume, Judas opines that it is a waste. So much good could have been done with the money, he insists, and his treacherous plans are finalized in his mind. Yes, the peasant king is surrounded by conspiracies, and he knows more than anyone that he has entered the last hours of his life.
There is a Shakespearian tone to this scene in John 12. Reminders of King Lear are elicited by the virtue and villainy that exist so comfortably side by side. In his great tragedy, Shakespeare describes a foolish old king who bequeaths his kingdom to his oldest daughters who would say anything to receive his inheritance; but his one faithful daughter, who dares to speak the truth, is denied. It is a story of how the rich and powerful act with cunning and deceit, and how the loyal and loving ones become fools and mad men. Only in the end, those whose conspiracies have brought them everything they sought are done in by their greed and lust. But the virtuous are not spared by their virtue. The king comes to his senses just in time to reconcile with his loyal Cordelia, only to lose her. He dies wailing at his loss, and all that is left is for good Edgar to proclaim:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The peasant king of John 12 understands this philosophy all too well. He is obedient to a sad truth that his time has come. And, with the immediacy of his death before him, he has no time to speak anything but the truth he feels. What one might say or ought to say is of no consequence. There are only a few days left and nothing will forestall the inevitable end. And the truth that the peasant king desires to speak, before he cannot speak any longer, carries the weight of a dying man’s singular desires.
Into this unfolding tragedy wander bit players, characters described only as some Greeks who have come to Jerusalem for Passover. We are not told they are followers of the peasant king. They are not even children of Abraham. They hold no office or pedigree that makes them special whatsoever, except this: They are Greeks and in some strange sense they are us. They represent all those who are to come later, who will call themselves disciples centuries in the future, and all we are told is they wish to see Jesus.
And in response, in his last words to the world before he goes into hiding, the peasant king says this to the Greeks and to all those who would seek him for 2,000 years:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, 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. 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, and where I am, there will my servant be also. (John 12:23-26)
It is hyperbole bordering on lunacy for a dying man to suggest his end will bear much fruit, but how can we smirk when we sit here centuries later talking of his life and struggling for his truth. His single grain has borne generation after generation of seekers, servants, and saints. His death is cruel and tragic, deserving of our pity, but certainly not in vain.
And to the Greeks, who are us after all, he has no time to speak anything but the truth he feels, the simplest, clearest, barest truth possible. He says if we wish to serve him we must follow him. His words are an indictment on all those arguments to come about how much water should be used in baptism, and how perfect or imperfect the Bible is, and which lines of the creeds we will adhere to. His words damn those who have focused on gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature when deciding who is in or who is out. His words crucify those who cling to power, status, and financial stability as the definition of the good life.
The peasant king says to the Greeks, and to us, if you would serve me you must follow me. We must let go of all the illusions and masks that prop up the deceptions of our life so that we can see something real, and do something real, and be someone real. To do so guarantees us nothing, except eternal life – that quality of life that has depth and sincerity and virtue, even if we taste it only in brief moments. Metaphorically we will wash feet and touch lepers; literally we will confront injustice and feed the hungry; inevitably we will know rejection and failure. The way of the peasant king is not the way to success or safety or even satisfaction. It is the way to life eternal; it is the gateway to God. And no matter the plots and conspiracies that surround us; no matter the losses and tragedies that beset us; we will be saved by serving and following the peasant king.