Progressive reflections on the lectionary #8

John 12:20-33

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #8

In an article I published on my Substack last week, I wrote about the ‘crisis of decline’ facing the contemporary church in Western Europe and North America, and the persistent theme of death and new/re birth in the Bible. I pointed out the way that the ‘grain of wheat’ image used in this week’s gospel passage speaks of the cyclical process of life, rather than the linear ‘beginning and end’ idea we tend to adopt.

We think in this linear way because we think in terms of ‘substances’ which have a start and an end point. Process thinking says that substances aren’t substances at all, they don’t exist. Rather we have processes: constantly in the process of perishing and becoming.

According to a process way of looking at the world, death (perishing) is necessary for new birth (becoming). On that basis, death is not something to be feared, particularly in this case looking at the posited death of the inherited forms of church we currently live with. Instead this should be seen as part of the natural process of constant change.

The reading of the ‘grain of wheat’ passage provides, I think, a great opportunity to re-address some of the fears that people have about the ending of things ‘as we’ve known them’.

Another thing that it might be interesting to reflect on from this very rich passage is the way that the evangelist deliberately draws on the writings of Isaiah.

Some people come at this from the opposite direction, they read the gospel passage and then say: “hey, look, this was all predicted in the Old Testament!” This is to read things through a distorting lens.

The New Testament writers were Jews writing in the light of their own scriptures, they were deliberately drawing on themes and motifs found in those older books. John does this a lot, and much of his gospel draws heavily on themes from, or seeks to demonstrate the fulfilment of prophecies in, Isaiah.

The passage we have this week has three direct references back to Isaiah chapter 11, verse 10.

“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

First we get the Greeks asking to see Jesus in verse 21. This points directly to “the nations shall inquire of him.” In both verses 23 and 28, Jesus speaks of the “glory” that the cross will bring to himself and the Father, echoing “his dwelling shall be glorious.” Then in verse 32, we hear another instance of Jesus speaking of being ‘lifted up’ and in being lifted up, drawing all people to himself. This directly relates to “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him.”

It helps to remember that the writers of the gospels were steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. John’s gospel is particularly heavily reliant on images and themes that draw directly from those older books. Sadly this (fourth) gospel is one that is sometimes used to derive anti Jewish ideas, it seems to me that acknowledging, clarifying and emphasising the Jewishness of these writings might go some way to preventing that.


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