Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 17, 2024

John 12:20-33 Commentary

Comments, Questions, and Observations

There are many familiar themes in this week’s passage: losing one’s life in order to gain it, following Jesus, Jesus speaking about his impending death, and the way that his salvation work expands to all the nations. At the start of Lent, we heard the Father boom down with a message from heaven, but this time we know for sure that others hear it—even if they mistake it for thunder.

This passage, though, more than any of the others gives us more insight into Jesus’s own thoughts and feelings about his calling to the cross. In the other passages, he’s been looking to his followers, trying to help them be prepared and to understand. And even though he’s still speaking with them here, he’s sharing in a more personal way than we have heard him do thus far.

As we listen in as Jesus shares both his thoughts and his feelings about what he is knows is to come, it is a stark and somber reminder that what Christ did was not easy or simple; it took great commitment and care.

(In this sermon commentary, I’m going to focus on Jesus’s experience, but if you’re looking for some application ideas about what it means for disciples to love and hate their lives, see the second illustration idea below.)

If you’ve been to therapy or been part of an emotional maturity growth process, you might be familiar with the question, “What’s stirred up for you?” It’s a question that’s asked in order to help you name inner feelings about a particular situation and work towards the thoughts and ideas that lie behind them. “Stirred up” is exactly the definition of the word Jesus uses to describe his soul (your translation probably says, “Now my soul is troubled,” instead of stirred up.)

What has gotten Jesus stirred up? Reflecting on the necessity of death. Jesus likens it to a grain of wheat being sown, buried in a grave of soil and compost, where what it is as a kernel is transformed into new life, an entire plant with many stems and many more kernels or berries (much fruit!). Through “dying” it produces life.

At first, Jesus reflects on what this physical reminder can help his followers understand about what it means to love their life enough to lose it. If a disciple truly loves their life enough to follow Jesus, then they too have realized that they need to separate their life from its connection to the things of this world and fall into line by following Jesus. We have to come to hate how limited living according to any other standard is in comparison to servanthood to God and his purposes.

And as Jesus reflects on this lesson, he thinks also about himself. More than any other, his was a life lived from the best kind of love, rejecting the shackles of this world, and always looking to set people free for eternity. Through his ministry he has already done so much to bring honour to the Father, but he knows there is even more glorious work to do and that it will require even greater sacrifice. Jesus, too, his divine nature fully united with his human nature, must come to “hate” his life enough that he is willing to die and be buried for the fruit of many more eternal lives.

And it troubles him. It stirs up a lot of feelings for him. It is not that Jesus loves himself too much, or that he hates himself in a degrading and sinful manner. The love and hate Jesus has just described for his followers is different for the one-who-was-without-sin because they are their perfect forms in God.

What is perfect love? A love that leads to transformative change and blessing for many people. A love that breaks the ties that bind people in captivity and away from God. A love that has no sin in it at all. A love that gives itself for the greater good, a love that serves all that is true about God.

What is perfect hate? A hate that leads to transformative change and blessing for many people. A hate that breaks the ties that bind people in captivity and away from God. A hate that has no sin in it at all. A hate that takes from itself for the greater good, a hate that serves all that is true about God.

These higher callings for love and hate are not an easy road. There is only one who can manage: Jesus himself. In a humbling reminder to us, Jesus says that he is stirred up, distressed even while resolved, to be doing this for our sakes; it is why he came to earth. And because he is distressed even while resolved, he calls upon the loving Trinity for support, letting his disciples hear him call out to the Father, who responds with words of encouragement that Jesus is doing what they have set out together to do.

Though it seems that the crowd didn’t quite catch the words spoken from heaven, Jesus tells them (and us) that this voice has come for their benefit. Perhaps he also means that he publicly shared the difficulty of his inmost troubles for their benefit as well. Because in that moment Jesus models how the “ruler of this world will be driven out” (verse 31): by honestly seeking the glory and support of God in the midst of trials here in earth, and by willingly let the necessary things die in order to experience new, abundant life.

Textual Point

Our text speaks of glorification for both the Son and the Father. In verse 23, Jesus takes the presence of the Greeks as a sign that the time has come for him to be glorified. Then, in verse 28, Jesus tells the Father to glorify the Father’s name. In fact, the Father says his name has already been glorified and will be glorified again. What is that about? It is likely that the Father is encouraging Jesus Christ: Jesus has already glorified the Father’s name through his life of obedience, and through his continuous and willing obedience, even unto death, he will continue to bring glory to the whole Trinity’s salvific purposes. In other words, the Father is glorified because Jesus loves, lives, and dies for us through the power of their Holy Spirit.

[Note: In addition to our weekly sermon commentaries, we have a special resource page for Lent and Easter for you to explore!]

Illustration Ideas

The pattern of death producing life is written all across the created order. Could it be that the Triune God decided to honour and glorify the willing sacrifice of the Son, through whom creation was made, by imprinting his story on every seed that brings life through its death?

If you have focused on the call to discipleship and what loving and hating might look like as servants of God, then these illustration ideas might be helpful. There’s a long tradition in the church of seeing how our service to God and one another is an act of love that allows us to express hate for the evil patterns of this world. Augustine, for instance, preached from this text, “be yourselves also in your own way serving Christ, by good lives, by giving alms, by preaching his name and doctrine as you can…”

In a much more pointed way to his own country’s struggles, Óscar Romero was an El Salvadoran Catholic priest who worked for social justice and peace from violence. In a homily based on this text, and on the anniversary of the death of another activist, he preached, “Many do not understand, and they think Christianity should not get involved in such things. But, to the contrary, you have just heard Christ’s Gospel, that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life which history demands of us, that who would avoid the danger will lose their life, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone. The harvest comes about because it dies, allows itself to be sacrificed in their earth and destroyed. Only by destroying itself does it produce the harvest.” As he finished his sermon and transitioned to leading the celebration of the mass, Romero spoke of its symbolism in the wheat and chalice. It was then that hitmen, likely hired by a right-wing political party leader, came into the church and shot Romero to death at the altar. You can read the full homily here.


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