John 12:20-33 April 1, 2009

by Christine Wenderoth
Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry

This passage recounts Jesus' last public dialog in the book of John, and starts us on the heavy, sorrowful journey to the cross.  Jesus himself announces his own death in a sort of take charge way: "The hour has come," he declares, as though he's in on the whole plan and approving of its drift.  "The hour has come for the Son of Man [that would be me] to be glorified." 

I find Jesus' clairvoyance and bravado to be off-putting, to tell you the truth.  It's a little smug-"I'm off to be glorified, so don't weep for me, Argentina"-smug and invulnerable.  I want my Jesus to be like me--vulnerable, doubting and scared witless.  Even though Jesus says his "soul is troubled," I don't really believe him because in the next breath he says one more time "Father, glorify your name," meaning "Do your worst! Slay me!"

Boy, do I have an attitude problem!  I confess it up front.  But at least, this forced me to look into this Johannine text a little longer and a little harder, to try to see what God might be trying to tell us, and me.  What am I not seeing that lurks behind these words?  Why am I resistant to this vision of life?

What's funny is that initially, I was attracted to this text, and especially to words, "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." The grain of wheat image is a homey and familiar picture which we have had pointed out to us by sage grandparents and annoying teachers over the years.  It is a wise and hard truth, told through a persuasive, attractive and irrefutable illustration.  And yet, even there, I remember discomfort.  As used by our elders, this image of the grain of wheat usually meant: "This sacrifice we were forcing you to make is a law of nature.  Death is essential to life.  Cleaning your room and doing your homework is a law of nature.  Deal."

And so the more I thought about the grain of wheat, and its journey into the dirt, the more I came to realize that for me this is not an attractive vision at all.  I don't want to go into the dirt.  I don't want to die.  I don't want to die, even in the service of truth and justice and the American way.  I don't even want to sacrifice my comfort and serenity, if the truth be told.

This was brought home to me some time ago when I was reading about hero myths and how all our myths tell the same story.  Moses must be separated from his real mother, be found in a basket and propelled on to do great deeds of daring (lead folks out of slavery, turn sticks into snakes, talk to God on mountaintops) before becoming united with God.  Orpheus must descend to Hades before he can have the fair Eurydice.  Odysseus must wander the earth for years before he can return to Penelope.  Dante must plunge to the depths of hell in order to find Beatrice.  All these men must leave mother and home, succeed in perilous adventure, and only then reunite with abundance, comfort and femininity. 

Our contemporary myths are no different.  In Star Wars, Hans Solo must swashbuckle his way through the galaxies, leaving mommy behind, before he can settle down with the Princess Leia in domestic bliss, or its wisecracking equivalent.  In the Lord of the Rings, the little hobbit has to traverse three volumes of danger and daring-do before claiming his reward and peace.  I can't understand why the Hobbit didn't just stay in his comfy little hole, put his feet up with an aromatic pipe, a roaring fire, a good book and a pint of something. Why leave home and hearth in order to find... home and hearth?  Kansas, my dear Dorothy, is where it's always been, right there between Nebraska and Oklahoma.  Adventure, I guess, is not my thing.

This might be a gender thing; I'm prepared to admit that. Male heroes court danger and discomfort for the Good Cause; female heroes forge relationships and assume responsibility for the care of others (I'm talking mythology here) also for the Good Cause.  But I suspect that, really, few of us seek out discomfort, adventure and suffering.  Not women; not men.  We would just as soon remain safe, thank you very much.

Which is why it's hard to relate to the Jesus of John's gospel.  Jesus chooses the cross.  He is not a witless lamb being led to the slaughter. Nor is he a glory seeking superhero.  He's a different kind of hero altogether.  He is, I submit, a man who has come to understand something about himself and about the world that is hard and sad, but not hopeless.  He is a man who has come to understand the real and seductive nature of death, and the real and powerful force of life.

Years ago I read a book called I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. This book describes how our culture hurts men telling them that being sad, and of course crying, is unmanly. Real Men aren't depressed.  Real Men don't feel abandoned or lonely.  They go on adventures; they act.  So if you're wounded you go to work or you play ball or you have sex or you get drunk or you hit somebody.  If you feel lousy you deny that you feel lousy.  In fact, you deny that you feel anything at all: you become inpenetratable. You become invulnerable. You deny there's anything wrong.

The author of this book tells about man after man who comes into his office for treatment saying, "I feel fine.  There's nothin' wrong with me.  I'm just here 'cause the wife says she'll leave me if I don't." And then what unravels is a tale of childhood trauma and abuse--sometimes violent and dramatic, but just as often subtle and quiet, more a story of emotional neglect than outright abuse.  What unravels is a tale of a young boy who wanted to be cherished and loved by his parents, but instead is trained to "be a man," a creature who does not feel or express himself. 

And time after time, what unravels is the tale of a boy who takes responsibility for the failures of his parents and culture by disconnecting from himself, by killing the very portion of himself he wants to live--his love for himself and for others.  He learns to think of himself as worthless.  He learns to think of feelings as worthless.  And so, he hides from his own feelings behind addictions, activities, and self-control.  And he passes this legacy on to the next generation, by being abusive or neglectful of his own children--because, obviously, by shutting off his feelings, he can't show feelings to his children.

What we have, then, is a whole culture full of zombies--men who are walking around depressed, but who won't allow themselves to feel depressed.   What we have are people who are half dead, and who want to stay half dead because at least that way they feel no pain.  But the only cure for this walking death is pain-pain that reveals the inner wound of trauma or neglect. The first step in curing depression is, ironically, to feel depressed.  In a darkly humorous passage, the author expresses it this way:

"I told Damien that while we need not fuss about whether or not he was an 'addict' per se, I strongly believed that his relationship to sex...was addictive.  He used sex to soothe himself and, in essence, to medicate bad feelings.  Damien said he wasn't aware of having many bad feelings.  I promised him that if he stayed with me long enough, he would be."

We don't have to be a male, or to have been neglected or abused by our parents to recognize ourselves in this portrait, do we?  I suspect that most of us medicate ourselves from time to time with alcohol or sex or work or relationships or activity, and know that it's far easier to sleep through our troubles than face them head on.  I suspect we also know that medicating ourselves just turns our attention away from what's really going on, and solves nothing in the end. The drug wears off, the sex is over, the job is completed (or lost), the lover leaves us.  And then we have to do it over again--whatever "it" is--to ward off the pain and keep us dead to the truth.

This is what, I believe, Jesus recognized when he said "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life."  In the past, when I'd heard this sentence, I thought it terribly masochistic.  I thought Jesus was saying you have to hate yourself, and hate your body and your pleasures and relationships, and disavow all that you love in order to find life eternal. But I think now I got it all wrong.  I think now that Jesus saw that many people "love their life" by loving their oblivion.  They love their ambition or addiction or activity because it keeps them from facing the reality of woundedness and pain. 

And as long as they love climbing that ladder of success or love their drink or their fast car or their latest love affair... their true self, the self who is vulnerable and hurting, will stay dead.  It is only when they wake up one day and say, "I hate this!  I hate my life...the way it is.  The way I run around on my spouse.  The way I watch TV all the time.  The way I drink too much.  The way I push people around and away.  The way I hate myself.  I hate this!"  It is only when we "hate this" and then begin the hard work of going into the dirt of our past and present, and facing the pain.....that we have any chance of finding and keeping our life.

But, man, this is so, so hard!  Like Jesus we have to see that the hour of pain has come, and then choose to enter into it.  We have to see that the only way to life is through the dirt, through the rejection and abuse and neglect that we have internalized so long ago.  We have to see that we must choose confrontation with ourselves because to not choose it means to stay disconnected from our own vitality.  To not choose it means to stay drugged, dead.

But to embark on the journey back to life requires support.  We need friends and family, and occasionally professionals, to guide us and carry us through the hard times.  We need examples of people who have gone into their dirt, only to reemerge, "bearing much fruit." We need the example of Jesus.  Jesus was not a good Jewish boy who became a man by shoving people aside on the way to his next adventure. 

He is the ultimate Real Man, who went open-eyed into his suffering so he could be "lifted up from the earth," able to "draw all people to himself" and be present to us all.  Through him we have a choice because we are given the hope and strength to overcome our own suffering and come to real life.  God-in-Jesus is here for us, through his example, through the help, support, community and power God offers us through Jesus' church!  As we travel through Lent-the season of the church, the season of economic troubles, and the season of our private sufferings-let us remember: there is death so that there can be fruitful life.  Jesus has shown us this truth.  Courage!


John 12:20-33

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