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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Harvey

Jesus' Death, the Nations, and Mission: Sunday Gospel Reflections with Dr. Harvey

Updated: Mar 14


2024 Fifth Sunday of Lent’s Gospel: Jn 12:20-33 

(Whoever serves me must follow me, says the Lord; and where I am, there also will my servant be.) 

Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me. “I am troubled now.  Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder; but others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come for my sake but for yours. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die. 

Before we consider this passage as it is presented to us for Sunday Mass, let us first recall the context of this reading. In the previous chapter Jesus had publicly raised Lazarus from the dead (other such miracles were previously done in private), which resulted in some of the leaders more intentionally discussing Jesus’ execution (and also the death of Lazarus). Mary, Martha, and Lazarus each perform acts of love and thanksgiving in response to the raising of Lazarus; the most detailed act described by John is Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet. John then records Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem for the Passover (aka Palm Sunday). The Sunday gospel reading above follows this triumphant entry and precedes Jesus’ washing the Twelve’s feet. This means it is one of the last public appearances of Jesus.

Slowly since Abraham, more explicitly in the major prophets, the plan for all nations to enter into the covenant, the Family of God, has been revealed. It finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. From the Magi to the centurion confessing Jesus as Lord, to the Great Commissioning, the gospels are filled with moments indicating the eventual inclusion of the gentiles (non-Israelites) into the Family of the Church. In the gospel scene for this reflection, it begins by noting that some Greeks were present for Passover and were seeking Jesus. This event, like the others throughout the gospels, will come into focus even more throughout the Acts of the Apostles.

The inquiry of the Greeks seems tied to Jesus’ “hour.” In the preceding chapters of John, this “hour” has been described as “coming.” Now the “hour has come.” Jesus words here are crucial, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” This “much fruit” will include, among other things, the gentiles. Jesus explains further along in this reading that his being lifted up from the earth, which was a key theme in last Sunday's reflection, will “draw everyone” to him.

I would like to pause this reflection for a moment to offer a recommendation for anyone seeking to grow in understanding of the events of Holy Week as part of their Lenten journey, or to study theology, or simply needing a new book. I cannot recommend enough Benedict XVI’s (Joseph Ratzinger) three-book series Jesus of Nazareth. One of them is focused on Holy Week and can either be read in print, read digitally/online, or listened to through audible. As part of this recommendation, and to continue our thoughts on this gospel passage, here is a quote from this magnum opus. Concerning the Greeks,

In the man [Philip] with the Greek name from half-Gentile Galilee, they evidently saw a mediator who could give them access to Jesus... When asked by a group of Greek pilgrims for an opportunity to meet him, Jesus responds with a prophecy of the Passion [the grain of wheat], in which he points to his imminent death as “glorification”—glorification that is manifested in great fruitfulness. What does this mean?

It is not some brief external encounter between Jesus and the Greeks that matter. There is to be another, far deeper encounter. The Greeks will indeed “see” him: through the Cross he comes toward them. He comes as the grain of wheat that has died, and he will bear fruit among them. They will see his “glory”: in the crucified Jesus they will find the true God, the one they were seeking in their myths and their philosophy. The universality of which Isaiah’s prophecy speaks (56:7) is brought into the light of the Cross: from the Cross, the one God becomes visible to the nations; in the Son they will recognize the Father, that is to say, the one God, who revealed himself in the burning bush. -Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pp. 19-20

Is it any wonder that Jesus’ New Covenant Assembly or “Church” was described very early on as the “Catholic Church”? “Catholic” means universal, all encompassing. It is open to all nations, all peoples.

Jesus’ mission to draw people from all walks of life to himself is not a contradiction to his call for repentance and conversion but a blueprint for the missionary activity of the Church, parishes, and the domestic church (families). While the mission of Christ and the Church impacts me, there is one further way that this reflection touches on the practicalities of my life. The universality of Christ’s hour and mission also serves as a reminder of the dignity of the people I encounter. Whether friends, family, the stranger, or enemy, each are loved by God, Jesus died for them too, and God desires each to be drawn to him through his Son in a way that “produces much fruit.” Will I love them as Christ loved them to and from the Cross? Jesus hopes so (cf. Jn 13:34).

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