by Edwin Chr. Van Driel
There’s a remarkable passage in one of the upcoming lectionary readings. “Some Greeks,” John writes, came to Jesus’ disciple Philip and said: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” When Philip told Jesus about this, he responded: 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 (John 12:23-24).
It’s easy to miss the significance of Jesus’ response, because it’s easy to miss the significance of these men’s request. They are “Greek,” John says, and from the term he uses we can conclude they were Greek natives, born and raised in that culture, but fascinated by Jewish religion — and by Jesus. Jesus’ world, like ours, was a large cultural melting pot. Intense trade relationships between the different parts of the Mediterranean world had led to widespread cultural cross-fertilizations. People would move, for shorter or longer times, to different countries and bring with them their languages, cultures and also religions. In this way, Judaism had spread throughout the region with synagogues not only in Judea and Galilee but also in Egypt, Rome and Greece; similarly Egyptians, Romans and Greek brought their religious cultures to Palestine.
One of the most influential of the Greek religions was the mystery cult of Eleusis. Originating in a small city near Athens, this cult had become a religion with enormous popularity throughout the Mediterranean world. It was a cult focused on the paradoxes of human existence. On the one hand, our lives are deeply vulnerable. Disasters and diseases can derail life in a moment’s notice. Psychological illness can irrevocably undermine our equilibrium. Death surrounds us everywhere. On the other hand, we have within us a sense that can carry us far beyond our fragility and vulnerability, an awareness that connects us to eternity and awakens in us a sense of mystery and desire for God. Initiation in the Eleusian mysteries was about learning to leave behind creation’s limitations, human vulnerabilities and to be re-born into a life shaped by the mystical seeing of the living God. This desire for re-birth was expressed in the symbol of the cult: grain. When grain is sown it seems to die, but in reality it passes through death and in spring it awakens and rises to new life. Therefore the high point of the liturgy in the temple of Eleusis was the moment when the song of a gong could be heard, a priest would step forward in solemn silence, and in front of the crowded people would raise his hands, holding a single grain. … 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.
With this in mind, it’s not difficult to see how Jesus engages the Greek who came to him. They are fascinated by what they have heard about him. They have sought help from the only two disciples of Jesus who have a Greek name — Philip and Andrew, something that may betray they have roots not just in Jewish culture, but also in Greek. They are using their cultural relationships to seek connection with the Lord: “We want to see Jesus!” And Jesus engages them in their own language. Not the language of Israel, not the language of the Law and the prophets, but the language of their own heritage, the language of Greek mystery religions. He uses the imagery of the Eleusian cult to initiate these Greeks into what he is all about. And in doing so, he suggests that he is not just the fulfillment of the hope of the Jews, the climax of God’s covenant with Israel, but that he is also the answer to the faith and hope of these Greek men.
At the same time, how Jesus is the answer to their longing is very different from what the Eleusian cult would lead one to expect. The grain falling in the ground and dying, says Jesus, is the hour in which the Son of Man is glorified. If the image of “grain” is Greek, the notion of “glory” is Jewish. It is quite prominent in the preceding parts of John’s Gospel. “The glory of God” refers to God’s awesomeness and majesty. This glory is the inaccessible light that Moses once asked to see but was denied because seeing God would make him fall dead to his feet (Exodus 33). This is the glory that filled Solomon’s newly built temple so that the priest did not dare to enter the building and the people bowed down with their faces to the ground (2 Chronicles 7). And it is about this glory that John tells us in the beginning of his Gospel how, in Jesus, God’s awesome and majestic glory is shown in the form of a human face, a human person — one full of grace and truth (John 1:14). In Christ’s presence, John claims, God’s glory starts to transform creation. Where God’s glory is revealed, the sick are healed, the hungry are fed and the dead are raised.
But then the narrative makes an unexpected turn. Because now, Jesus says, God’s glory will unfold in a completely unexpected way: in death. When God’s coming to the world is met with resistance and rejection, God’s glory is revealed in the way God responds: not with anger, not in judgment, but by undergoing the rejection and absorbing it in his death. And never, says John, was God’s glory more majestic or more awesome than here where it is completely stripped of all majesty and awe. Here the very heart of God’s glory lies bare; here God’s name is glorified (John 12:28).
This is not what the Eleusian cult would have one expect. It thought that we are to die to life — but not God. Nonetheless, it is in this way, says Jesus, that the longing of the Greek is fulfilled. Here they receive what they were hoping for: a life of re-birth in the presence of God — be it not because we reach up to God, but because God stoops down to us.
Many of us wrestle with how to speak about Jesus in a pluralistic society, with lots of different religious ideas in the offering. Some want to reject any truths outside the Christian faith: There is only one way to the Father. Others find this arrogant and imperialistic: Surely we Christians are not the only ones who know God. There are more ways to God than one. In that context, it is fascinating to see how Jesus himself deals with the pluralism of his time. On the one hand, his life and ministry are deeply rooted in God’s covenant with Israel. Here is not a teacher of religious truths that can be obtained anywhere, but one who empathetically points at himself as the resurrection and the life. On the other hand, he claims that he is the fulfillment not just of Moses but also of Eleusis. There may not be many roads to the Father, but there are many roads to Jesus.
To put it in theological terms: In a highly unusual way, pluralism and particularity are not opposites here, but go hand in hand. There is no denial here that other cultures and other religions may have encountered God and may be shaped by divine grace. At the same time, there is the claim that in Jesus God has become present among us in a unique and decisive way, which irrevocably changes the relationship between God and all of humanity. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
In the end, this shows the unique shape of Christian faith. It is not another set of teachings and truths that people have to embrace at the expense of competing claims. It is rather the confession about a person — a person who is the truth himself.
EDWIN CHR. VAN DRIEL is a minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) and holds the Directors’ Bicentennial Chair in Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.