20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[a] to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah[b] remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:20-36)
A theology of the cross can be difficult for some of us. Progressive Christian pastors often have congregations that feature–if not heavily–congregants who have been abused by religion. Congregants who are giving religion and God one last chance. Congregants who recall the blood of Christ being thrown upon them with words of derision, splattering them with judgment and calls to repentance for being who God made them to be. A theology of the cross sometimes elevates a bloodthirsty God, a God in search of atonement that can only be wrought by God alone. A frightening God that an increasingly diminishing few want to worship or know.
We cannot remove the cross from our theology, though. And we cannot shove it to the side. We might make our theology cross-adjacent, but we cannot have a Christian faith that is not rooted in the cross. It is a paradox that many of us in the Progressive movement live each day. We acknowledge that the cross is our symbol, our avatar, our universally recognizable sign. But what does it mean for us? The signal communicates, but what?
The Gospel of John does not feature the agony in Gethsemane. Rather, there is an almost stream-of-consciousness monologue by Jesus that gives way to a dialogue with God, who answers in thunder or in the tongue of angels. God’s message is always up for interpretation, it seems. God speaks to humans, but Jesus has to interpret. Not just in word, but in deed. Like the seed that falls to the ground so that it may be lifted up, Jesus directs himself to the cross. In the midst of darkness, Jesus on the cross is the light. The three uses of the Greek word hysoo (to lift up) let us know very clearly that Jesus is connecting his going to the cross with human salvation. Grains fall down, fruit rises up. Jesus goes down in the underworld, ascends into the heavens.
So this passage goes toward our soteriologies, regardless of who we are as Christians. Theories of salvation may come from us grudgingly, but come they must. Historically, there are three ways to fit within atonement theology. The first is the classic ransom theory: Jesus pays our debt to be released for sin and death; the second is substitutionary atonement, holding that Jesus goes to the cross for us as God’s sacrificial offering; and the third, which resonates most deeply with me and is prevalent in Eastern Christianity, is the “moral influence of atonement” theology, which sets forth the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provides a model of behavior and reveals the depth of God’s love for us. But none of those really seem to fit with John’s passage.
We should remember that at the basis of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic experience is the idea that the relationship between God and humans has been ruptured. It is in need of repair. There is hurt on both sides, and reconciliation is hard. The break-up was messy. Accusations have flown across space and time; misunderstandings have abounded. But we want to get it right. We want this relationship. So does God. As hard as it might be for some to accept, God has made some mistakes. God has changed God’s mind. God has made some promises not to do certain things again. John’s vision of the cross points us toward mending the fences, patching the holes, putting new wine in new wineskins.
That sounds pretty, but what does it really mean? It means that we see Jesus as that single grain of wheat that falls to the ground so that it might lift up much fruit. We are the fruit; we who gather together in this crazy thing called community, who pledge ourselves to love and compassion, to walking together through the travails of life. It also means that we have the responsibility of deciding where our line is; you know, the lines? The line that if we cross we know we must be willing to die. That line that defines what we will accept on one side and what we will not on the other. That line that triggers in us a dedicated response to be willing to put our lives at risk.
Now this sort of language can be terrifying, especially in the wake of another terrorist attack and growing rates of religious fundamentalism throughout faith traditions. John is not rallying us to take up arms. But John is asking us to know who we are, to know who Jesus is. Jesus, who loved so radically and fully that it became a threat to the ruling powers. Jesus who transgressed lines both social and religious to live in relationships with everyone, most especially those who are cast aside by the ruling interests. Because it was that which ultimately killed him; the commitment to be in solidarity with others.
We have to face the cross at some point, and not just one day a year. We have to face the cross in significant ways before we can be lifted up. The cross is a not-so-gentle reminder that there are important issues at stake. The whole of our theology as Christians hangs in the balance. Who is this God we serve? Who is this Jesus we follow? What is the point of this brutal death? And how do we discover love as a result. We must know this before heading to the cross on Friday. We must know this to get us through the hours until Easter morning. We must know this when we cry out that he is risen, he is risen indeed. There’s a lot at stake.
So let us pray.