Look Death in the Eye

A reflection on John 12:20-33 by Andrew Stephens-Rennie for Lent 5

It was Sunday afternoon, a fresh spring day in 2004, and I found myself sitting in a back pew at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church in downtown Toronto. I had moved from Kingston the year before to begin my career as a corporate communicator with the Federal Public Service. It had been a fast-paced year with plenty of high-profile events under my belt, and a few left to come. An exciting time for a 24-year old kid living in the big city for the first time.

It was exciting and fast-paced. I was good at it. It was exciting to feel a part of something. It was satisfying to feel important. I had begun to map out my future career, and the way up the ladder. I was burnt out on church, tho attending sporadically. I was sick of the hypocrisy. I was sick of the inauthenticity. I wasn’t particularly sick of Jesus, but I had lost much of my patience for his people. Even so, there was something that wouldn’t let me walk away completely.

When I found myself in St. Andrews’ back pew that spring day, it was at the end of a rather high-octane guitar-driven service featuring a fire-breathing preacher who had rented the space from some older Scottish Presbyterians who weren’t quite sure you could call this church, but hospitably opened their space all the same.

Sitting alone in the back pew, light streamed through the stained glass windows as the sun slowly waned on the horizon. Silence and stillness. Calm after the storm. Space to think, to breathe, to be. Truth be told, I remember nothing of the service itself.

And then, into the silence, that blessed, blessed, silence, a gentle, prodding voice summoning me to seminary. Crazy talk. Pure lunacy. Ignored it. Kept it to myself. Until one day I made the mistake of mentioning it to a prayerful friend…who mentioned it to another prayerful friend…until pretty soon, I was surrounded by a prayer-filled community who helped to loose my grip, as I followed Jesus into the unknown.


Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. Gentiles. To Jesus and his crew, these folks were outsiders. They were not Jews, and therefore not members of God’s covenant community. How had they heard of Jesus? It seemed like the whole world was catching on, and that Jesus, this small town kid was about to make a splash in the big city. Two Greeks walk into a bar and say to Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We’ve felt the draw too.

We want to see him, hear him, understand what he’s all about. Beyond the hype, beyond the fuss all these people are making. We want to see Jesus, they said. The stories people tell, they sound fantastical. The things people say they’ve seen, miraculous.

But more than that. There’s something that’s caught our attention. There’s something uncanny going on here too. Something outside the norm. There’s something about Jesus, his troupe, and this little piece of performance art that’s pushing all kinds of boundaries. It all seems a little avant-garde, and it’s made us curious to know what he has planned for the next act.

Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem a mere five days before Passover. He rides into Jerusalem, clothed in the robes of the ancient prophecies that proclaimed a new king would come. And there he came, riding on a donkey. Prophecies that proclaimed that this Son of Man would bring end to exile and cleanse the temple, anointing the holy places, and bringing peace. A new, peaceable kingdom, and a leader whose dominion would be from sea to (shining) sea.

This kingdom, Jesus proclaimed, is within our grasp.

And so Jesus proclaims this kingdom – at odds with the religious and imperial leaders of the day – knowing that there’s a bounty on his head. Jesus proclaims a new way, knowing all the while that the “chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (11:57).

So when Philip and Andrew bring these outsiders to see Jesus, he gives them more than they bargained for. You want to see Jesus?

“Let me make it incredibly clear,” Jesus seems to say, “Beyond the hype, beyond the fuss all these people are making, here’s how it’s gonna be when the deal goes down.”

Jesus doesn’t flinch. In John’s version, he doesn’t dare ask – as he does in the other gospels – that God save him from this particular horror. Somehow, Jesus realizes and fully accepts that it’s all been leading up to this moment. This one, perfect moment that changes everything. This clash of wills, of symbols and of powers, of politics and values. Ultimately, it ends up in a clash of lives that will turn everything on its head.

The air is thick with fear. The scribes and Pharisees are willing an end to the conflict in the best way they know how – a display of force. But underneath it all, they’re hanging on for dear life. Scared out of their minds. Scared that at any moment the shoe’s gonna drop. Everything’s changing. All that was once solid is melting into air.

And Jesus knows it too. Jesus knows, and is determined to see his mission through. It’s troubling. Deeply unsettling. He can see, taste, feel the anxiety. And then he says what each of us is thinking.

Oh — my — soul.

“My soul is troubled,” he repeats. And so it should be. There’s global unrest. Arable land is decreasing as farms are being swallowed up by cities and forests are clear-cut to feed the Emperor’s insatiable appetites. People are being killed. Insurrection is on the rise. And in response, a new security agenda is being proposed.

That’s enough trouble for any soul. If you spend too much time thinking about it, the weight of the world will crush you. Despite these obvious realities, Jesus still seems to insinuate that the Kingdom of God is within grasp. That the journey to the common good starts right here.

But to grasp it, we can’t hold on like the chief priests and Pharisees with a white-knuckled fist. Jesus invites us to open our eyes. To open our ears. To open our hearts to one another, and to all of God’s good creation. And to grasp this point, we have to loosen our grip. It’s not about power and control. That’s what Jesus has been trying to tell us all along:

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “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.”

It’s not easy to look death in the eye, no matter what we’re promised on the other side. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the death of a relationship; a season of life, or a lifelong dream, it’s near on impossible to look death in the eye.

We want to control the outcome. Like the religious leaders of the day, we want it all to work out according to our plans. Like my well-plotted career path, saying goodbye came with great feelings of loss.

In the first film of the Matrix series – a favourite of my adolescence – Morpheus frames the choice this way:

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.”

I still think Jesus says it much better:

“Those who love life the way things are right now will lose it.”

The permanence of this moment is an illusion. Whatever power and control you have is slipping away. But there’s another way, Morpheus suggests:

“You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Put differently, Jesus frames it this way:

“Those who come with me and abandon the illusory stability of the here and now will enter the fullness of life…Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus continues, “and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

And then Jesus sketches out a roadmap. He’s heading off on the journey of his life. The journey of his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Through the pain and struggle of Holy Week. Through the windy road of acclamation and betrayal, Jesus summons, and will continue to summon all people to himself. Insiders, outsiders, whoever we are, Jesus will summon all people to himself. Even sometimes reluctant disciples like you and like me.

There’s something bigger than what’s in front of you, Jesus tells us. There’s a world of richness, and vibrancy and life, just on the other side of that hill. On the other side of death and the cross, there’s this little thing called resurrection. It won’t be easy. You’ll have to join me in the painful world of reality. And it will demand all of you. But together – you, me, this whole community of disciples – we’ll find out how deep the rabbit hole goes.


Retina scan image by Flickr user Hobbs Images. CC BY SA 2.0

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at www.empireremixed.com, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

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