The voice in the thunder: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 12:20–33:

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.

When the Lord speaks, do we listen? Or do we only hear noise and ignore it?

On our fifth Sunday in Lent, we normally would hear the Gospel story of Lazarus and his resurrection, the final miracle Jesus would perform before the start of His Passion. Indeed, that is one of the reading choices for today, and likely the one most of us will hear in church today. However, the lectionary offers this passage from John as an alternate, and it’s worth considering in connection to the meaning of the raising of Lazarus. Both speak to rebirth, to faith, and to the necessity of Jesus’ sacrifice in salvation.

Most of this is told to the disciples directly, except perhaps for literally explaining His upcoming death. Instead, Jesus uses a parable about wheat to explain why He must first die to overcome death. This simple parable seems obvious to us now, but there was no theological consensus in those times about an afterlife with the Lord. The prophets had hinted at it, but it was still a matter of debate even among the leadership classes in Jerusalem. The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife, and certainly not as the purpose of the Law; the Pharisees did believe in an afterlife, and with it the spiritual world, including angels, demons, and eternal souls.

In this sense, Jesus’ entire mission of repentance of sins and eternal salvation was an affront to the Sadducees. However, Jesus’ teachings were so far off from that of the Sadducees that the Gospels only record a few instances of opposition to Jesus. His theological message should have been better received by the Pharisees (and were in some cases), but Jesus’ preachings undercut their other assumptions and — most importantly — their authority. Eventually the two would combine to condemn Jesus, but this is one reason why we hear much more about opposition to Jesus from the Pharisees than the Sadducees in the Gospels (107 references vs 16 references in the Ignatius Bible).

In both this episode and in the story of Lazarus, Jesus gives a glimpse of the new covenant of salvation that will be eventually created in the Resurrection. The ruler of this world — Death — will be driven out, and by defeating death in a clear manner. Death will be shown not to be an end, but a passage to eternal life. But to grasp this, one has to recognize the voice of the Lord, in both the thunder as well as in the Word.

Our first reading from Jeremiah provides a beautiful parallel to this. Unlike Jesus at the time of this theophany, Jerusalem had already fallen by the time of this prophecy from Jeremiah. The holy city was dead; the temple destroyed. And yet, the Lord promised restoration to life for His people, and with it a new covenant for their coming resurrection in Jerusalem. He promised to write His laws into their hearts, not just on tablets in the Ark of the temple, so that each person would recognize His voice and His desire for them to come to Him.

Jesus reminds us of this with the voice in the thunder. “The voice did not come for my sake,” Jesus tells the disciples, “but for yours.” Jesus, as His Word, came for our sake as well, not for His own. In His death and resurrection, Jesus would establish His dominion for all time, serving as both the sacrifice which would reconcile us to the Father and establish Jesus as Lord of that eternal world in which spirit and material unite perfectly. As Paul writes to the Hebrews, this perfected not just Jesus but “all who obey him” in eternal salvation.

The voice always came for our sake, and it thunders throughout salvation history. That voice is heard in the prophets, in scriptures, and in Jesus’ teachings. We only need recognize it and allow our hearts to respond, and we will be able to rise again ourselves in a much better world.

 

The front-page image is a detail from “The Raising of Lazarus” by Jean Jouvenet, 1706. Currently on display in the Louvre Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.