Proton, Neutrons, Electrons

Week of Sunday March 22 – Lent 5
Gospel: John 12:20-36

 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

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.28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ 35Jesus 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. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’

I like the night. Sneaking out to roam the farm and the scrub at night without our parents knowing—midnight walks we called them— were one of childhood's entertainments. Night bushwalking, and long overnight rides have a beauty it is hard to communicate.

So getting up early to walk in the dark to the Ernabella church for prayers was a joy, the best time of the day. Except for one morning. A few yards from the church it felt like I had walked into a wall of fear. I could not go into the building. Something told me NOT to use the front door, and no amount of giving myself a good common-sense talking-to could change that. So I circled the building in the dark and found my way in via the vestry, fumbling for the lights, and sat down the front with my back to the wall.

The Lands have a way of undoing us buttoned up Europeans. Our neatly packaged world is sometimes ripped open by forces we do not understand. Our preconceptions are challenged.

A similar thing can happen with mental illness. Our world is ripped open. Sick leave, or the Psych Ward, can make a space where things begin to stitch back together. But as one of my congregants once said, "Psychiatrists think they know everything, don't they?" It was a polite way of saying, "Thanks for the help, and for the drugs… but really, there's things going on around us you have no idea about! There is a reality you just don't get."

Or we are out lying under the sky when something transcendent overwhelms us— a vision which changes everything we know. Dry void brown planets floating in empty space, and a blue sphere, and the certainty of God.

This is the Great Reality which we sometimes stumble across in a thin place, or to which illness or trauma opens us. A greater reality for which we long, but which we also fear. A reality which we question or second guess when we do glimpse it— and perhaps rightly so, for we mostly gain only glimpses and, if we are honest, we barely understand what it is we are talking about! It is a reality which charlatans, gnostics, and evil-doers seek to counterfeit. But despite them, and despite our own scepticism, it will not be dismissed.

It encompasses all that is, all we could possibly imagine— and more. One tiny part of The Great Reality is a thing called time and space, and a tiny part of time and space is the place we call here and now.

The Great Reality is what John's Gospel calls ζωὴν αἰώνιον — eternal life. Although  we are necessarily ignorant of much of ζωὴν αἰώνιον , we can be sure that if we think of eternal life only as this life going on forever, we have vastly misunderstood it.

Greeks came wanting to see Jesus, and as in common in John, what follows makes no surface sense. Phillip tells Andrew, Andrew and Phillip tell Jesus… and Jesus changes the subject. It's the classic Johannine pointer which is saying, "Look again. There is a message under the surface."

Phillip and Andrew reflect that the new church welcomes Greeks and Jews. They also reflect the fourth Gospel's tendency to downplay the status of Peter. John Petty:

The fourth gospel refers to Philip three times.  He is identified as "from Bethsaida in Galilee" on two occasions, once in 1:44, the other here.  The fourth gospel wants to make sure its readers know that Philip is a Galilean. 

In all three references, he is also associated with Andrew.  (In chapter one, Bethsaida is also named the "city of Andrew and Peter."  It is interesting that Andrew is named first.  The fourth gospel, again like Mark, tends to take a dim view of Peter.)  Andrew is the first disciple in the fourth gospel, and he is the one who goes to recruit his soon-to-be-more-famous brother, Simon (Peter). 

If we may extrapolate a bit, Andrew is the one who reaches out in the direction of Jews (his brother Simon), while Philip is here associated with people coming to Jesus who are not Jews.  Greeks were not welcome in the temple, but they are welcome, with Jews, in the new community of Jesus.

Greeks are Gentiles. When the shoot has sprung from the stock of Jesse, when everything is made new, and the oldest enmities are healed as the "weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den… 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious." Isaiah 11 not only reflects a longing for the Messiah. It sees a time when the curse of Genesis 3:15 is healed.

When Greeks come wanting to see Jesus this is fulfilled. The nations are inquiring of him. (Alyce Mckenzie) And so, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." (12:23) "And I… will draw all people to myself." (12:32) 

There is a bitter pun in this. To be glorified has two meanings which I can see. In plain English it means that the Son of Man will be seen for who he is. Who he is and what he is will be made clear. Given that he is Son of the Father, we might also say he will be exalted; that is, he will be lifted up. And John has that in mind as well:

32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

It is here that "the fake life which presumes to be real 'in this world'" (John Petty) has its limitations exposed. Our understanding of life as the here and now, focussed upon material, and economic success, does not see.

This is the life which thinks the boundaries of time and space are the boundaries of reality. At its most extreme there is no free will, all is determined by the interactions of subatomic particles. At its most crass, "he who has the most toys when he dies, wins." Getting to the top is what counts. Seek a long life at all costs. We try to "live forever (via things like working out, modern medicine, cosmetic surgery, diets, or cryogenics)" says Richard Beck, to which he responds, "For God's sake, stop going to the gym and start drinking whole milk. You're missing your life." (Richard Beck)

All of us are drawn to

earthly heroism… a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. (Ernst Becker, Quoted by Richard Beck.)

We, "the crowd" of John, are earth bound. Locked in time and space.

The crowd is very clear that this 'Son of Man' who calls God his Father is claiming to be Messiah. They see that much. In the loaded language of John "'seeing' is code for understanding, for illumination"—  the Greeks wish to see him . (Alyce McKenzie)

But the understanding of the crowd is very limited. ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. "How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" They are believers in God yet their belief is earth bound. "The Messiah remains forever."

To get beyond that boundary, to really see, we have to leave the crowd and come to terms with this:

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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

We have to let go of our small vision of life and entrust ourselves to a much larger reality. We have to "believe in the light." (12:36) This is not propositional belief. It is active belief that risks life. "26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour."

I have expressed all this starkly. There is no subtlety. It reflects something of John's view of the world: either/or. This is also present in last week's reading from John 3. "Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:18) If you don't follow the light, you will be in the dark.

Within the Church we can take this either/or beyond what is warranted. We sometimes become pretentious about our knowledge— gnostics, really— as though we have a "sure and certain" grasp of the nature of eternal life, rather than a hope and a glimpse.

Or we misunderstand Jesus' words "hating of life."  We twist his recognition that our cobbled together bunch of neuroses and hypotheses about who we "are," if you like, is always in danger of being a self-ish idol which separates us from God and keeps us in the dark— we twist  this into a  miserable kill-joy kind of discipleship. A colleague told me the story of the minister who, blocked from going to his second church by the heavy snow "skated down the frozen river from one [church] to the other and arrived in good time. He was subsequently hauled before the Presbytery for “working” on the Sabbath. His defence was that works of necessity are permitted on the Sabbath. He was immediately called to account by the Chairman who said, “That is not the issue, young man! The issue is, did you enjoy it?”"

And worst of all, we can forget that Jesus said, "I will draw all people to myself." From John's glimpsing of the eternal we can draw only the words of condemnation which have the loving god who sent Jesus "not to condemn the world" condemn some of his people to hell. What manner of love is this? (1 John 3)

But the stark claim remains. The Great Reality, the ζωὴν αἰώνιον is what is. And abandoning our selves, losing our lives, trusting ourselves to it, is to follow a way of living which is "judgement of this world…" a driving out of "the ruler of this world." A bringing of what should be, of what is intended. The beginning of a great freedom.

Do we deceive ourselves? Can we trust the fragile chemistry of our brains, and our malleable perceptions, so vulnerable to wish fulfilment, and so prone to deny the uncomfortable, especially our mortality?

I think of a friend who, when I am feeling uncharitable, I am inclined to scorn as a "Dawkins' fan boy." And I think that of all men I am most to be pitied, as Paul puts it, if I hope only in Christ for this life. I mean, if I deny all my sense of a Greater Reality, and reduce myself to protons neutrons and electrons.

Cause we're all just-
Protons, Neutrons, Electrons 
That rest on a Sunday 
Work on a Monday and someday soon 
We'll be singing the old tunes 
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-doo 
I'll be sitting on the porch with you 
Then I'll die and I'll Fly off into the blue! The Cat Empire

I'm not talking about a simplistic view of physical resurrection. I suspect that is "we-barely-know-what-we-are-talking-about" language for something much more profound. I am wondering what violence my friend does to himself— no, what violence I would do to me if I adopted his "we're all just protons, neutrons, electrons" ideology. The joy of the Cat Empire song would be a farce without the ζωὴν αἰώνιον which they call "the blue."

I think we are almost "hard wired" for the perceptions we have about ζωὴν αἰώνιον. Our earliest conditioning and circumstance tends to determine what we can see, or not see. But I say to my friend, I am not denying death. I am not denying my tiny insignificance. On the contrary! How can all this we see and know be merely protons, neutrons and electrons? Your world is too small!

Peggy Lee used to sing a miserable song called, "Is that all there is?" Well, if that is all there is I will work to be more, to love, to give, to care… And already a small ζωὴν αἰώνιον will begin.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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