The magnetic power of God’s merciful and life-giving love
Liz Stuart, 21 March 2021
Jeremiah 31: 31–34; Hebrews 5: 5–10; John 12: 20–33
When I remember the toys from my childhood, one I distinctly remember is a magnet –just a horseshoe-shaped magnet with a metal bar at the end. It was red and silver and I played with it for hours, taking the metal bar off and then getting the magnet to pick it up. Times were simpler then, kids!
The events described in our gospel today occur after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we will recall next week, on Palm Sunday. Some Greeks approach Philip. We don’t know who they are – maybe Gentiles. The Jewish people have always very hospitable to non-Jewish people, and the Temple had a special court for Gentiles where anybody could come and listen to teaching. Jesus himself taught there sometimes and, of course, he cleared it of money-changers and traders. Or maybe they were Jews from the diaspora in Jerusalem for the feast, or Greek proselytites. They ask Philip (and Philip, remember, is a Greek not a Hebrew name) if they can see Jesus.
After his entry into Jerusalem in the manner of the Messiah as foreseen by the prophet Zechariah, Jesus’ magnetism has increased. Everyone, Jew or Greek, wants to see the one who is going to liberate his people from Roman oppression. Jesus’ response when Andrew (interestingly, also a Greek name – perhaps they were all chums) tells him about the Greeks is promising, the hour has indeed come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
But then it is as if darkness descends. Jesus begins to talk of death, his death, and becomes distressed, offering up ‘prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears’, as the letter to the Hebrews describes it. I wonder what the Greeks made of that. They say you should never meet your heroes; they only disappoint you. Perhaps they felt like that? Perhaps they scuttled away before the light breaks in again with the voice from on high assuring Jesus that God will be glorified in what is about to happen to him. This whole passage moves from light to darkness, and then to light. You can sense the darkness encroaching, but you can also feel the enduring power of the light.
The Greeks and others may have been repelled by Jesus’ talk of death, but in this passage John presents the cross as the ultimate magnet. Through it and on it, Jesus draws or drags (either translation is possible) everyone, everyone to himself and therefore to God. He is irresistible. It always saddens me when I come across good, faithful Christians anxious about friends or family who have ‘not been saved’. Though we profess salvation by grace alone, we often think and talk about it as if it’s dependent upon us doing something or believing something. Here Jesus suggests that actually we are powerless to resist the magnet of the cross. This is why I believe in, for want of a better word, ‘purgatory’, in that I believe that pull towards Jesus, if not completed in this life, or even resisted in this life, continues after death until all of us find ourselves propelled into his arms. As the prophet Jeremiah noted, God has written on our hearts and minds, he has built into us that which he will use to draw us to him, even though we may not know it, or not seek it, or even try to excise it.
I recently sat with a young man who was beside himself with grief. ‘How can I draw upon a faith I do not have?’ he cried at no one in particular. I saw his faith there and then, written on his shattered heart by a God who loves him.
Like the Early Church theologians Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, and others, I believe that even the great resister himself, Satan, will ultimately no longer be able to repel the magnetic power of God’s healing, his merciful and life-giving love. Jesus is, as the theologian Teilhard de Chardin put it, the Omega Point, that magnetic force to which the whole universe hurtles.
Every death nurtures a new life, a greater, more magnificent, more colourful life, that grows ever more vivacious and richer as it moves towards God.
Finally, a word about the grain of wheat passage which is so familiar to us. Of course, Jesus was talking about his own death, but also ours. Every day in our world around 150,000 people die. One day one of those will be me, and you – a speck of dust we are, in the tornado of humanity. But this passage assures us that every death, every speck, every seed nurtures a new life, a greater, more magnificent, more colourful life, that grows ever more vivacious and richer as it moves towards God. We who are Christians choose to go through death and resurrection with Christ in baptism. The richer, deeper, more glorious life is already being born in us amidst the pain and chaos of our world. By God’s grace we are beginning to sprout. But make no mistake, no one will ultimately be able to resist the pull of God and the abundant life that comes with it.