“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” (John 12:24).
Seeds are amazing little things. Hard, dry, often looking very much like small stones. Very little about them suggests the potential that lies within. It takes a great deal of imagination and even faith to plant that grain of wheat in the ground where it will become rain soaked, soft, and eventually die. After all, we could take that same grain of wheat and eat it now or grind it along with others to make bread that will fees us today. It seems such a risk to cast that seed upon the ground not whether or not it will bear fruit. It is difficult to let go of the resources we hold in our hands in order to grow those resources for an unknown and uncertain future. But is that what Jesus is talking about in this passage from the Gospel according to John? Well… sort of…
Here in the twelfth chapter of John Jesus is talking about his own death. He tells his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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” (John 12:23-24). I am sure that the disciples were aghast at the thought of losing their friend, teacher, and guide. I am sure that their first response was to hold onto what they had, to cling to the security of a resource in hand. And to be honest, I am not sure that Jesus’ poetic and metaphoric rationale for his death was very comforting. It was going to take a great deal of faith to let go, to see him hung on a tree and buried in the ground, sealed in the cave.
Reading this passage in this way might make it seem contextually bound and of little import to us. Jesus is addressing his Disciple’s concerns in a way that doesn’t really apply to us who have never enjoyed his physical corporeal presence. But, and we should have heard this coming, Jesus doesn’t stop there…
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life… (John 12:25).
We already understood that Jesus isn’t really talking about seeds and now we come to understand that he isn’t just talking about himself. Jesus is inviting us to accompany him on a journey that, to his Disciples, was shrouded in mystery, metaphor and poetry, but which to us is all to clear. He is inviting us to join him on a journey to Calvary and the cross. If we cling to the life that we know, the resource in hand, we will lose it. But if we are willing to let go of that life we will experience a life beyond our imagining, a “new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other” (BCP p. 862, The Catechism on “Christian Hope”).
But what does Jesus mean when he says that we need to hate our life? What does he mean when he uses the analogy of a grain of wheat that must fall into the earth and die? Does Jesus mean that we need to join him on the cross, that our journey with him must find its conclusion on some literal Calvary surrounded by mocking soldiers and crowds?
We need to acknowledge that there have been, and continue to be, people who are faced with the terrible choice between renouncing their faith and losing their life. There are people today who are persecuted and murdered because they refuse to turn their back on the God who has created, redeemed and sustained them. That any of God’s children, no matter how they envision the God of all should be killed for their beliefs is surely an abomination in God’s eyes and something that we all need to renounce and struggle to end. Thanks be to God that for most, if not all of us here today, that is a choice we will never have to make. So have we reached another place where this passage is so contextually bound that it doesn’t have anything to say to us as we live out our lives as part of the religious majority in a country where our freedom to worship and practice our faith is guaranteed by our social contract? We already know that Jesus wasn’t really talking about seeds. And we have seen that he isn’t just referring to his own life and death. Perhaps we need to take another look at what he is referring to when he uses the word “life” in this context.
We believe “That the divine Son became human, so that in him human beings might be adopted as children of God, and be made heirs of God’s Kingdom” (BCP p. 850, The Catechism on “God the Son”). And we believe that “Christ promised to bring us into the kingdom of God and give us life in all its fullness” (BCP p. 851, The Catechism on “The New Covenant”). We don’t believe that God wants us to die in the sense that our life is ended. It is clear that we believe that what God wants for us is fullness of life, life lived in the light of God’s grace, light and love. So what is it that Jesus is asking us to hate?
Here it is helpful to make the distinction between “life” as a noun, our physical existence and presence in this world, and “life” as a verb, our particular way of being, of interacting with the people around us, with creation, and with God. Jesus isn’t telling us to hate our life (noun), he is telling us that we need to hate the verb that is our life lived in relationship with all that God is in the created order. So how do we make sense of this verb? What is Jesus talking about?
Paul writes very powerfully about “life in the flesh.” He is talking about our physical corporeal body’s need to acquire, to own, to control; the tendency to see to our own needs first, and to place ourselves at the center of our universe to the detriment of our relationship with others and their needs and well-being. When Paul talks about “life in the flesh” he is talking about the “stuff” that makes up our corporeal body’s need to survive, to prevail, and to procreate. None of which, in and of itself is a bad thing until it comes at the expense of someone else or our relationship with them, with creation, or with God.
What are the seeds that Jesus wants us to bury and let die? What are the things that we need to let go of so that new life may spring forth from them? That is an easy question to answer if we are asking what “we” (plural) need to let go of. We are in the middle of a conversation about race and racism in Madison and Dane County. Those conversations will generate long lists of prejudices, misconceptions, practice, and policies that need to fall to the ground and die. We are struggling across this nation with issues of homelessness, hunger, and poverty, and again the list of things that need to fall to the ground and die is long and formidable. There is good reason that the confession we used in the seasons of Advent and Christmas asked God to forgive us for “the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf” (Enriching Our Worship 1 p. 56). What are the seeds that Jesus wants us to bury and let die? The question gets a little harder to answer when we hear the word “we” as in each and every one of us, as individuals who long for a taste of that “new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other” (BCP p. 862, The Catechism on “Christian Hope”). It is a hard question but the lure of that new existence, fully knowing God and each other draws us into the fray, grappling with the question and with ourselves, in the sure and certain hope that God desires for us “life in all its fullness.”
Seeds falling to the ground, dying, and bringing forth new life in abundance… When Jesus used this metaphor with his Disciples he was talking about death and resurrection. He was talking about something that they, and we, know and experience in the world around us. The metaphor is apt and it is accurate. That “new fruit,” that “eternal life” in “all its fullness,” that “new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other” requires a death. Our participation in that new life requires the death of ways of seeing, of ways of thinking, of ways of being that diminish, demean and alienate; that belittle, deny and oppress; that injure those around us and which corrupt and destroy the light and life that is within us. Our journey to that new life requires that we walk with Jesus on the path to Calvary and that we participate in the cycle of death and resurrection. It is with this destination in our minds and on our hearts that we enter the seasons of Lent, Holy Week and Easter.
From the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, The invitation to the observance of a holy Lent:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer (BCP p. 265).
I love these words but I wish that they said a little more. While this invitation does point to the “message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel” it feels a little limited in its scope. The invitation here is to the seasons of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter; to a season of self-examination and repentance, identifying the seeds within us that need to fall to the ground and die. It is an invitation to participate in the dramatic events of Holy Week, making ourselves vulnerable to the death that will make that new fruit, that abundant fullness of life lived in the joy of fully knowing God and each other. It is an invitation to step into the new light that will dawn on Easter Day and to live as if that life has come to fruition in each and every one of us and in the “we” that we proclaim at the beginning of the Nicene Creed.
Come, join the journey from Ash Wednesday, through the wilderness of Lent, pressing on through the chaos and pain that is Holy Week, and enter into the light of a new day, a new verb “life” eternal.