A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent [Year B]
Two things that happened here just last Sunday made me think about this lesson from John’s gospel.
The first thing was that our 4th grade Sunday School class went on a mini-field trip out to the Epiphany Garden as a part of their instruction for receiving Holy Communion. We took them out to the Epiphany Garden so that they could plant wheat. Sallie Bartholomew, one of the leaders of the garden ministry, had a patch of soil all tilled up and ready for us, and she was waiting out there with her rakes and a watering can. All we needed was wheat seeds, and to get those I first went to Southern States, where the tall guy in overalls looked at me like I was crazy. No one does backyard gardening with wheat, apparently, and the smallest amount they could get me was a 50 pound bag. As it turns out, it’s easy to order wheat seeds on-line. I placed my order for one pound of wheat seeds and about a week later a brown bag of beautiful golden-brown little wheat seeds arrived in the mail from Oregon, of all places. None of us had ever planted wheat before. As the tall guy in overalls pointed out, it is a crop that people typically plant by the square mile. But the 4th graders, Sallie, and I went out last Sunday anyway and we’re going to see what happens.
I don’t know if any of the seeds will sprout or if we’ll do anything with them if they do. But Holy Communion involves bread and Jesus talks a lot about bread in his ministry, and so I figured there was some good in having them hold raw wheat in their hands and physically release it into the soil. Maybe, I hope, when they think of Holy Communion there will always be some kind of connection in their minds between this act of letting go in order to receive. Maybe years from now they’ll be able to say, “Yes, I have, in fact, been a wheat farmer once. I did it as I prepared to receive the Lord’s body and blood.”
But maybe not. What was interesting to me was watching them take to it. Kids don’t need to wonder about seeds growing. They went about it with a type of wild abandon, each of them plunging their hands into the brown bag to grab a fist full and standing over the plot and shaking them into the soil. I was a bit protective of the seeds, even though they had been on my desk for only about two weeks. I wanted to hold onto them a bit more, parcel them out more sparingly.
I think when you get older you tend to develop some kind of skepticism about planting things, or at least a kind of sorrow. Letting loose of them seems more risky, that there is a gamble involved that might not be worth it. In times and places where food is scarce and seeds could just as easily be eaten, you do stop and think about the cost of dropping them into the dirt.
The first time Jesus talks about his death in John’s gospel it’s in comparison to planting wheat, and we get that sense that it is risky. We get the sense that some sorrow and pain is involved because he talks about the whole enterprise in terms suffering. The grain falls into the earth. That’s an interesting word to use for planting. The grain falls, as if it is something that should be upright, or something that could or should be in motion. Soldiers fall in battle, for example. And then once it falls it dies. It gives up its life. Jesus doesn’t say germinates or sprouts, terms that have immediate hope. It dies—that is, it stops being a seed altogether. Its lifespan as a golden-brown seed ordered from Oregon comes to an end.
However, only when that happens is the grain able to produce more grain. Only when the falling and dying first happen will we get the rising and living. Jesus compares himself to that grain of wheat, that in the dying and the rising will God be glorified. Just as he has spoken about losing life to gain it, and tearing the temple down to build it back up, he now speaks about handing himself over in order to gain the life God intends.
Again, this is the kind of life Jesus gets us into. The life in Christ is not about holding back, reserving, clinging to the self. It is about letting go so we can being raised up from the waters of baptism, to the new life we are offered in Christ. As much as we may want to hold the seeds fast a little longer, to savor them in the hand, to feel secure, to savor that potential, it is actually the act of scattering them, of releasing them like 4th graders on a cold March day that we learn in Christ to treasure. We learn to treasure the letting go and even the dying because in the way of God’s glory, new life will rise.
What’s critical in at this point in Jesus’ life and ministry is that this response comes right as he has passed through the gates of Jerusalem for the last time. The people have acclaimed him king and there is a sense of anticipation in the air that things are about to change for God’s people. Right after that happens, we are told Jesus is approached by some Greeks. We don’t have any information about these people. They are probably not Greek-speaking Jews. By “Greeks” John most likely means Gentiles, or non-Jews, people who were of a different culture entirely. These Greeks might be interested in speaking with Jesus because they’ve heard something about him. Perhaps Jesus’ reputation as a teacher has spread and, being Greeks and from the tradition of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, they’d like to see what he’s about. It is impossible to say what was behind their request, but the noteworthy thing is that Jesus immediately speaks about his death. When given the chance to talk with the Greeks, he doesn’t talk philosophy or the meaning of life. He talks about the importance of his death. He talks suffering. When given the opportunity to reach out and tell more people what he’s about, what he’s offering, Jesus talks about how he’s going to die.
That is critical to understand because so often, even today, the message of Christian faith is often presented as a philosophy or an idea, like something you could stand up next to Confucianism or yoga. None of those things is bad, but they’re not what Jesus is about. Christianity, put simply, isn’t a philosophy or an idea. It is a story. It’s not a collection about thoughts or wisdom about how to live life right. It is centered around an event, something that happened—something that God does. Jesus does not come to investigate the good life or the nature of reality with probing, insightful questions. He comes to die and rise. He comes to be lifted up and draw all people to himself.
And this is furthermore critical because there is a fundamental difference between a philosophy and a story. A philosophy or an idea is something that I apply to my life. I somehow remain the center and I adopt this particular outlook or way of thinking or living in order to better myself or clarify my own path. A story, by contrast, an event is something I apply myself to, something I see myself as part of. It’s a thing that happens and now I find I need to orient my life around this thing that happened, which is what hating my life in this world really means. It means rejecting that I am at the center and all the mentalities that may come from that. When Jesus is approached by new followers who are possibly outside his own fold of Judaism, he responds that he is only as important as his suffering. The core of his message is not some concept we ponder. It’s something we witness. And that thing is his death, being lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself.
This past week in confirmation class we finished our lesson on the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, which is the part that begins, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.” And as a part of that lesson we watch the trial and crucifixion scenes from the 1977 television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. The effect on the confirmands it usually pretty profound. It’s a relatively graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death. The way they typically respond to it is revealing. This past week a couple of students said, while they had heard and read about the death of Jesus plenty of times before, there was something about seeing it that made it more real. It’s hard to turn the message of Jesus into just a philosophy about life when you watch a man bleed and die. It causes you to stop and readjust and think: if this occurrence is indeed true—that the Son of God suffered and died like this, if he was lifted up in this particular way—then the story of my own life needs to reflect that reality somehow. It needs to be lived in response to a God who is honest about human suffering and is ultimately victorious over it. And perhaps that’s why Jesus responds to the Greeks like that, if, in fact, he ever gets to see them. They’re going to find out that Jesus primarily came to suffer and die and in that reveal God’s glory.
I believe that’s also why Dave Delaney, our Synod’s leader for youth and young adult ministry, begins every single youth event with the same song, a version of the Apostles’ Creed. He wants to be clear from the beginning about why they’re gathered. It is nothing other than the gracious work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus that provides the rationale and foundation for any youth event to occur. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus that allows us to meet today, that allows us to drop the seed of our lives into his.
If this is true—if this suffering that befalls Jesus is true—then there is really nothing else left for us to do but hand ourselves over through the life of baptism. We learn that death isn’t just something that happens at the end of life, but something ongoing, each day an offering, a process of our dying because we know that one day we will be part of that great harvest of new life when all people are drawn to Jesus.
I said there were two things last Sunday that made me think of this lesson. The first was the planting of the wheat with the fourth graders. The second was after church when I gathered with the Mitchell family to place Jim’s remains into a columbarium niche. I did it again yesterday with the Hahn family. It was time to place their fallen loved ones into the eternal care of the God who made them and as we stood there I could see that emotions were rising to the surface. There’s a lot of things to think about in moments like that, a lot of reasons why tears and quivering silence may come. My hunch is, however, that they were thinking in that moment about all the ways Jim and Hank gave themselves away throughout their lives, over and over.
They were remembering not so much individual aspects about their character, but rather all the times Jim or Hank “fell into the soil” during their life—all the times they handed themselves according to the call of Jesus, as father, as grandfather, as child of God—and all the ways those instances of self-giving ultimately reflected God’s glory.
And as we closed the niche on Sunday and again for Hank yesterday, we had to let go, too. But we let go in the faith that the ground they had been placed in—the waters of their baptism—is the faithful, fertile ground of Jesus Christ, the living Son of God.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.