“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 12:24
It’s been a heartbreaking weekend of basketball for me. I told you last week that Virginia fans know how to savor being on the top because we’re well-aware that it may not last. I had no idea how soon we would have to face the pain of losing. For those of you who may not follow basketball, Virginia, a number-one seed in our bracket, expected to go far, but took a twenty-point loss to a 16-seed team from the University of Maryland Baltimore County on Friday night. It’s the first time in the men’s tournament that a 16-seed has knocked off a top seed, and it was pretty awful to watch if you were a Virginia fan. So many hopes and dreams from the season turned to dust in a few agonizing minutes. One of the few people who made me smile through my tears was my friend Jim, who said, “I personally take great comfort in the fact that the universe will end in proton decay in the next 100 billion years, so at least the record won’t last for literal eternity.”
I think there’s a reason that the underdogs in this tournament are called “Cinderella teams.” They’re the ones who defy our expectations, our predetermined notions about what “winners” look like. Cinderella was covered in ashes most of the time; that’s why no one could believe she’d actually gone to the ball and won over the prince. We’re pretty good at sorting teams – and people – into categories. Winners. Losers. The Cinderellas are the ones who bust out of the cellar and surprise us with what they become. A loser can become a winner right before our eyes – even without a fairy godmother.
We might think of Jesus as a Cinderella messiah. He certainly did not look the way anyone expected a messiah to look. He was not dressed as a military leader or a prominent rabbi. And he didn’t come from a center of religious and political power. Remember that people once asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” So for a while no one bothered to be worried about him.
But let’s consider where Jesus is at this moment in the Gospel of John. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead, which you can imagine caused quite a stir there in Bethany, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem. How long do you think it took for that news to make its way around town, even without texting or Twitter? And the religious leaders weren’t happy. We hear near the end of Chapter 11 that those leaders have a meeting to discuss the problem that Jesus presents. They say, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (John 11:47-48).
The religious leaders are worried about the attention that Jesus is getting for the miracles he’s been performing. At first glance he has the look of an underdog. After all, he’s a wandering preacher with no apparent permanent address and a ragtag group of fairly unimpressive followers. The leaders could look the other way when Jesus spent those hours talking to a Samaritan woman beside a well. The healing of a blind man got them pretty riled up, but that was nothing compared to bringing someone back from the dead. This spelled trouble. So they begin to make plans to put him to death.
We get a sense of another reason the religious leaders are threatened at the beginning of today’s gospel. It’s time for the Passover festival, one of the holiest times in the Jewish calendar. There are people clamoring to meet Jesus – not just Jewish people, but “some Greeks.” Jesus is attracting so much attention that all kinds of people want to see him. Not just see him, but spend time with him and learn from him. Anybody who is gaining that kind of following is not just a religious threat, but a political one. The religious leaders are right to be concerned about how the Roman government will respond.
In moments like these, when Jesus knows that danger looms, he often turns to metaphors. He talks about being the light of the world…the bread of life… the good shepherd. We may not always grasp the full meaning of these metaphors, but each one opens new ways for us to consider his purpose.
Today Jesus offers a more subtle image, one that his listeners could easily have missed: “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.”
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. Jesus knows, as his listeners do not, that he is speaking about his own death, a death that is only hours away. He’s trying to help people understand that death always comes before new life. There can be no resurrection without a burial.
It’s not something we grasp very easily. Death is the ultimate loss, and we don’t like to lose. We especially don’t like to lose to powers that we thought we could easily beat. But Jesus is about to give us the ultimate Cinderella story. That wandering preacher with no apparent permanent address and a ragtag group of fairly unimpressive followers? It turns out that you should never bet against him. Even when he’s hanging on a cross, even when he’s been buried in a tomb, you can’t count him out. On the other side of that tomb is always – always – new life, new growth, new fruit.
As I have traveled around this past week, I couldn’t help but notice how the thawing snow has revealed all the destruction to the trees in our communities. It’s heartbreaking to see so many fallen trees and broken limbs. Some trees look like they’ve experienced a violent amputation, with huge branches snapped off at places where they seemed to be strong and healthy.
I don’t know what made me do it, but I did a little research about how trees heal.[i] And here’s what I learned. When the cells in a tree are damaged, the tree can’t just replace those cells or fix them. What it can do is contain the damage. One forester calls it “sealing, not healing.” It keeps the damage from spreading – and wards off the infection from bacteria and other threats. The tree does so by isolating the injury and then growing beyond it. Sometimes new tissue called a callus or “wound wood” emerges to cover the injury and allow new wood to grow. With human injuries, we usually slather our wounds with antibiotic ointments and cover them with bandages. But that approach often does more harm than good with trees, which is why it’s not helpful to try to cover a tree’s injury with tar or paint.
I can’t help but think about that process in light of what Jesus tells us today about dying and bearing fruit. All of us carry some kind of damage within us. We struggle with those parts of ourselves that are so wounded that we can’t help but wound others. Sometimes it takes the form of a relationship that has been strained for years, and sometimes it’s the regret we feel over words we said without thinking yesterday. But the life that Jesus offers gives us a chance, like a wounded tree, for that injury to be sealed. New life can grow where there was once only destruction.
Like trees, we still carry the wounds, at least in this life. We can’t paint over them or pretend they’re not there. But they don’t have to keep us from continuing to grow. Like the seed buried in the ground, we can be broken open and transformed into something new.
That’s what we hear in today’s psalm when the psalmist pleads for mercy. It’s a prayer that trusts in the promise of new beginnings, the life that springs up from the grave.
It’s a prayer we can offer every day. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
The following sermon was delivered by our Drew Seminarian Leif McLellan:
My home state of Minnesota goes by many names: the land of 10,000 lakes, the frozen tundra, the great white north. We even like to joke that Minnesota has three seasons: cold, colder, and road construction. Some of you might think I am odd when I say that I love the cold and the snow. After moving out here to New Jersey I experienced a bit of a climate shock. Where are all my subzero days? Where is all the snow?? Although the climate here is not very different, I have still had to adapt to the new rhythms and the new seasons. One of my favorite parts about a long winter is how much better it makes the arrival of Spring. I absolutely love that moment when Spring comes knocking on the door after months of darkness and ice. That subtle moment when the temperature starts to rise, the ground begins to thaw, and the aromas of earthy soil and wet asphalt begin to mingle in the air. Something about being on the verge of Spring sparks in me a longing for warmth and green and new life.
This experience seems to mirror how we long for a kind of Spring in our own lives. How many of us live in a form of perpetual Winter? How many of us are not satisfied with the way things are? I know that I am not satisfied. I am not satisfied with myself, with my life, and with the state of this world. Within this dissatisfaction lies a deep desire. Perhaps you have felt it too. That almost indescribable desire for new things, for a Spring that breaks through and transforms everything. We yearn for that moment when we are finally satisfied with our lives. So we try to fill this desire in all kinds of ways. We work harder at school or in our careers. We strive to make the perfect family with the perfect home. We try so hard to get the kind of body advertising companies tell us we need. Yet, as much as we try, life seems to keep on going in much the same way as it always has. Like Peter in our Gospel reading for today, we often settle for human things not divine things.
Indeed, I find it easy to sympathize with Peter in this Gospel story. Jesus tells his disciples that he has to suffer at the hands of his own people and eventually be killed. If I were Jesus’s close devoted follower, I would feel distraught to hear his plans. I can sense Peter’s heart sinking, his insides twisting, and his head spinning as he tries to grasp what he has heard. With the threat of losing his beloved teacher, his fight-or-flight response kicks in. His adrenaline starts pumping. Finally Peter musters up the courage to oppose his teacher. Peter turns Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus for explaining that he must die on the cross.
Surely Peter’s rebuke makes sense to us. Mark does not tell us what Peter said, but I imagine that he was motivated by the fear of loss and a change in the status quo. But Jesus rebukes Peter in turn: “you set your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Now, this cutting remark does not imply that Peter and the other disciples need to put their head in the clouds and forget human life. In fact, the specific “divine things” that Jesus refers to impact physical, material, human life. In this case, God’s divine action takes shape in this world when Jesus is publicly crucified. I also don’t think Jesus’s point was to pile shame upon Peter. Peter had a very natural reaction to the threat of loss. It feels safer to have things stay as they are. Instead Jesus calls Peter into a new form of life where he no longer focuses on his wants, his worries, and his shallow desires. That is, Peter turns in on himself, on his “self.” He puts his focus on something other than the work of God. But this new form of life to which Jesus calls Peter is a life where he sets his mind to divine things. It opens him up to the way God works and lives in the world.
Jesus describes a radical new life that God gives to us. But he describes it with a rather puzzling paradox: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake […] will save it.” Let’s sit with those words for a second. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake […] will save it.” …. This sentence is so simple yet so rich and full of power. With such heavy words, we must stay clear of dangerous interpretations. Jesus of course does not mean that we should all jump off a cliff together. And although we may experience hardship and pain in following Jesus, not all suffering and sacrifice necessarily leads us to life, especially not in instances of abuse or manipulation.
So how are we to make sense of Jesus’s words? The Greek word translated as life in this passage is ψυχή, from which we get the word psychology. It can mean life, soul, or spirit. It’s the thing that makes a person alive, our inner being. We might call it our “self.” So if we want to hold onto our self we will lose it. It seems to me that we in this society try desperately to save ourselves. We have somehow been convinced that we can make ourselves worthy of love and life; if we just work harder for longer hours; if we can just be the perfect partner, parent, or child; if we can just have that home or that body we always wanted. We lose ourselves in a world that demands exhaustion and perfection. We struggle in vain to fill that deep-seated desire for a new life.
But we are not bound to this kind of struggle. In the waters of baptism, God has given us grace to lead a new kind of life. God saves us from that self that we have tried to make by and for ourselves. We no longer need to make ourselves worthy or lovable or perfect. See, those old selves that we thought we had, they are already gone. It is not you who lives, but God who lives in you. Of course grace is not all sunshine and rainbows. As in any form of loss, losing that self to which we cling so tightly can feel painful. We may even find that we encounter dangers and suffering as terrible as Jesus faced. But the new self that God gives us opens us up to a joy that far surpasses the feeble pleasures of the old.
One of my favorite theologians, C.S. Lewis, writes powerfully about true joy that is the real object of our deepest desire. In distinguishing this joy from everyday feelings of happiness, Lewis writes: “I doubt whether anyone who has tasted [joy] would ever, if both [joy and happiness] were in [our] power, exchange [joy] for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.” In other words, we cannot make joy happen any more than we can turn Winter into Spring. To strive for the joy that comes with a new life in Christ, in fact, contradicts the whole point. To save your life means losing it. There is no more “you” to strive, to work, and to worry. There is only God working, living, and breathing through your person. For ultimately God, not ourselves, gives us new life. AMEN.