Fifth Sunday After Lent
“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