Unless a Grain of Wheat...
By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 12: 20-26
This morning, Palm/Passion Sunday, we conclude this Lenten sermon series around the five stages of grief, as we arrive at the final stage of acceptance. Now, it’s important for us to remember that acceptance doesn’t mean we become “OK” with our loss; that it no longer matters to us. It will always matter to us and life will never be exactly the same. Rather, acceptance means that we are able to move forward with our lives, finding meaning and establishing new connections. We will continue to grieve. But, in arriving at acceptance, our grief no longer prevents us from living.
I have always wanted to preach this passage from the gospel of John. It contains this pithy parable, familiar to many of us from funeral services. It is an appropriate passage for Palm Sunday because it immediately follows John’s narrative of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem in the last week of his life.
Jesus’ celebrated entry into the city is critiqued by the Jewish religious leaders who have grown increasingly disturbed by Jesus’ ministry. Just one chapter prior, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, eliciting faith and loyalty from even more people such that the religious leaders fear everyone is going to follow Jesus. It could lead to riots and rebellion and it jeopardizes their authority. This is a problem they’ve got to solve. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, they repeat their concerns: “the world has run after him.” It is as if all of Jerusalem’s citizens have become teenage groupies with their favorite rock star.
And so, immediately, in the verses I spoke this morning, we do read of “the world” going after Jesus because, for a first-century Jew, the world was divided into two parts: Jews and Gentiles or Greeks. Jesus’ closest disciples have been Jews up to this point; but now, the other half of the world, some Greeks, wish to see Jesus. In the gospel of John “seeing,” is shorthand for coming to faith or trust in Jesus.
So now, we have reached a point in John’s gospel when “the world” is seeing and embracing who Jesus is and those in authority must put an end to it… to him.
So Jesus provides this pithy parable (revealed so beautifully in the artwork this morning by Annie Wetli). This parable communicates that when we try to cling to life in this world, we become like a wasted seed that, because it is not sacrificed to the ground, simply remains alone. But if that seed is dropped into the ground, sacrificed, it bears much fruit. It creates new life.
Now, first let me briefly say that this passage of scripture is not saying that everything about this world is bad. Rather, it reminds us that the way many people choose to live in this world leads to loneliness and death; people like these religious and government leaders who live from such a place of fearful self-preservation that they are happy to kill Jesus in order to preserve their position. But that is not really living; that is the walking dead.
Jesus willingly lays down his life so that we might live. And that is how we, his followers, are called to live. We are called to live with a continual willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. Now I do want to clarify; this is not about oppression or abuse. Abundant life never comes out of situations of abuse, neglect or oppression. This is about our willingness to lay our own desires aside, even our own security, so that others may live more fully.
But what does it mean to “live” in the gospel of John. Well, this parable as well as Jesus’ later teaching to the disciples about the vine and the branches, reveal that “living” is about relationships. In John, chapter 15, Jesus teaches his disciples:
John 15:1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit...
Jesus is teaching his disciples that God is the source of life and that the way they are connected to that life-source is through their relationship with him. They are branches joined together on a common vine; and so, Jesus continues:
John 15:12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 16 I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…
It’s also important to notice that the word in Greek that Jesus uses that we translate in English as “abide” when Jesus says, “abide in me,” is the same word in this morning’s parable; a Greek word that can be translated “abide, remain, or stay.” The purpose of a seed is to bring new life. If the seed is never dropped into the ground, it remains or abides alone.
You remember what I always say, right? Christianity is not a belief system; it’s a relational system. It is all about our relationship with God through Christ AND, and, and, (say it with me) AND with others. And that is also what eternal life is. Life isn’t heaven when you die. According to Jesus in John’s gospel, we are already living eternal life IF we are remaining connected, in intimate, loving relationship, with Christ and with others.
So, what does this have to do with the final stage of grief, right? What does this have to do with acceptance? Well friends, I think that acceptance means that willingness to recognize, embrace and even be a part of bringing new life in the face of death or loss. It is God’s nature to bring life out of death. Even in situations of dreadful, painful loss, God is still working to bring about new life, new opportunities, new possibilities, and new relationships.
Years ago in a church where I pastored, a family lost a beloved son to an ongoing disease just one month before their only daughter was born. A mutual friend in the church, a young woman with a young daughter, tried to explain this to her little girl. Ella asked if the new baby was a replacement. Her mother cringed. No; no one would ever replace the son they’d lost. But this was a new and cherished life that we would all love and embrace and care for.
Friends: when we live from a place of caring for others even to a willingness to sacrifice for them, we will, inevitably, experience death: death of personal ambitions and desires; the loss of things that make us feel safe and secure. But, if we are willing to lay down our lives for others, we will discover that one seed, dropped into the ground, can produce much fruit and that it is only in the act of sacrificing the seed that it no longer remains alone, but produces an abundance of fruit.
Jesus couldn’t have enjoyed hanging from a cross and we do not relish the losses in our lives. And yet, we trust that in places of loss and death and sacrifice, new life – new fruit – rises up, bursts forth from the cold ground. This is the gospel of our Lord. Thanks be to God!
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