(a sermon for Lent 5)
based on John 12:20-33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
”Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–’ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
One Friday night not long ago I found myself wanting something light and preferably humorous to read. So I decided to prowl through my middle son’s bookcase, which—although he lives in Manhattan now—still retains a number of books which I’d been thinking looked pretty interesting as I dusted them. I was right. On the shelf I found a book that turned out to be just the ticket.
Declaring itself to be a #1 National Bestseller, it was a sort of wacky memoir written in short and amusing essays. The book was titled Me Talk Pretty One Day, written by David Sedaris, a popular contemporary author of real excellence, known to everyone on the planet but me, apparently. His very irreverent book made me laugh out loud.
One of the most amusing, and for me most thought provoking, sections of the book comes when Mr. Sedaris, who is an American, relocates to France, and signs up to take an evening French class in Paris. The class contains people from a number of primarily Christian countries—and one Muslim woman from Morocco—all just beginners in the French language. One memorable evening the teacher invites the class to exercise their rudimentary vocabulary by trying to explain to the Muslim woman—in French–what Easter is. Here is a sampling of how the various students’ explanations translated.
“’It is a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus….and then he die one day on two…morsels of lumber.’”
“He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”
“He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”
“He nice, the Jesus.”
“He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”
Mr. Sedaris goes on to muse that nouns like “cross” and “resurrection” were way beyond their grasp, but then he pauses to wonder if, even without the language barrier, he and his classmates could have made any sense of this piece of Christianity. After all, it’s an idea, he writes, “that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with.”
He has a point. The early Christians had a similar problem. How do you find the words to make sense of an all powerful messiah who dies on a cross, overcome by the Roman and Jewish leaders? How do you defend as an act of strength—crucifixion–what appears to be an act of weakness?
This was—and is–a deeply complicated theological issue. In the early days bitter arguments raged between the more “traditional” Christians versus the Gnostic Christians; a battle which the “traditional” group won through sheer numbers–and just to be sure everybody knew who’d won, they labeled the Gnostics heretics.
The struggle over this theological dilemma goes on today, because we still profess a faith to which Jesus’ death and resurrection is central. Each of us must somehow come to a meaningful understanding of Jesus’ death. An understanding which not only makes some sort of sense regarding the “why” and “how” of what happened, but that also explains what it has to do with our lives—with you and me.
In the passage from John’s gospel this morning, we hear Jesus’ own understanding of his death; what, to him, is the most important reason why this terrible thing needs to happen.
He claims that his death will have power. It will not be the futile death of a powerless victim. It will be a death like the explosive and powerful transformation of a seed. “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.”
Within the earth, the seed spends itself; it breaks open and dies as a seed, in order to become the plant. From the insignificant acorn will come the mighty oak. From the tiniest seed imaginable grows the sturdy mustard bush. The tiniest of beginnings can produce plants which are able, through sheer perseverance, to crumble rock, and make a place to live and grow in the most inhospitable environment.
This is how Jesus describes his death. Like a seed, falling into the ground and dying as a seed—yet transforming into the strong plant, which in turn will bear “much fruit.”
What fruit, we may ask, did Jesus believe would grow from his death? “When I am lifted up from the earth,”—he said, referring no doubt to both the lifting of the cross and the lifting of the resurrection and ascension– “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” This is what makes his death not just bearable, but powerful and fruitful: we, you and me, Christians everywhere, our existence and our actions—we are the fruit.
The power of his death is not only in the fruit it bears. There is also power in his willingness. He could have chosen to do otherwise–“Now my soul is troubled,” he confesses. “And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?”
But instead of asking for rescue, he recognizes and accepts his path. “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” He acknowledges and dismisses the possibility of asking God to release him from the cruel death which awaits. He chooses to do what he came to do. To live a life which would inevitably end in his death—but that death that would change the world. Jesus may be in one sense a victim, but he is a willing victim. His choice transforms him from hapless victim to sacrificial victim. And in true sacrifice there is great power.
Jesus knew well where his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing might lead. He was aware of the fate of his kinsman, John the Baptist, beheaded for speaking unwelcome truths to Herod Antipas. Jesus could have made other choices. He could have run, quietly relocated, or gone underground. He could have minimized the radical impact of his ministry, making it more socially acceptable. Barbara Brown Taylor points out that Jesus knew well he was crossing the sort of power lines most likely to get him electrocuted.
And so, he chooses to face a death at the hands of broken humanity; an ugly and violent death—a sign of the refined cruelty of the times in which he lived; a forgiving death, which he lived out all the way to his last breath; a nonresistant, deliberately self sacrificial death. He purposely became the grain of wheat, dead and broken open, which can grow into mighty wheat fields, into us.
Passing through the darkness of the tomb, Jesus led the way for us, his harvest, into the light. The power of his death was transformed from the murder of a victim, into the willing sacrifice of a savior.