Sermon for March 25, 2012 || Lent 5B || John 12: 20 – 33
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
In the past twelve months, we have had at least as many deaths in our parish family. The lives of ten of those we have loved and lost were celebrated right here in this sanctuary, and these great stone walls have absorbed more tears of grief, and prayers of hope, than seems fair for one little parish church to absorb in so short a period of time. And now, our dear beautiful friend Jo Ford has begun her new life in Christ, steeped in our prayers and our love.
I must confess to you that I struggle with all this—the darkness of my own grief sometimes casts a shadow over the steady light of my unwavering faith in new life.
But God is good, and there are no coincidences. Only holy ones. So, this morning Jesus says to each of us loud and clear in the scripture appointed for the day: “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.”
This rather straight-forward sounding aphorism is actually deceptively simple. Because Jesus means for us to hear it on multiple levels beyond the obvious.
Most immediately, Jesus is referring to himself: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he has just told Andrew and Philip. Jesus means for us to understand that in his death as in his life, Jesus will sacrifice himself to enrich us, and in so doing will be glorified—literally, he will be “magnified” and “made excellent.” He has already died untold numbers of metaphorical deaths as he’s emptied himself over and over so as to fill others with new life. Now he will become that grain of wheat, which by physically dying bears so much fruit—fruits of forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and salvation for all.
“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.”
You see, Jesus is talking about us here, too—both metaphorically and physically. As his followers we are constantly dying to self as we are conformed to his likeness. We die to self-will, self-reliance, self-determination, self-fulfillment and pretty much every other form of “self” that our dominant culture holds so dear, so that the fruits of God’s will and God’s dream and God’s life can be born in us and flourish. We must decrease so that He may increase in us. This is the very heart of the spiritual journey. Paradoxically, this is also how we, too, are glorified—how we are magnified and made into our most excellent selves: by giving ourselves away and dying to self. Every parent who’s made sacrifices for their children knows this. Every child who’s given up a Sunday afternoon to go to the Long Island Shelter knows this. There’s not a soul here this morning who hasn’t had the experience of doing something kind for someone else only to say afterwards, “But I know I got so much more out of it than they did!”
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…
As much as we long to hold onto Jesus during Holy Week, he cannot overcome death, once– and quite literally, for all –unless he dies. As much as we long to hold on to those we love, just as they are, they cannot be born into their perfected life with Christ–unless they die to this one. And as much as we long to hold onto our own lives just exactly as they are, we cannot grow into the creatures God has created us to be (or the church God is calling us to be) unless we die an untold number of metaphorical deaths along the way. Because death creates space for new life.
In a book called, Jesus: The Man Who Lives, the late British journalist Malcomb Muggeridge reflects on his own impending death and his thoughts about the afterlife. Muggeridge writes of the time to come when he may see what he calls his “ancient carcass, prone between the sheets, stained and worn like a scrap of paper dropped in the gutter…and hovering over it” himself, “like a butterfly released from its chrysalis stage and ready to fly away.” Then Muggeridge does some St. Stephen’s style wondering:
“Are caterpillars told of their impending resurrection? How in dying they will be transformed from poor earth-crawlers into creatures of the air, with exquisitely painted wings? If told, do they believe? Is it conceivable to them that so constricted an existence as theirs should burgeon into so gay and lightsome a one as a butterfly’s? I imagine the wise old caterpillars shaking their heads—no, it can’t be; it’s fantasy, self-deception, a dream.”
But you and I know it’s not a dream. You and I know it’s the Good News of Jesus Christ. We may struggle from time to time to remember it—particularly in times of grief and loss, and with the encroaching darkness of Holy Week just over the horizon. But because of that Good News we need not fear the dimming of our interior lights of faith. The darkness of our grief will never overshadow the Light of our faith as long as we have each other, and can hear the voice of Jesus saying,
“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…”
What a remarkable gift of grace to have these words, and each other, with us this morning! Amen