Dying to Live

Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2015 || 5 Lent, Year B ||  Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 1-13; Hebrews 5: 5-10; John 12: 20-33 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

It’s been a tough winter, and I don’t just mean the snow. Our world’s been darkened by the staggering evil of ISIS; our country’s been sickened by the unmasking of insidious racism inherent in our culture; our town’s been gut-punched by the deaths of four young parents of school-age children; and only yesterday many of us gathered in this very space to remember Kitty Whitley– a humble, decent, woman and committed follower of Christ, who served this parish as a junior warden, a chorister, a lay Eucharistic visitor, a member of the Outreach committee, the head of the Village Fair kitchen team, and a one-woman welcome wagon to everyone who walked through our doors.

It’s been a tough winter. And I will tell you that sometimes I struggle with all this. Sometimes all the darkness out there can cast a shadow over the healing light of my faith in new life. But God is good, and there are no coincidences. This morning’s gospel is the balm in Gilead we all need! It is exactly what we need to hear.

“Very truly,” Jesus tells us, “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 aphorism is actually deceptively simple, because we are actually meant to hear it on multiple levels beyond the literal one. Most immediately, Jesus is telling us something about himself. He has just told Andrew and Philip that, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” So in talking about the grain of wheat that must die in order to bear fruit, Jesus is referring to his impending death. He means for us to understand that in his death as in his life, he will sacrifice himself for us, and in so doing will be “glorified”—which translated literally means that he will be “magnified” and “made excellent.”

Jesus has already died untold numbers of metaphorical deaths as he’s emptied himself out over and over again so as to fill others with new life. But now he will become that grain of wheat, which by physically dying bears such abundant fruit—fruits of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation…fruits of salvation and eternal life 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.”

But, Jesus is talking about us here, too—both metaphorically and physically. As his followers, we are constantly dying more and more 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 bear much fruit. That’s the spiritual journey in a nutshell.

And paradoxically, it’s how we, too, are “glorified”. It’s how we become our “most excellent” selves: By giving ourselves away for the sake of others…by dying to self. Every parent who’s ever made sacrifices for their children knows this. Every teenager who’s gone on the ASP trip knows this. I’m willing to wager that there’s not a person here this morning who hasn’t had the experience of giving of themselves for the sake of another, only to think afterwards that they probably got a lot more out of it than the person they thought they were helping.

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…

With Holy Week just around the corner, this passage also reminds us that as much as we may dread the impending cross of Good Friday, Jesus cannot overcome death, once and quite literally, for all, unless he dies. As much as we may long for our world, or our country, or even our church to be the way they once were, they must continuously change– to metaphorically die– in order to grow and bear new fruit.

And as much as we may long to hold onto our own lives just exactly as they are, we can’t possibly grow into the creatures God has created us to be unless we die an untold number of metaphorical deaths along the way. Because death creates space for new life.

I know I’ve told you this story before, but I’m going to tell it again because it’s such a powerful one. When the late British journalist Malcomb Muggeridge reflected on his own impending death, he imagined himself leaving his body, “like a butterfly released from its chrysalis stage and ready to fly away.” Muggeridge wrote:

“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. New life always comes after death, whether physical or metaphorical. We may struggle sometimes to remember this Good News—particularly in times of darkness or loss, but because of it we need never fear when the healing light of our faith becomes temporarily dim.

The darkness out there can never overshadow the Light of our faith—not as long as we have each other, this place, the bread and wine we share at that altar, and the voice of Jesus reminding us,

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…

Amen.

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