Sermon for March 21, 2021

Fifth Sunday in Lent, John 12:20-33

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
    27Now 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. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Spring has sprung. Officially, this year, March 20. This is welcome and good news after a wet, snowy, icy, slushy and cold pandemic winter. And the ground is springing to life – crocuses, daffodils, some first dandelions, and more – all part of the intricate ecosystem just beneath our feet in our yards and parks and greenspaces, a wonder of natural cycles that takes place each year. This is my first early Spring in Arlington, which you have promised me is one of the most gorgeous seasons of the year in this area. I am delighting in this season of renewed life.

What in fact is going on out of sight and under the ground in the soil? What happens to seeds when they are planted? My brief foray into some botanical reading suggests that the seeds we plant are living and they remain alive as they undergo the complex process of germination, of sprouting forth life in new forms which rise up from the ground. In short, seeds that bear fruit are alive.

But the gospel writer John reports that Jesus said this: “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)

Neither John nor Jesus were botanists. Moreover, they did not benefit from modern scientific knowledge and understanding. Again, according to my reading, dead seeds cannot germinate. They are dead and remain dead and cannot offer life. Death is death. What’s going on beneath are feet are cycles of life that beget more life. New growth in spring is life from dormancy, not death.

While John and Jesus may not be good scientists from our perspective, they are trustworthy heralds of divine truth, namely, that John’s Jesus points to a different kind of reality beyond natural cycles. In the case in point, that is, in what would befall Jesus, the reality is new life from death, not from dormancy, a truth that confounds scientific wisdom about natural cycles.

Jesus, as recorded by John, employs language about the grain or seed of wheat to refer to his own death and the fruit that will be born in new life that emerges from his death.

Jesus’ discourse about the grain of wheat dying to bear fruit begins in John with Jesus saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus’ glorification in John is a reference to Jesus being lifted up on the tree of the cross and then subsequently to be lifted up from the grave in resurrected life and ultimately lifted up in return to the God whom Jesus calls Father.

This whole discourse about the grain of wheat dying to bear fruit of new life occurs in this portion of John when some Greeks who were present for the Passover festival said to the disciple Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

When Jesus heard that the Greeks, who according to the Apostle Paul, seek wisdom, Jesus’ answer was this: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” as if to say, you Greeks and others really want to see me? Then watch what happens when the Son of Man is lifted up, glorified with an odd sort of glory on the cross.

It’s the counter-intuitive wisdom of the cross that the Greeks will see, as suggested by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Judeans demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Judeans and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Judeans and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

The wisdom of the cross is not the wisdom the Greeks expected to see. But it is the wisdom of God manifest in Jesus as God’s word made flesh.

It’s a troubling wisdom, a wisdom that makes for troubled souls when John reports Jesus as having said: “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.’” (John 12:27-28a)

It’s not an easy path that Jesus is taking. As we know, it involved much suffering, as there is typically much suffering and anguish when we die, even when God’s only begotten Son died.

It’s the kind of anguish known by priests who serve as prayerful mediators between God and a suffering humanity. Of Christ’s priesthood, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes in the portion of the letter that is today’s second reading, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9)

Life from death, a new reality that breaks the natural cycles of renewed life from dormant life until all creatures die, indeed makes for suffering, but it’s a suffering that generates much fruit and God’s glory. In what was thought at first to be thunder, a voice from heaven proclaimed of God’s name being glorified in Jesus, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:28b)

A suffering glory, an odd glory, but a glory that again bears fruit, the fruit of eternal life which results in all people being drawn into the loving embrace of Christ. As John reports Jesus’ conclusion about the nature of his impending death and resurrection and return to the Father, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
As wonderful as the Springtime is under our feet on this good earth, as magnificent as are the plants coming to life again from their dormancy, God is up to something new and completely different in Christ Jesus and the ways he was lifted up – on the cross, from the grave, and back to the Godhead.

Which leaves us in a good place, because we are going to die. All living things have their end in death. Springtime abundance has a tendency to mask that grave reality.

Think of the lilies at Easter. Beautiful, wonderful flowers when they are in full blossom. But when that blossom fades, shrivels and turns brown, they are not beautiful at all! Their floral beauty is fleeting, ephemeral. And while the plant that birthed the lily blossoms may live another season to usher forth in new blossoms, eventually that plant, like all living things, will have its end in death. Autumn and winter are cyclically on the heels of springtime and summer, and not all things survive a brutal winter.

So, too, we. The specter of the deadly coronavirus has brought the reality of our mortality painfully close to us now going into a second year of pandemic. That’s the bad news.

But the good news, of course, again is that in Jesus God is doing a new thing that transcends the natural cycles and in fact breaks them wide open into the new reality of new life springing from death itself. This is singular and unique in the death and resurrection of Christ, but it’s a promised new reality superseding scientific wisdom and knowledge.

This promised resurrected life for us finds a beginning of fulfillment in baptism, when we are drowned in the waters to emerge, newly born again in Christ, in the power of the Spirit acting via word and water.

Our promised resurrected life has continued fulfillment in the sacrament at the table, when we eat and drink of the resurrected Christ made known to us in the breaking of bread. Hopefully, prayerfully, we’ll return to this sacred meal in a coming, near future!

The promised resurrection realities made known to us in word, water, bread and wine, in forgiveness offered and received, and in our holy conversation – all of this generates and renews our faith, as suggested by the prophetic promise of Jeremiah in today’s first reading: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33b-34)

Our faith, a constituent element of the fruit that is born from the grain of wheat of Jesus’ dying, is what then also inspires our discipleship characterized in this way by Jesus in John: “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.” (John 12:25-26a)

Thus it is, in faith, in the power of Jesus’ ongoing presence with us, we can give our lives away in loving service to our neighbors in need. This is perhaps what it means to “hate our life in this world.” It’s not so much a hatred that despises, but a recognition that everything we might hold dear in this life pales in comparison to the promised realities of resurrected life in Christ.

Where Christ is, there will we, Christ’s servants, be also. And where is Jesus Christ but in the least of these our siblings, members of Christ’s family? Christ among the marginalized, the oppressed, the distressed, the poor, the orphans, the widows, the migrants, the refugees, and on and on the list goes.

And where Christ goes, we follow bringing the promise of resurrection in our diakonia, our servant ministry in love for our neighbors.

Christian life is not so much cyclical, like cycles of nature, but a spiraling toward God’s promised future. It’s not a circling back on itself as in the change of seasons, but a moving forward, led onward by Christ in resurrected glory.

In that Spirit, we spiral forward in Jesus’ name and for Christ’s sake. Amen.

And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • I invite you to ponder the wondrous mystery of resurrected life out of death in Christ.