This sermon was prepared for St. John’s United’s Sunday service, live-streamed on April 5, 2020. Based on John 12:12-36 for Palm Sunday, Year A.
“I tell you the truth: unless a grain of wheat is planted in the ground and dies, it remains a solitary seed. But when it is planted, it produces in death a great harvest.”[i]
Jesus taught his followers using simple metaphors, many of them were about farming. So, is it any wonder that later on he gets mistaken for a gardener when he’s hanging about the tomb?
And if gardeners know one thing, it is about the cycle of life and death – the holy mystery of the quiet seasons when life is brimming outside the edges of our senses.
The story of the grain of wheat is not so much a metaphor about death as it is one about possibility.
The harvest is the point, the multiplication of the Good News and of the disciples. If the Jesus in the gospel of John has one major concern it is the making of disciples – followers of The Way.
This gospel is believed to have been written by and for a group of early Christians. A particular community of them, which would have included “Greek”, or non-Jewish believers. They formed following Jesus’ glorification – what they refer to as his death and resurrection.
This gospel is their interpretation of Jesus’ story. We see the author (or authors) writing with the knowledge of what happens after Easter, and we can hear the concerns of that particular community whose trying to find themselves in this story.
They are wrestling with theological questions like, Why did Jesus have to die? Does God inflict suffering on God’s children? Was Jesus at peace with what happened? What does his death mean for our community?
It’s a story about identity and belonging, and it’s a call story – where the reader can see themself in the woman at the well, or the man born blind – when Jesus invites these characters to be his followers he invites the listener also.
Now, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I’m missing the point when I say this isn’t a story about death, since John’s Jesus seems preoccupied with his death right from the very beginning.
As we begin Holy Week we are finally in those last days that the text continues to allude to; the “final hour” as Jesus puts it.
But Jesus’ glory, the apex of this gospel, isn’t his death on the cross. No, John always pairs death alongside life; Good Friday is unbreakably interwoven into Easter Sunday.
It is the planting and the harvesting together that represents God’s great working of love in our world.
It’s why we always say: “in life, in death, in life beyond death … God is with us.”[ii] It is all part of the same whole.
But, death is preoccupying.
I was feeling anxious the other week. I was having a hard time sleeping because my mind kept turning the same thoughts over and over again.
Zack noted that if we weren’t in self isolation I probably wouldn’t have felt as intensely about the situation as I did. At home, even while I’m still working, there’s very little to distract me from my anxiety.
Maybe you’ve felt that way too, recently?
Death feels all-consuming. The gaping maw of the grave can swallow our hope, our future-thinking, our good memories of the past, and our sense of time and place.
We can enter a half-life, a waking death, and worry we’ll never escape it.
But, the Apostle Paul asked the churches in Rome to consider this question: “Who can separate us? What can come between us and the love of God’s Anointed? Can troubles, hardships, persecution, hunger, poverty, danger, or even death?” And, his answer is: “Absolutely nothing.”[iii]
Neither death, nor life, nor global pandemic, can obstruct the love of God, and God’s desires for her children.
So we’re reminded that death does not have the final word. But, I think it’s more than that. I think, like the Johannine understanding of Jesus’ glory, that death is an integral part of our formation as human beings.
What if the point wasn’t death, but possibility?
Death is all around us; it’s a reality of our humanity. But death doesn’t keep God from us. It’s not the wide chasm we sometimes imagine, or feel, it to be. So often it isn’t until the time of mourning is over, or when healing has come to us, or we’ve enter new life, that we look back and see that part of our journey differently.
It’s hard to see the forest for the trees when we’re right in the middle of the woods.
To quote poet Ana Lisa de Jong:
Yes, I think it is that what often looks like death,
or lack of fruitfulness, is instead,
just the time it takes
for the gift of life to flourish.“Except a grain of wheat” by Ana Lisa de Jong, June 2017
What if it wasn’t about death? What if it was about our own inner growing, our soul-making, as we journey through the seasons of our lives-and-deaths together?
So what does that make the here and now, for us?
What, in a year, will we look back on this time of anxiety and loneliness and see? What will the fruits of this challenging time of planting be?
And, as we journey with Jesus intro Jerusalem today,Wwhat will this Holy Week bring forward for us?
My hope is that this Easter inspires us. Knowing we follow a Teacher who understood and cared for us in our humanity; who wept with us, who bled alongside us.
My hope is that this Easter strengthens us. Knowing that the cycle of death and life continues on, and that there will be an end to this moment, right now.
As Ana Lisa wrote:
… just like grain, or leaves,
or anything that falls,
we find next season’s yield,
is often stored,
in the remains of the first.
Apparent death just the shedding
of the husk,
that brings about new birth.“Except a grain of wheat” by Ana Lisa de Jong, June 2017
My hope is that this Easter brings each of us, further into the Spirit’s new life. That we continue to shed the husk of the old, and come to appreciate the self that brought us to this point in our lives.
Let’s look back on our changing stories with gratitude and compassion; knowing it was the brave self of yesterday that looked at the possibilities of tomorrow and said: yes, I will follow Jesus, I will take a chance on new life.