Grace Presbyterian Church
March 21, 2021, Lent 5B (recorded)
The Grain That Bears Fruit
Am I the only person who reads this passage from John’s gospel and wonders what happened to the Greeks?
You know, there at the beginning of the reading, simply “some Greeks” who had come to the festival of Passover and approached Philip about seeing Jesus? Philip goes and tells his brother Andrew and then the two of them go to Jesus with the request and…Jesus starts talking about being glorified and grains of wheat and saving or losing your life, and then even more stuff that somehow feels a little bit out of left field? All of this happens, and we never hear about those Greeks again.
There is a lot in this discourse that can get frankly confusing or disorienting to keep track of in our study or hearing. There is the business of those who seek to hold on to their lives instead losing them, and those who do not cling to life in this world instead holding on to eternal life There is the business of serving and following. There is what appears to be a quick exchange between Jesus on earth and a voice from heaven, and finally the line which in many studies or commentaries is held up as the key takeaway from this lesson: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John is even nice enough to add one of his little parenthetical explanatory comments here, to make sure that we understand that Jesus “said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die,” that is, crucifixion – a mode of execution in which the one being killed was truly lifted up for all to see. And yes, the echo of last week’s reading, with the serpent and Son of Man both being lifted up, is pretty clear.
This does come at a turning point in John’s gospel. The events of Palm Sunday are recorded just before this portion of chapter 12. The next chapter, chapter 13, begins with the event we commemorate on Maundy Thursday, although John’s story speaks of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet rather than bread and cup being shared. The rest of the gospel marks that final week of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry, with lots of private teaching time thrown in.
So, this is the climax. That crucifixion – Jesus being “lifted up” – is only a few days away.
This is an important image. The idea that Jesus being “lifted up” in crucifixion would be anything but the ultimate humiliation must have seemed naïve if not downright delusional to anyone who picked up on the image. Crucifixion, as the Romans devised it, was meant not only to be physically agonizing, but also to provide the ultimate humiliation indeed: stripped naked, nailed up to this cross, exposed for all the world to see and mock.
To suggest that such an event would be, far from a humiliation, an exaltation – a moment in which Jesus’s being “lifted up” would actually “draw all people” to Jesus – would have drawn a snort of derision from those Roman soldiers tasked with carrying out the execution, and probably a derisive laugh from those religious authorities who had had enough of Jesus by this time. And yet Jesus proclaims it exactly that: the moment, or the impetus, or the act in which all people are drawn to him.
It doesn’t make sense.
And yet there is a key that is easy to overlook in this passage, back in the first part of the reading: that small line about a grain of wheat.
It’s hard to do much with a single grain of wheat. You get a lot of such grains and grind them into flour and bake bread, you have something good, but a single grain? Not so much.
In fact, as Jesus tells it, the only thing for a single grain to do is die.
The grain that falls into the earth, and “dies,” that’s when the new life happens. The one grain becomes many grains. Each one grain begets many grains, bears much fruit, bears new life, and many are fed. Here’s an image of hope for this long slog to the end of Lent; new life from old, new fruit from one seed.
But this isn’t just an image of hope: it’s also a calling. The one who can’t be like that single grain, well, is dead. The one who yields to the soil, to the nurturing and watering and care visited upon the field, yields much fruit, a bountiful harvest. This was Jesus’s path; and if we claim to follow Jesus, it’s our path too. When we quit clinging to the comforts and benefits of this world, the things that allow us to be secure in our own rightness and aloof to the cruelties around us, such as the shooting in Atlanta this week; when we lay aside that comfort and yield our lives to Jesus’s life, that’s when we bear fruit.
But it begins with the single grain, one that falls into the earth and dies.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #53, O God, Who Gives Us Life; #247, Now the Green Blade Riseth