March 18, 2018

“Unless A Grain of Wheat Falls”

John 12:20-33

Today’s passage from the common lectionary doesn’t come in scriptural order for Lent- In John’s gospel, Jesus has already entered into Jerusalem, already heard the cries of Hosanna, already seen the palm branches wave in his honor. For us, church calendar wise, we focus on Palm Sunday next Sunday. However, from a seasonal time of year, this passage fits perfectly, as spring and the season of new growth has begun. It is the time to plant seeds, to clean our gardens from weeds and prep the soil. I am noticing that the many daffodil bulbs blooming in the parking lot planters, as well as all over Ashland. Flowers are starting to bloom. The tree outside my office window is beginning to show buds on its branches. The grass on the front lawn of the church is growing and looks bright green. New life is all around us. Plants that have been dormant for many months are now beginning to show signs of life.


In today’s passage, Jesus uses the analogy of a wheat seed dying falling from the plant to the earth below, and speaks of the new life that comes from his death. This is an analogy about new growth- perfect for spring. Let’s set the stage for today’s passage by looking at some of the verses which come before.


The story is set at a tumultuous time- Jesus and the disciples have come into Jerusalem. It is the time for festival, when thousands of Jewish pilgrims have come to celebrate Passover. Passover commemorated when God passed over the Israelite houses where the blood of a lamb had been sprinkled on the door posts of the households of the people of God, sparing their first born. In Old Testament times, Passover was mainly celebrated in people’s homes. But by the time of Jesus, this had become a huge festival, and was one of the most important Jewish celebrations of the time.


As Jesus and the disciples came into the holy city, many of the pilgrims who had gathered for Passover embraced Jesus, crying “Hosanna! Save us! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” Word must’ve spread that perhaps the long awaited Messiah was coming to free the people and set things right. The Pharisees, the keepers of the law of God, were threatened by Jesus, and in verse 19, they mutter to one another- “You see that you and I can do nothing. Look the whole world has gone after him!”



As we begin today’s passage in verse 20, we read that some Greeks were there at festival; that is, those outside of the faith. The word in the Greek language of today’s passage is “Hellenes”- which is translated simply as Greeks, not Jewish Greeks. Their quest to seek Jesus out means that the mission of Christ is spreading beyond the Jewish nation These Greeks approach Jesus through two disciples with Greek names and backgrounds-Philip and Andrew.- When they tell Jesus about these Greeks coming to speak to Jesus, he immediately says that the hour of his glorification has come. They are for Jesus the sign that the next part of his mission is to begin. Jesus sees this group of Greeks and proclaims in verse 23 that his sacrifice on the cross will glorify God through his obedience.


Jesus understands the need for his act of sacrifice, and uses the analogy of a wheat seed falling to the ground and sprouting forth new life. The analogy of a grain of wheat was also used by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:36, in his discussion about a bodily resurrection. Paul says, “You fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies!” We’ll refocus on this verse in just a bit.

As for the Greeks, they fade into the background. We don’t know anything more about them, other than it is likely they listened to his speech.


Then Jesus speaks of loving one’s life and losing it. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”(v. 25) Does this mean that we should literally hate our lives? Is Jesus saying that life, as it is, has no inherent value unless it dies?  Clearly, part of the answer is that Jesus is thinking about his own pending death, and the eternal life that is to come for him.


His focus is otherworldly, not this‑worldly. Theologian Kenneth Kovacs mentions that, “In a homily on this text, John Calvin (1509‑1564) tempers such a reading. “But as [Jesus] draws a contrast between the love of life and the hatred of it, we ought to understand what it is to love and hate life. He who, under the influence of excessive desire of the present life, cannot leave the world but by constraint, is said to love life; but he who, despising life, advances courageously to death, is said to hate life. Not that we ought absolutely to hate life, which is justly reckoned to be one of the highest of God’s blessings; but because believers ought cheerfully to lay it down, when it keeps them from approaching to Christ.”


I think the application for us here is that Jesus is calling us to die to self, to allow Christ to become everything and for our desires, our wants, and our egos to fade into the background, just as the Greeks do in this passage. It is we ourselves who need to be knocked off-center, so that Christ can become the center of this life with which we have been blessed. Again, Kovacs says, “But in order for that to happen, there are some things we must die to: self-gratification, love of wealth, fame, security. God does not ultimately seek to destroy life, but to give life, abundantly (Jn 10:10).”  This re-centering can only come about in the context of a trusting relationship with Christ who came to claim our lives and redeem them.



Then in verse 27, we see a much abbreviated version of his experience in the garden at Gethsemane- Jesus in anguish asks himself how he should pray, hinting at just the slightest bit of struggle and doubt, then answers himself that he knows his purpose- to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the world. In this act of obedience and sacrifice, God would be glorified. In verse 28, God’s voice comes through the sound of thunder that God’s name has been glorified, and will be again, upon Christ’s resurrection. The voice of God, according to Jesus in verse 30, was for the sake of the people, so that they understood Jesus’ purpose and mission. I would imagine that it was for Jesus’ benefit as well, receiving assurance from heaven, giving him full confidence in the last part of his earthly mission, just as God’s proclamation, “This is my Son, my beloved, listen to him,” did upon his baptism.


In verse 31, Jesus judges the fallen, broken world around him, which has been separated in sinfulness from its Creator. He then alludes that the ruler of this world-Satan, will be cast out, set aside through his sacrifice. In verse 32, Jesus mentions being lifted up from the earth- This has a double meaning. He would be lifted upon a cross, yet also lifted up in glory later in his ascension. In John’s gospel, this marks conclusion of his public ministry.


My main focus for today is on verse 24-"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."  How might this verse apply to us today? This is a tumultuous time for many people in our nation; a nation so divided politically. After the horrific racist protests in Charlottesville, we now understand that racism and racist attitudes in our nation, once dormant or muted, are emboldened and shouting their messages of hate in the streets. We are arguing over the right to bear arms verses the right for our children to be safe in school, as students walked out by the hundreds of thousands last week, asking our congress and president to work for common sense gun laws and value their lives over the right to purchase assault weapons. We continue to fight two apparently never ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an exhausted military.  Globally, we continue to be under cyber-attack by Russia, and North Korea appears to finally have the capability to launch nuclear missiles to the American peninsula. People are uneasy, and some social analysts suggest an epidemic of depression as a result from all of the difficulties we face. What, then, does this image of Jesus as a grain of wheat offer to us caught in crisis and worry?


Even in the midst of our difficulties, there is hope. There is new life springing forth, through the power of Jesus Christ in our own lives and in the world around us. Jesus, in speaking of his sacrifice 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."  To explore this analogy a bit, everything that is needed is there in a wheat seed to produce new life- all of the DNA for a healthy plant bursts forth after approximately 3 days in the ground, which then bears much fruit and can be harvested, turned into food which feeds people and livestock globally. Unless that seed falls- that is unless it is harvested and sown, none of this can happen.


In Jesus Christ, everything that is needed to produce new life is there for this broken, fractured, war torn, and fearful world in which we live. Through his sacrifice, we are freed from our sinfulness and restored in relationship with our Creator. We are made right before God, and are challenged to be spiritual fruit of that first wheat seed-to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly in service to God and to the world. We can therefore speak out, calling for assault rifles to be beaten into plowshares, to support the voices of the young prophets out in the streets, to call for an end to these endless wars, and to work for reconciliation with others. Why can we do these things? We are not alone in our struggles- We have our Prince of Peace with us in spirit and in truth, helping us to work for reconciliation and peace. We are empowered by Jesus through his teachings to lose our own lives for the sake of others and bring about new life to a broken world.



Secondly, through that seed of Jesus Christ falling, dying and rising; through his new life offered to all in his resurrection- death has been conquered, once and for all. Because of the death and rising of that wheat seed, we can say with confidence when we lose a loved one that, although now we are sad, we will see them again, and our joy, no one will be able to take from us. Even in the midst of death, new life springs forth!


Finally, we can find hope even in the midst of our own personal struggles. Where is your life barren? Where is it broken? Where is it hopeless? Where is it mired, stuck in the grip of sin and shadow? New life comes to us in all of those places through the grain of wheat which fell to the earth and died and rose again! Be encouraged, have hope!  “Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat arising green!” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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