The Secret To Life – A Sermon On John 12:20-33

Unless a grain of wheat, Lent, Lent 5B, Sermon, John 12:20-33, Sermon, Detachment, Letting Go
By Go2anna - Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Fifth Sunday in Lent – John 12:20-33

Today I am going to tell you the secret to life. You probably already know what I am going to tell you, though you may not have thought of it as the secret to life. It’s something you’ve seen and experienced over and over. It’s one of those secrets hidden in plain sight. It’s also one of those secrets that can trouble the soul, so we often turn away from it or close our eyes to it.

Unless a grain of wheat, Lent, Lent 5B, Sermon, John 12:20-33, Sermon, Detachment, Letting Go
By Go2anna – Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons 

“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). So there you have it. Now you know. That’s the secret to life.

It’s the pattern of loss and renewal that runs throughout our lives and our world. Even if you’ve never thought of this as the secret to life, you’ve lived and experienced it, sometimes by choice and other times by chance. Either way it’s there.

Look at the way this pattern is present in your life. Have you ever fallen in love and committed your life to another? If so, you had to let parts of your old life go and something of your single life died so that you could be with that other person. How about parenting? If you are a parent you know that there are sacrifices of yourself and your life to be made in order for the new life of your child to emerge and grow. We give up parts of ourselves for the other. Parents are continually letting go of their child so she or he can grow up. Have you ever been the caretaker of another? If so, you could name the parts of your life that died so that another might live with dignity, compassion, and love.

What are the costs, the losses, you paid for an education or a career? You chose certain losses and let go of some things so that other things could arise. For every choice we make, every yes we say, there is at least one no and probably many.

This same pattern is in nature. You can see it in the changing of the seasons, falling leaves and new blooms, and the setting and rising of the sun.

Think about the scriptural stories of loss and renewal. Innocence in Adam and Eve died so that consciousness might be born. Abram left his country and kindred so that he might be made a great nation, renamed Abraham, and be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Jacob lost his old identity and was wounded so that he could become a new man, Israel, with a new life. James and John left their father, boats, and nets to become disciples of Jesus and fishers of people. Jesus taught his disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31).

The secret is out. It’s everywhere. It is a pattern of loss and renewal, dying and rising, letting go and getting back, leaving and return. It’s at the core of our baptism and it’s what we declare every Sunday in the eucharist.

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

What in your life do you need to let go of today? What might you need to leave behind? What needs to die so that something new can arise?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today’s gospel (John 12:20-33) is set in the context of the passover feast. Remember what that’s about? The passover is the celebration of the Israelites’ liberation from bondage in Egypt. It’s about freedom and new life. It’s about letting go, leaving behind, and moving into a new life.

There is something about this pattern that is the lens through which we see Jesus. Some Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” I don’t know why they want to see Jesus but I have a few guesses. Jesus turned water into wine. He cleansed the temple. He healed the son of the royal official. He healed the paralytic. He fed 5000 with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. He walked on water. He gave sight to the man born blind. He raised Lazarus from the dead.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Me too. That’s the Jesus I want to see. Don’t you?

Philip tells Andrew about the Greeks and their request. Philip and Andrew tell Jesus. And Jesus says to them, “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.” That’s his response to those who want to see him; to the Greeks, to you, to me.

And you’ve got to know that dying is about more than our physical death. Yes, it is that but it’s also more than that. We die a thousand deaths throughout our lifetime. The loss of a loved one, a relationship, health, opportunities, a dream; all deaths we didn’t want or ask for. Other times we choose our losses and deaths. We give up parts of ourselves for another. We change our beliefs and values so that we can be more authentically ourselves. And sometimes there are things we need to let go of, things we cling to that deny us the fullness of life we want and God offers: fear, anger or resentment, regret and disappointment, guilt, the need to be right, approval.

Seeing Jesus isn’t a spectator sport. It is a way to be followed, a truth to be embodied, a life to be lived. It’s being a grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies so that it might bear much fruit. That’s where we see him. It’s the letting go, the emptying, the leaving behind, and the dying that makes space for new life to arise.

You’ve probably had at least one time in your life that when you look back on it you say, “I never want to go through that again. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.” What is that time for you? What happened?

As difficult or painful as that experience was it bore much fruit. Your were changed and your life was renewed. It was one of those times when you were the grain of wheat that fell into the earth and died. And I’ll bet it was one of those times when you knew you had seen Jesus, when you experienced the holy, when you were absolutely convinced that God was present and working in your life.

I’ve had those times too. But, probably like you, I’ve also had those other kind of losses. The greatest loss in my life so far has been the death of our son. God knows I’ve learned a lot about myself and life as a result of that, and my life has been reshaped and reformed in some very good and positive ways because of that. I know I’ve seen Jesus. But I would trade it all to have Brandon back. And maybe that’s what I need to let go of.

Maybe that’s my grain of wheat that needs to fall into the earth and die. That does’t mean I don’t want him back or that I would not undo what has happened if I could. It just means that I want to trust Jesus’ promise of new life more than my wishful thinking. And sometimes that’s really hard. You know that as well as I.

Letting go, however, does not mean rejection or walking away. And it does not mean choosing absence over presence. Instead, letting go is what allows us to be more authentically present to ourselves and another. It makes room for new life and new ways of being present to arise. Our letting go gives God something with which to work. Why then would we continue to cling, to live as an isolated, self-enclosed, single grain wheat?

This is the soul-troubling secret to life. “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.” So what is the grain of wheat in your life today that needs to fall into the earth and die? What are the things that if you lost them you are sure you would just die? Maybe those are the very places waiting to bear much fruit in your life. Maybe that’s where you’ll see Jesus.

This secret, this pattern of loss and renewal, will be unveiled everyday throughout Holy Week. I think that’s why we hear this text today, a week before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week. It’s our preparation for Holy Week. And you know where Holy Week ends, right? At Easter, the empty tomb, the dawn of a new day, and the renewal of life. The single grain has become the Bread of Life.

But you also know that you don’t plant a seed and go back in ten minutes or the next day and see a new sprout. Growth can be slow and the fruit of new life takes time, usually longer than we want it to. Yet, even when unseen, unbelieved, or unrecognized, the power and life of God are present and at work in the depths of our life, in the dark and hidden places. That’s the mystery of life.

“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.”



  1. I so wish I lived in Texas to be able to attend one of your services. But I’m most grateful for technology……your words, wisdom & inspiration bring life changing meaning to my life, right here in Delaware. May God continue to bless you abundantly !

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Maria, thank you for your kind and encouraging words. You are always more than welcome here. Perhaps one day you will get down this way. Until then I will trust that God somehow continues to make us present to one another and bridges the distance between Texas and Delaware. I hope you have a blessed Holy Week.

      Peace be with you,


  2. Jesus has certainly shown me new ways of dying since Brian’s death. It has definitely been the hardest thing I have ever endured. He has been there for me every step of this journey. Through loss there has definitely been renewal for me. I am thankful for the guidance everyday I am allowed to try harder to see the promise that Jesus brought to us through the Easter message. He uses you in ways you could never know to be his voice in my life. Thank you Mike.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Janice, I know you know the secret to life. I’ve watched it happen for you. And yes, it si the hardest thing to endure. I am grateful for your friendship and your example of faithfulness in the midst of loss.

      God’s peace be with you,


  3. Thanks very much Mike. I am working on a Reflection/sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent here in Western Australia (I am a lay preacher in the Uniting Church in Perth) and your thoughts and ways of considering what Jesus wanted to say to his disciples and all of us has given me some further in-depth food for thought and prayer. I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts and considered that it might be refreshing for you to know how far reaching your ministry can extend. May God’s peace be with you, Shelby
    (PS. I shall give credit to you for any quotes or ideas that I incorporate into my own work.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shelby, I am glad the sermon gave you some in-depth food for thought and prayer, and I hope it may help as you prepare your sermon. I am happy for you to use it whatever ways might me meaningful to your congregation.

      Blessings on your preaching and ministry.


  4. Dear Father Mike, Your words gripped my heart. They will be with me for a long time. You hit a spiritual cord within my soul. Thank you. I hope it will be acceptable for me to share it with my Spiritual Director. I will be looking forward to your future Words. Dorothy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dorothy, you are more than welcome to share this post. I’m glad it was meaningful to you. Thank you for letting me know that. I hope the secret that really is no secret reveals to you the new life that is always coming to you.

      God’s peace be with you,


  5. Dear Mike I am a pastor in the Lutheran church here is Pretoria, South Africa I just want to thank you for your work it really helps me in preparing my sermons and lift me up as well. keep up the good work and be blessed

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pastor Obakeng, thank you for your gracious and encouraging words. I m glad the posts are helpful to you and I am grateful to share with you our brotherhood and ministry in Christ. May God bless you, your congregation, and your ministry.

      God’s peace be with you,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: