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 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.”