Unless … – A Sermon On John 12:20-33

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B – John 12:20-33

“Unless a grain of wheat ….”

Last week I spoke with you about the contradictions in our lives, the many ways in which we contradict ourselves through our thoughts, words, and actions. Today I want to talk with you about the conditionals in our lives, the “unlesses” with which we live. I don’t know if “unlesses” is a real word but I am using it as one today. It’s a noun and the plural of unless. 

We all have our “unlesses.” They are lenses through which we see. They are the restrictions, limitations, and conditions that shape and inform our relationships and understanding of each other, Jesus, and ourselves.

Let me give you some examples of the “unlesses” that I’ve either heard from others or lived with in my life.

  • Unless I behave, do what the Church teaches, and believe in Jesus as my savior I won’t go to heaven.
  • Unless he apologizes, admits he was wrong, and changes his ways I won’t forgive him. 
  • Unless new members are joining the church, attendance and giving are going up, and people are happy I’m not a good priest. 
  • Unless you look, act, worship, believe, and vote like me you are a threat to me, and you are wrong. 
  • Unless I am busy, productive, and successful I’m a lazy nobody. 
  • Unless Jesus heals my daughter, raises my son from the dead, and fixes my problems I won’t believe. 
  • Unless my prayer is answered either I don’t have enough faith or God is absent. 
  • Unless I hold it all together, meet expectations, and keep smiling something is wrong with me.
  • Unless everything is ok in my life nothing is ok in my life.

Now it’s your turn. What are some of the “unlesses” in your life? Let’s try a fill in the blank exercise. Finish these sentences:

  • Unless I _____. 
  • Unless my life _____. 
  • Unless he or she _____. 
  • Unless Jesus _____.

Here’s why I think our “unlesses” matter. Jesus makes an “unless” the turning point in today’s gospel (John 12:20-33) about the Greeks who want to see him. “Unlesses,” for Jesus, are about seeing.

Some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip told Andrew and then the two of them told Jesus.

I wonder why they want to see Jesus. What do you imagine is going on? Do they want to see the guy who raised Lazarus from the dead? Have they heard about Jesus feeding the 5000, cleansing the temple, turning water into wine? Do they want something like that for themselves? Are they just curious? Are they fans of Jesus Christ the Superstar? Do they want something from him? Or do they want his way, life, and truth in their lives? What are their “unlesses” to seeing Jesus? 

We might ask ourselves those same questions. Haven’t there been times you wanted to see Jesus? Maybe that’s what you want today. Maybe that’s why you came here this morning. What’s your unless for seeing Jesus today?

Today’s gospel doesn’t answer my questions concerning the Greeks, reveal their motives or desires for wanting to see Jesus, or say whether they ever did see him. All we have is Jesus’ answer to their request, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

If that’s his answer then seeing Jesus means something other than what I’m usually looking for when I say I want to see him. Maybe that’s true for you as well. Jesus doesn’t come out and introduce himself, perform a miracle, or preach a sermon. “Unless …,” he says.

What if that unless statement about the grain of wheat is describing the way, the means, the process of seeing Jesus? Maybe we see Jesus in ourselves, others, the world every time we recognize and participate in the enlarging of life and the bearing of much fruit. What if seeing Jesus is less about the messenger and more about the message? What if seeing Jesus is less about looking at what the historical figure did and said, and more about experiencing the life he embodied and symbolizes today? What if seeing Jesus isn’t about the spectacular that happens around us but about a rhythm of dying and rising within us?

Maybe Jesus is saying that unless we are like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth, dies, and bears much fruit, we will never see him. Maybe we only ever see him in the letting go that bears much fruit. And maybe to look anywhere else is to look in the wrong places and miss him.

Over and over Jesus uses these kind of unless statements to open our eyes:

  • “Very truly, I tell you, unless someone is born again/from above he or she is not able to see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
  • “Very truly, I tell you, unless someone is born of water and sprit he or she is not able to enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
  • “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (John 6.53).
  • “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (John 8:24).
  • “Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’” (John 13:8).
  • “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).

We could think of these as the true “unlesses” in our lives. They point us to life and more life, reorient the direction of our lives, show us what nourishes and feed life, and frees us from the past. They are a map for the soul. These unless statements stand in contrast to the false “unlesses” with which we live.

Our false “unlesses” are ways by which were try to stay in control, create security, or rule others. They maintain boundaries between who is in and who is out. They blind us to who Jesus really is and who he wants to be in our lives. Ultimately, they turn life and faith into a transaction. They leave no room for faith, grace, or growth.

Jesus was meeting the false “unlesses” of our lives when:

  • He said to the royal official and the Galileans around him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4.48).
  • He heard Thomas say, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20.25).

Unless is the hinge around which we either see or do not see Jesus. And Jesus is the lens through which we are to see ourselves, one another, the world.  

What are the “unlesses” in your life today? What “unlesses” have your brought with you this morning?

In what ways are they narrowing your vision and making your world small? In what ways are they broadening your vision and enlarging your world? In what ways are they enriching or impoverishing your life and relationships? In what ways are they focusing or distorting your seeing Jesus, others, yourself? 

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

“Unless….”

9 thoughts on “Unless … – A Sermon On John 12:20-33

  1. Reblogged this on martina2b and commented:

    This is a beautiful and compelling reflection on the word “unless”. Where we put conditions and blocks to faith and to personally bending our will to try to do the will of the One who created us.

    Like

  2. My wife is in an In-between space as I write. She is literally in-between living and dying. I have been throwing some loud, demanding and angry thoughts at Jesus and your reflection stopped me. What came in the quiet was the thought that unless I keep trying to let go of wanting my will, my way for my sweetheart, I will probably miss the glory of what Jesus is doing in our lives now. Letting go is always challenging and this particular letting go is the hardest I have ever faced. Life in and with Christ is an every moment of our lives task. Thank you again, Fr. Michael, I’m trying.

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    1. Francis, my heart breaks for you and your wife. I am so sorry. I hear in your words deep love and grief. Some “unlesses” ask more of us than we want to give or feel capable of giving. They trouble the soul as Jesus states in this gospel story. I will remember you all in my prayers.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

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