Daring to look at death
"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies. . ."
5th Sunday of Lent John 12:20-33.
They say there are three things that cannot be talked about. Religion, sex, and politics. I think they are wrong. We do talk about those things. We just do it really badly. There is, however, something we do not talk about. Death. Yes, we acknowledge death when it happens but for the most part we do not talk about death with any real depth or substance, and certainly with no enthusiasm. We don’t deal with it. We deny it. We ignore it. We avoid it, understandably as no one wants to die.
We don’t really acknowledge, talk about, and deal with death at all well, especially in the western world. The death of a loved one is too real, too painful. Our own death is too scary. The relationships and parts of our lives that have died are too difficult. So, for the most part, we just avoid the topic of death. Besides it’s a downer in a culture that mostly wants to be happy, feel good, and avoid difficult realities.
I suspect the Greeks in today’s gospel did not go expecting to talk or hear about death. They just want to see Jesus. And who can blame them? Jesus has a pretty good track record up to this point. He has cleansed the temple, turned water into wine, healed a little boy, fed 5000, given sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead. I don’t know why they wanted to see Jesus but I know the desire. I want to see Jesus. Don’t you? Seeing Jesus makes it all real. After all, seeing, they say, is believing. We all have our reasons for wanting to see Jesus.
If you want to know your reasons for wanting to see Jesus look at what you pray for. It is often a ‘to do’ list for God. I remember, as a little girl, praying that I would get bicycle – I got a scooter. Later it was help in school. Then it was to pass the exams. When my life became a mess I prayed that God would fix it for me.
You probably know those kind of prayers. We want to see Jesus on our terms. Sometimes we want something from Jesus more than we want Jesus himself. In just two days, the disciples are all going to show that they love their earthly lives more than Jesus and more than eternal life. Judas will hand Jesus over for a bag of money; the rest of the disciples will flee from Jesus when he, outwardly, would seem to need them the most. Peter himself will deny even knowing Jesus three times before the sun rose or the rooster crowed. The disciples will all show just how selfish they were, and Jesus warns that such attitudes will cause people to lose their life—that is, lose the eternal life he’d given to them.
We can be selfish too, can’t we? If we’re honest, we could easily see ourselves taking the role of just about any of the disciples in that scene in the Garden of Gethsemane or the Temple courts. I could be betrayer; denier; abandoner.
If we are honest we do sometimes love our life more than our Saviour. We shy away from speaking about our faith; we are quiet when we know others need to know and see Jesus. Sometimes we neglect coming to church or come out of a sense of obligation rather than joy. In those moments we say in our hearts, “I do not wish to see Jesus.”
Lord, save us from our unbelief! We are so weak and so likely to love our lives more than we love you. But here is why we need to see Jesus. Because we have failed, because we have been selfish, we haven’t loved God above all things or shared what we know about Him and His love. Christianity, as we know is not a buffet or a spectator sport. Christianity means participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is what Jesus sets before the Greeks who want to see him – and the challenge for us this morning.
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. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
If we want to see Jesus then we must look death in the face. Really looking at, acknowledging, and facing death is some of the most difficult work we ever do. It is, as Jesus describes, soul troubling. It shakes us to the core.
Soon it will be Holy Week and there is a temptation to want to skip over the death bit and get to the resurrection of Easter day. So it is no coincidence that this week the Church points us towards Holy Week so that we can begin to think seriously about our commitment and our faith.
Death is not always physical. Sometimes it is spiritual or emotional. There are thousands of deaths every day in the end of relationships, marriages, hopes, dreams, careers, health, beliefs. Regardless of what it looks like, this is not the end. Resurrection is always hidden in there somewhere.
The unspoken fear and avoidance of death underlies all our “what if” questions.” What if I fail, lose, and fall down? What if I get hurt? What if I don’t get what I want? What if I lose that one I most need and love? Every “what if” question keeps us from being the person God calls us to be.
Jesus did not ask to be saved from death. He knew that in God’s world strength is found in weakness, victory looks like defeat. This is what allowed him to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, a city that will condemn and kill him. That is what allows us to ride triumphantly through life.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies.”
Ultimately, if we entrust all that we are and all that we have to God. We let ourselves be lifted up in Christ’s crucifixion, lifted up in his resurrection, lifted up in his ascension into heaven.
Grains of wheat. That is what we are but if we go all the way and die to self we will become bearers of fruit and we will see Jesus.