(John 12: 20-33)
by Rev. Kathy Itzin
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will remain a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
We know that’s true. If you look at a stalk of wheat, it has lots of kernels on it. I googled it, and apparently, there are 50. If one grain falls to the ground and dies, another stalk sprouts up that will result in 50 more grains, according to the Farm Bureau of Kansas. If you plant one and get 50, that means if you planted 50, you’d get 2,500. If you planted 2,500, you’d end up with 125,000 kernels. At that rate, it wouldn’t take long to have a field, a wheat farm, maybe all of Kansas. You get the picture.
Jesus is giving advice on how to live, but also predicting his own death. He is the grain of wheat, and if he dies, the love, the commitment to God, the dedication to humanity and creation, and all that he stood for, will grow exponentially. And it did. Think of St. Francis, Martin Luther, Zwingli, who started the Reform Movement, Florence Nightingale, Mother Jones, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Pope Francis. Throughout history, men and women have made an enormous difference in society because of their faith.
But, is what he said literally true? Do we need to actually die? Do we all need to become martyrs? Some people in the early church were martyrs, like St. Peter and St. Stephen, and all those early Christians killed by Rome. Some people are called by the God of Love to sacrifice their lives for the greater good even today. Police officers, fire-fighters, and soldiers put their lives on the line. We read about ordinary people jumping into a lake to save someone else, or running into a burning building.
But most of us don’t encounter those situations. What does Jesus mean then, when he says, “Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life?”
First of all, ‘hate’ didn’t mean ‘hate’ like we think of it. It meant more ‘reject’ and in this case, it’s being rejected for something greater. We are choosing the path of love, even though it’s not an easy trip.
Parents do this all the time. So do people who are in love, and committed to another. When we deny ourselves, in order to serve a greater good, that’s what Jesus is talking about. Getting up in the middle of the night to take care of your partner who had surgery, or a baby, or your sick parent, when you really, really want to sleep, that’s part of it. Doing one more thing for someone else, because you know they need it, when you really want to sit down and rest for a minute, that’s part of it. When greater life calls, we need to offer ourselves for service to a greater love. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will remain a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
When Carol was a novice, a young nun, she remembers that there was a sign one of the older nuns had hung up for advice or encouragement for the young ones. It said, “The stripping of self leads to plenty.” The young nuns got quite a charge out of it.
Jesus isn’t talking about hating your body, or hating your life, or hating anything. He’s talking about choosing the greater, stronger love, even when this isn’t what you want right now. It might be putting yourself in situations that are uncomfortable, or even dangerous, because you know that that’s what you need to do now. People who protest. People who take unpopular positions in conversations with their neighbors or families. A few years ago, you may have experienced this in conversations about the right for gays to marry. Now, it might be in discussions about gun violence or immigrants. It is taking a stand for the Common Good, even when it costs us time, money, or popularity.
Jesus says, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”
“World,” and “ruler of this world’ isn’t being used to mean Creation, our world, which God created, and Jesus loves. Here, the word “kosmos” means more the part of the world that is against God’s purposes, the world that lives in estrangement with God. It isn’t even referring to people, but more Systems that surround us, and compete with God’s reality.
Examples would be things like consumerism, domination, racism, sexism, prejudice, and violence. These are systems in the world that are opposed to God. Jesus says, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the rulers of this world will be driven out.”
Because he lived in opposition to all of these with his whole life, And his death – (he didn’t give in to them to save himself in any way), the whole world can see that it’s not the Way of Life. These things are the way of death. And those are the things that Jesus’ death has invalidated. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was betrayed, Peter took off his sword to fight back, Jesus told him to put it away. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword." (Mt. 26:52)
It was like Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement. When white people were going to turn on hoses and release their dogs on unarmed black people, he said, “Let them get their dogs, and let them get the hose, and we will leave them standing before their God and the world spattered with the blood and reeking with the stench of their Negro brothers….to bring these issues to the surface, to bring them out into the open where everyone can see them.” (The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America, p. 157).
Jesus’ life, and his death showed these Systems of death for what they are, and knowing that sets us free from being enticed by them. Now the rulers of this world, these systems, can be driven out. We see, and know, a better Way.