5th Sunday of Lent
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour. 27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
May this written word lead us to the living word – Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Today marks the beginning of Passiontide where we look at the last weeks of Jesus life in more detail and leads us to his death on Good Friday. We step aside from Marks Gospel into John’s account. To put the text into context, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, had his feet anointed by Mary and had had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was Passover and Jews from all around were congregating in Jerusalem.
The story begins with some Greeks (probably there to celebrate Passover) who ask to see Jesus. A reasonable enough request, flattering even, and encouraging, a sign of interest. So why this strange reply? I suspect Jesus’ next words came as a shock –“24Very 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.”
It is said that there are three things that we shouldn’t talk about. Religion, sex, and politics. I think we do talk about those things but on the whole 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. In general we don’t deal with it. We deny it. We ignore it. We avoid it. The death of someone we love is too real, too painful. Our own death is too scary. Death is not always physical. Sometimes it is spiritual or emotional, in the end of relationships, marriages, hopes, dreams, careers, health, and beliefs. Sometimes these parts of our lives that have died are too difficult to face. so, for the most part, we just avoid the topic of death.
I suspect the Greeks in today’s gospel did not go expecting to talk or hear about death. They just wanted to see Jesus. And who can blame them? Jesus has had a pretty good track record up to this point. He has cleansed the temple, turned water into wine, healed the sick and the leper, fed 5000, given sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead. Of course we know that Jesus was speaking of his own death, but he is also speaking for each one of us. We are called to die to selfishness in order to bear fruit and be his messengers of peace, and sometimes we are called to die to things that may be good in themselves but hinder us on our path to God. Jesus was honest and told them how troubled he was, like any other human being he didn’t want to die, he was only 33 years old.
For grains of wheat to grow their burial is necessary. If we hide the grain in a box it will be useless. Only when it is put in the cold earth will it rise to new life. Only by giving it away into the earth can we receive anything in return. Jesus went on to say: ‘Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’
What is this life that Jesus is referring to that perhaps we hold onto so desperately? It is not just a physical life but our psychological life that he is talking about. The greed for wealth and power, our desires for success, our need to be loved, to be held in esteem, to be always one of the group, to have control, to be the most spiritual member of the church, to be seen as a good person the list is endless. These kinds of passions of life are potentially in each of us to varying degrees and come to the surface at different stages of our life. Jesus is saying if we want to inherit eternal life now we must die to the need for recognition, admiration and power. We are back to the meekness, gentleness and humility we looked at last week and it is never easy.
The Greeks wanted to see Jesus, of course they did and Jesus is at pains to show them who he was, no superstar or idol but a man on death row calling us to follow him.
If we would really see Jesus we must take off our rose-tinted spectacles and see him in his passion. The true Jesus Christ is so often the Church’s best kept secret. If we are honest with ourselves we are sometimes afraid of putting people off. They want to see Jesus, but we are scared to tell them how it is. That Jesus offers a life filled blessings but this is often accompanied by persecution and tribulation. He offers us redemption but for some this might mean suffering. Jesus doesn’t call us to an armchair, but to warfare. Bearing in mind what the world did to Jesus whoever wants to follow him will not escape similar persecution. Jesus did say take up your cross and follow me. On the whole being a Christian in the western world is relatively easy, but it is not so for our brothers and sisters who live under tyrannical regimes who live under threat of persecution torture and sometimes death.
I don’t know why the Greeks wanted to see Jesus but I understand the desire. I want to see Jesus. Don’t you? If you want to know your reasons for wanting to see Jesus look at what you pray for. Is it a ‘to do’ list for God. You probably know the kind of prayers I refer to. Sometimes we want something from Jesus more than we want Jesus himself. Or are our prayers about seeing Jesus at work in those around us, in our church and in our lives?
In just two days from this event 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.
Before we fall into the trap of pointing the finger at the disciple’s behaviour we have to remember that there are always three fingers pointing back at us. In similar circumstances I am sure 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 with ourselves we do sometimes love our life more than our Saviour. When we shy away from speaking about our faith and when we are quiet when we know others need to know and see Jesus, or when we to come to church out of a sense of obligation rather than joy. In those moments of weakness when we haven’t loved God above all things or shared what we know about Him and His love, we need to pray: Lord, forgive me and save me from my unbelief.
In our Alpha course Nicky Gumbell has been talking about what it means to be a Christian. It is not a spectator sport. Being a Christian 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 that is 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’
If we want to see Jesus then we must look death in the face. Be brave enough to ask the question, what is it that I need to put to death? Facing the death of something we really hold dear is some of the most difficult work we ever do, but it is liberating and it is entering into the eternal life we have here and now.
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.
The unspoken fear and avoidance of death underlies all our “what if” questions.” What if I fail, lose, or fall down? What if I get hurt? What if I don’t get what I want? What if I lose that thing 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 asked that God would be glorified. 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.
“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 are willing to go all the way and die to self we will become bearers of fruit and we will see Jesus and more importantly others will see Jesus as well. Amen