A tiny seed.
A seed, by all appearances: nothing more than a speck of wood.
Hidden compactly within the wood is a vast expanse of DNA which can lay dormant for thousands of years. This DNA is triggered with soil and water, it doesn’t even need light!
The seed awakens.
The seed begins to order its environment, the seed takes the dirt and the water and it reconfigures their chemical structure into a plant. When the plant reaches sunlight it uses the light to further reconfigure soil and water into more and more useable resources.
The plant, all under the initial impetus of the seed, flowers and attracts pollinators, which leads to fruit and more seeds: a thousand-fold.
Finally the seeds are shed from the life giving plant, the gentlest breeze sends them off into the world. The many seeds die and lie cold through the winter, and then the Spring comes . . .
Jesus, of course, didn’t simply heave this mini parable upon the crowd, without a context. This is one of the dangers of the lectionary, we might be forgiven for thinking that Jesus commonly springs into figurative language without connection to anything else. Jesus: the divine non-sequitur. In fact, Jesus’ teaching on the seed is something of a crescendo of chapter twelve, which is turning point in the Gospel of John.
John’s gospel is divided into two main sections, the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. The Book of Signs, as you remember, is a collection of seven signs, miracles, of Jesus’ authority, which is his Sonship with God the Father. The first sign is the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and the seventh sign is the raising of Lazarus, which happens at the end of chapter 11, just before today’s reading. After this, we enter the Book of Glory, and it is important to remember that in John, glory is always death, death and resurrection.
So here we are at the beginning of the book of Glory. There are nine more chapters to go in the book, and John throws in Palm Sunday. Right here, in about the middle of John we get Jesus entering Jerusalem and beginning to talk of death, his death, his glorification.
Why does John do that? Why does John take all that triumphal imagery, which the other gospel writers save to ratchet up the tension, and put it smack dab in the middle? Is John a bad story teller? Is he a bad historian? Doesn’t John know the rules of drama: tension, action, climax, and denouement?
Personally I think he does, and very, very well, but the point is that John is doing a different thing from the other gospel writers; John is making a claim about Jesus as lord from before the beginning and throughout all time. There is no messianic secret in John. Jesus knows who he is what he is about, all throughout John.
But it is after Palm Sunday that the Greeks begin to come to Jesus. Seeing this, Jesus says, “Now, it is time for the Son of Man to be glorified.” John is saying, “The world now recognizes Jesus for who he is, and now it is time to finish the Work.”
Thus, Jesus begins his Glorification, but before he dies he teaches about his death and what it means to follow him in light of that death.
Again, “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.”
Now I don’t want to be too specific, or personal to the people in this room who are about to start their seminary careers; but I feel lead to, at least, briefly note that in this parable, Jesus is talking about his own death. Ok? Jesus is talking about his own death. It is not for us to die. And there are lots of ways for us to die, but here, Jesus is talking about his death. I think this is really important to remember, sometimes there are particular actions that are for Jesus only and we enjoy the benefit of those actions. It’s called gratitude.
"But preacher, isn’t one of the themes of the Christian life about giving up ourselves, our souls, and bodies over to God, like Jesus did? After all, today we remember Saint Laurence, who, when demanded by Roman officials to reveal the treasures of the church brought in the homeless, the sick, the widows, and orphans, and declared, 'Here are the treasures of the Church.' For that they killed him, isn’t that how were supposed to be?"
Yes, but I think that witnessing to Christ is what Laurence wanted more than anything, which, in his circumstances, meant witnessing to Christ in his death. Which is why Laurence died to himself, much earlier than he died at the hands of the Imperial torturers. Martyrs don’t seek physical death, martyrs are not spiritual death-wishers. Death is never sought for death’s sake, in Jesus’ death there is great meaning. And all Christians are martyrs, witnesses, to the death and resurrection of Christ. Here, in this parable, Jesus is the seed.
And we are the fruit.
“That’s all well and good preacher, but what about verse 25: Those who love their life lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it in eternal life.”
Alright, since you brought it up. Is Jesus asking us to hate our lives? Is Jesus asking us to hate our lives just so we can have more of what we have hated, but then eternally?
Does not compute; especially when we consider the importance that God places on life and incarnation. There are two key words here life and hate, that need our consideration in their Semitic contexts.
As an aside, you should never use Greek or Hebrew terms in your preaching, it makes you sound pretentious.
The Greek word for life in this text is psuche and the word for hate is misone. Psuche doesn’t simply mean life as in this plane of existence, life as cradle to grave, it means the animating principle, the nephesh, the breath of life. Psuche is equally used for soul throughout the New Testament and other contemporaneous literature.
The problem is our culture, greatly shaped by Greco-Roman culture, but mostly our own fault, that sees a bifurcation in the human person between body and soul. To the Jews of Jesus’ time, there is no such division, life is simply a continuum of being, with Body and Soul being poles along a spectrum, but fundamentally connected and interrelated. Jesus is doing something more here with yuch, than a kind of Gnostic life-hating. Afterall, why would a God who incarnated Himself be so against life?
Misone, hate, as well offers a dilemma when we remove it from its Semitic context. To the ancient Hebrews, their word for hate had more to do with disregard and detachment. In terms of holiness, hate has to do with holding onto something necessary for living but not grasping, lest we fall into that source of all sin: idolatry.
Jesus is saying to hold loosely to this life, this soul. Hold, but do not grasp. Perhaps God chooses not to manhandle us, but only works with that which is held ever so lightly. This might be what Jesus means in when he says the grain must fall and die. Seeds hold on just barely. This is so they can fall off and be of some good. But the seed that holds tightly to the plant, no matter how devoted, ultimately does not serve itself or the plant.
Paul says it well in 2nd Corinthians today, the one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly. The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Can you imagine a sower who grasps the seeds? That’s just a madman out in a field, flailing his arms around.
This brings us to the final verse of today’s reading; it is a trademark Johhanine whirligig of pronouns:
“Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
Right. Almost makes you want to draw a flow chart. But this is the beating-heart of the gospel and it is repeated over and over throughout John. What is means is that when we follow Jesus, we become like him and are identified with God. A daunting proposition to say the least.
But fear not. The acorn does not fear its “oakness.”
And here we come to the conclusion of the sermon and I can think of no other place to go for our new seminarians than advice. And here, I promise, is the only, unsolicited advice that I will give you: Hold lightly what you think you are. Hold lightly what you think you are capable of. Hold lightly your past and credentials.
The Sower stands ready in the field, seeds in hand.