Sunday, March 17, 2024
The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Dying in order to live

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450

John 12:20-33

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There are several puzzling sections in today’s gospel. Jesus all through the gospel of John has been saying, not yet, it is not my hour.  Philip and Andrew come up to him and tell him that there are some Greeks to see him. Seemingly out of nowhere, instead of saying hello it is nice to see you, Jesus suddenly announces that it is time for him to be glorified!

The signal is the arrival of the Greeks who sought out Phillip and Andrew to get them to introduce them to Jesus. This is the fulfillment of the prophecy that the message would be taken to all and that even the Greeks would seek out the Messiah. The time is right is what Jesus announces in what to many is his puzzling non-sequitur to the statement by Phillip and Andrew that there are people who want to talk to him. Jesus tells us that the time is right, but to do what? He speaks of the wheat seed that must fall into the ground and die. That is where I want to spend some time this morning.

I was at Houston Garden Center the other day getting some plants to replace what we had lost in the freeze. Thinking about planting reminded me of an elementary school biology project that I helped my son Jeffrey with many years ago.  You may remember this type project, I think almost everybody does it at some point and it will help to illustrate what Jesus was talking about.

Jeffrey came home with four seeds in an envelope and instructions on how to plant them.  We filled a Mason jar with potting soil and put the seeds down in the soil right at the edge so that we could see the seed pressed against the side of the jar.  We had several seeds because not every seed would germinate and grow. There is a metaphor in this that we can unpack another time.

As the days went by and Jeffrey remembered to carefully water the seeds and keep the jar in a sunny window, the seeds began to sprout. The seed first sent out a little root and then sent the first shoot up towards the light. I remember one day when he exclaimed, “Hey Dad, look! The seed is shrinking.”  Jeff’s exclamation helps us understand a critical point of the metaphor of today’s gospel.

Jesus states that the seed must fall into the earth and die.  A seed sitting on the shelf doesn’t do anybody any good.  A grain of wheat by itself is useless.  It either needs to be crushed with many more seeds and made into bread or planted to grow into a plant to produce more wheat. No matter what, the seed ceases to be a seed.

In other portions of the gospel and in the writings of Paul, seeds and new growth are metaphors for the resurrection and the flowering of the community.  Jesus in this passage makes the point that first the seed must be crushed, the seed must die, in order to be transformed and grow into the plant that God intended it to be.  Jesus is telling us that he must be crucified and die before the resurrection can occur.  Without a Good Friday there cannot be an Easter. For John however there is so much more than the crucifixion. John writes of not Jesus but Christ, the eternal, cosmic Christ and we must read John’s gospel with that difference in mind. Christ who was and is and is to come.

Seeds don’t really die in the sense that they decay and are ruined.  They do cease to be a seed however.  The sense in which they were a seed does in fact die, but the result is a transformed, living plant that bears fruit. This is all about transformation, but transformation does not come easily or painlessly.

We have heard a lot over the past few weeks from John about this theme of death and life. Just a couple of weeks ago Jesus says those who seek to save their lives will lose it, but those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will save it. Today we have similar words. So what does the metaphor of the seed have to do with this idea?

I once again find myself turning to the words of Thomas Merton. Fr. Merton consistently speaks of what he calls our true self and our false self and how one must be set aside for the other to prosper. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept here is a synopsis and if you want more information I will be happy to have a longer conversation with you.

Time for a little review on this theme. All of us begin life building what he calls the false self. I prefer the term the ego centered self. False is not a negative, it simply means not who we really are as children of God. The false self is who we are as defined by society’s expectations and the pressures of this world. The false self is in fact essential to build or the true self never has a chance to develop. The ego centered self tends to be dualistic seeing the world in other and myself, right and wrong, black and white. The false self seeks to build up status and material belongings because what we own defines who we are for this self. A strong sense of self-esteem is a critical piece of the ego self. However, everything revolves around the ego self. We see this in children and adults who act like children.

At some point though the ego self asks the questions “Is this it? Is this all there is?” This is where the seed metaphor really begins to work. For an answer to the is this all there is question lies in the false or ego self allowing something greater to grow. That is the seed in us that must die.

From the seed of the false self, the true self, the God centered self can begin to emerge. The true self begins to become comfortable with ambiguity. The true self begins to look at the world in a non-dualistic way. The true self can look at other faith traditions and say, well maybe they have part of the answer rather than thinking they are wrong and going to hell. The God centered self looks at the world in an inclusive manner and decides that it is time to get out of the self-satisfied little box and go out in the world and start acting in a selfless manner.

Now this is not an easy transition and the false self, the ego self keeps trying to pull us back. We have all developed a hard shell around our ego selves to protect them because they are fragile. Shedding the shell is not easy, but necessary for growth.

I find the Message translation by Eugene Peterson particularly instructive at this point. In the part just past the reference to the wheat seed Peterson translates the passage like this: “In the same way anyone who holds on to life just as it is, destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal”

We are called to be reckless with our love. Not judging what we do by what we will receive in return for that is the false self speaking, but because being reckless with our love is what God, what Jesus asks us to be. Being reckless in spreading God’s love is what our church is called to be.

There was a meme on Facebook (once in a while they are good) this week. It said, “The gospel does not offer us an escape from the world. It’s not about punching our ticket to heaven. The gospel is an invitation to join God in Healing, saving, and setting the world free with the poser of love.

We are here to share the good news, to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. We are here to be witnesses of the love of Jesus! This is our true calling. When we truly do this, we will not have to worry about filling pews. That will take care of itself. However that requires us, each and every one of us to grow into our true selves, the selves that God has created for us and is waiting for us to become.

Let us pray: Gracious God; plant our seed in the warm soil of your love. Water us with your Spirit and shine the light of your Son on us, so that our seed may be transformed into the fruitful plants to the greater glory of your name.