Unless A Grain of Wheat Dies

Lectionary Text:  John 12: 20-36
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very 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. 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. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.  “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. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

The tide has begun to turn.   The palm branches and spilled perfume have turned to talk about death and we wonder how long we can take it.  We live in a world that tries it best to avoid death, either literally or figuratively.  We instead work to be in total control of our lives and of what happens to us.  And so we push death away.  But here Jesus is saying that it is death the brings life, that relinquinshing control and letting go allows the fruit to grow and prosper.  That is totally backwards from what we have figured out our lives should be.  So what, then, does this all mean?

This passage never really made sense to me until I discovered that wheat is a caryopsis.  This means that the single seed of this plant remains joined with the ovary wall.  Together, they form the grain.  In other words, the seed does not remain a seed but rather dies to self and becomes the grain, a true metamorphosis into new life.  In essence, death and life are interconnected, indeed dependent one upon the other.  So, Jesus was using this as a metaphor for what would happen to him and, ultimately, what would happen to us.  Our death and our life are interconnected.  In this life, we find death.  And then in death, we find new life.  Abraham Heschel said that “eternal life does not grow away from us; it is planted within us growing beyond us.” (Sabbath, p. 74)  So, our life, our eternal life has already begun.  It is already part of us.

So, why is this still difficult for us?   I think that it is because when we start talking about death and crosses and dying to self, we have to face our own self in order to do that.  No longer can we be satisfied with a Sunday-only sort of faith.  No longer can we just talk about it.  Dying to self calls for real change, real reflection.  And perhaps change is more painful than death itself.  The cross is the place where our humanity meets the Divine head-on.  There is no holding back.  There is no hiding away.  There is no waiting for a better time.

But we still want some sort of proof.  We still want to see Jesus.  I’m pretty sure that the reason that we don’t see it has more to do with us than with Jesus.  I have many times been on a bus racing across some country with a group of people trying to see as much as I could see–the Highlands of Scotland, the Alps of Austria, the rolling lands north of Moscow, Russia, or the wilderness desert around the Dead Sea.  Well, you get the idea.  You have your own images.  Oftentimes, rather than just sitting and enjoying the whole panoramic view, I have attempted to take pictures of it.  Well you know that it is a near-fact that if you try to snap a picture from a bus of a panoramic view, you will instead get a tree, or a highway sign, or, my favorite, the side of another bus.  It is not because the picture is not there; it is because you are moving too fast to see the whole thing.  When you move too fast, you don’t have enough space through which to encounter God, through which to see Jesus.

Jewish Cemetery near the
Old City of Jerusalem

 Holy Week provides space, space enough to see the Cross, space enough to see the life that comes from death, space enough to let go, space enough to breathe in what God has given us.  But this will not happen unless we slow down enough to let go of that to which we hold so tightly, let go of those things that you think you cannot live without, let go of those things that you are convinced are necessary for life.  Because you know what?  They’re really not.  Life cannot be unless a grain of what dies. 

Our path has taken us through the city and we are getting nearer and nearer to the Cross.  God never promised that we would not experience loss or pain or grief.  They are part of our human existence.  But at the Cross, there is enough space for the human to encounter the Divine.  At the Cross, a very human death becomes new life as the Divine spills onto the seed of our humanity and becomes life.  At the Cross, we will see Jesus.

And then the tide begins to turn
And talk of death ensues
But not just death for death’s dark sake
But death so life won’t lose.
We hear tales of wheat that when it dies
Leaves no seed behind
For the seed itself has died away
To itself bear fruit sublime

So, in this holiest of weeks, let go of that to which you hold, to that thing that you do not think you can live without.

Grace and Peace,


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