I won’t be preaching on this text from John 12 this week, but there is a kernel of sublime truth here worth commenting on. Before we get there, let’s consider the passage from John 12:20-26:
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, a grain of wheat remains as it is unless it falls into the earth and dies; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it into the coming age. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also. If someone serves me, the Father will honor them.
I read the text this way: Some Jewish visitors from Greek colonies at the time of Passover want to see this miracle worker, this sign wielder they’ve heard about named Jesus. People are saying he is the promised one, as he himself has already claimed to be. They expect to see a man of power, a man of promise that will turn the tables on Rome, fulfill God’s promises to Israel and exalt the nation to its promised glory. The disciples seek out Jesus to let him know about the visitors, and Jesus causes all their heads to spin. While both the disciples and the ex-pats expect God’s power and life to be displayed in a dominant way that is more than a match for Caesar and his empire, Jesus holds up a grain of wheat for us to consider.
Listen closely to his explanation: you see this grain of wheat? Yummy, I know. If it stays like it is, it just is. Maybe it will be ground up into some bread and fill our bellies for a bit. Maybe if we match our might to Caesar’s in a holy cause, we will flourish for some time, but we will still abide in the conundrums of our present age. However, if you take this grain and bury it in the soil; if this grain dies there in the ground to what it once was, it will become something greater. It will become a stalk of wheat with a full head of grains, maybe forty or fifty in number. This great increase will both feed and nurture greater, continued life.
Jesus goes on: if you want to know what my words and my very existence is telling you; if you would be my follower, you must be like me. As I will fall to the ground, die and be buried, I will be lifted up and given new life, greater life, abundant life. So, too, must you surrender your life, surrender your grain that is sitting there as it is unto death so that you also may participate in this new, resurrected life. I think Paul in Romans 6:5 hits the nail on the head: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
I think Jesus is revealing to us the single greatest mystery of the Christian faith. To live in Christ is to die to the old, both literally and figuratively. And dying to the old, we abide in him, and he in us. (John 15:4) As we abide in him, we participate in God’s life of fellowship, love and light, proclaiming the Good News to the world. (John 17:21-23) To live in Christ is to lose both our lives and our present way of being, but it is to gain life in the age to come, an age that is now present in him and promised to us in our life as his body here on earth.
Why then, is it, that we, individually and as the church, are so afraid to die? I understand that we all have an instinct of self-preservation. No one wants to run around finding ways to snuff out our lives. Even when it comes to bearing witness to Christ in such a way that our life might be required at the hands of those who persecute us, we ought not seek such opportunities as an escape from life so that we go to heaven when we die as if life didn’t or doesn’t matter. I get it, I do.
At the same time, to be in Christ involves an irreducible mystery that requires us, when the time is right, to die in a way that gives glory to God, casting off what keeps us from full fellowship with God and one another while bearing witness in the world. Consider the condition of many of our churches and their respective judicatories. So much of our time and concern is centered around our property and dwindling numbers and resources, we exhaust ourselves in regards to other possibilities that the Lord may be setting out before us. If we are a people of resurrection, then we ought to be a people willing to embrace dying to what we have been so that we might become who He made us to be!
This lesson, I think, is applicable across many strata of our lives, from our corporate expression as the body of Christ all the way down to our individual lives of faith and participation in Jesus. The death Jesus speaks of isn’t entered into flippantly, so when the opportunities arise, we ought not just “jump in” willy-nilly as if God will support whatever changes we think we intuit as aligned with God’s will. Even Jesus himself agonizes over the death he is asked to die. John 17 is his prayer for us and for himself, a prayer that pleads with God to bring to fruition all that God will do in and through Christ’s faithful surrender.
With that said, I think we will continue to flounder personally and corporately the more we refuse to embrace the death we are asked to die as the church in the present age. Christendom is dead. One view of this mourns the loss as if something precious has gone out of the world. It has not. Instead, I maintain, we are living out the cycle of life, death and resurrection our Lord has called us to, for it is in our dying and our raising that God will be glorified and Christ will be put on display for the whole world to see! “When I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus tells us, “I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
Let this be so in our lives, in our churches and in the world!