Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12:20-33

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. 

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts,  be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

At the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the world was introduced to a 22-year-old poet, Amanda Gorman. Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” delivered with such poise and passion, launched her into the spotlight of fame. Sitting just feet away from her that day was former First Lady Michelle Obama. In the February 18/February 23, 2021 issue of Time magazine, Ms. Obama interviewed Amanda Gorman about that day and about her work. At one point Former First Lady Obama asked Amanda about the influence art can have on social change. 

Ms. Gorman answered “Absolutely. Poetry and language are often at the heartbeat of movements of change.” She noted how words and images can convey meaning. She then recalled how at a Black Lives Matter rally she saw a banner that read, “They buried us but they didn’t know we were seeds.” The image that those words conveyed touched Ms. Gorman very deeply.

From small beginnings, when things look at their worst, great things can arise and grow and bear much fruit. In many ways Ms. Gorman was correct. Women won the right to vote after many thought the movement was dead and buried. Same with the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the LGBTQIA movement, and many others. Many of those who worked for the above rights never saw the fruits of their labors, but, unknown to them, they were the seeds that bore fruit many years later.

This week’s gospel begins in a curious way. Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem anticipating the Passover feast. Some Greeks are also in the city and finding Philip, a follower of Jesus, they ask to see Jesus. However, notice that Jesus never goes to see the Greeks nor does Jesus invite them to come to him. Instead Jesus sees this request from the Greeks as a sign that his hour has come to be crucified and to die.

Then Jesus creates a very interesting image: “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.” This image only makes sense when we know that Jesus is in Jerusalem for the last time. Within days he will be arrested, tried, crucified, and will die. Jesus is the grain and the cross is the instrument that places Jesus in the earth.

But we also know what happens three days after that. Jesus rises from the dead and you and I become the fruit of that grain dying and rising. The fruit we bear is the proclamation of the gospel, the announcement of God’s grace and salvation and service to others that Jesus has shown in his service to us. Jesus is telling the truth; as we lose our lives in service to others we find it. We see that real power lies in giving it to others, that we are leaders when we become servants to others. This is the fruit we bear because Jesus became that grain of wheat laid in the earth. He rose to become the mighty branch from which we live, and move and have our being.

But there is more. In our baptism we proclaim that we also die with Jesus and rise to newness of life. In that way, we are also seeds…seeds which bring forth peace, justice, love. Every act of love, mercy and forgiveness, however small, can be a seed of change in the world. We might never see the fruit of the seed we plant, but we trust that God will cause it to grow and bear fruit. We are both fruits of Jesus’ grain of wheat and seeds in our own right. 

If we’re being honest though, most people want to affiliate with a winner. We want to be on the “right” side of any argument, and we want to have the corner on the market of truth—even if we have to craft our own version of it to be palatable. This is nothing new. Remember Peter rebuking Jesus for saying he was going to suffer and die? Jesus continues to speak plainly about his future and his ministry, both to those gathered around him on this particular day recounted in John’s gospel and also to all of us today. Yes, Jesus Christ is irresistible, but only for those seeking something real, lasting, and marked by love.

Jesus is the one who reminds us that discipleship is an all-in commitment. To bear good fruit we have to die to self, at minimum, and may be called upon to give our life for the sake of the gospel. My friends, following Jesus will shake you up. In fact, it will change your life in an eternally better sort of way.

Yes, what we have in Jesus Christ is an irresistible Messiah, one who has promised to draw all people to himself. So tell me, dear friends:

  • Do you find Jesus irresistible? 
  • Has he opened your eyes, heart, and mind to new possibilities and ways of being? 
  • Will you follow him no matter what or where? 

If you answered “yes,” then you have found what is truly irresistible. Hold on to the hem of Jesus’ garment, and get ready for an amazing ride that will never end.

We have, unfortunately, been schooled through the years to think that “being seeds” and “spreading seeds” is just a part of that nasty E-word. In other cirles it’s just called Evangelism. And evangelism has been presented often as a zero sum game in which a soul is either won or lost. Other religions are frequently viewed as competitors. Evangelism is seen as a contest for market share, rather than just sharing God’s love through Jesus. 

The endgame is usually just seen as conversion to Christianity with a repudiation of what has gone before. Where that is the prevailing assumption, it is hard for non-Christians to see missionaries, however courteously, respectfully and tactfully they may present themselves, as anything other than invaders intent on destroying their faith, to say nothing of imposing upon them a lot of unwanted cultural baggage. But what if being “drawn” to Jesus does not necessarily imply conversion to Christianity? 

  • What if mission work includes helping Muslims be better Muslims? 
  • Buddhists better Buddhists? 
  • Conversely, an openness to other religious traditions enriches our own worship, witness and practice. 

Witness the profound effect Buddhism has had for contemplative Christians like Thomas Merton and Rowen Williams. For me no Christian theologian has ever helped me appreciate the full implications of the Incarnation as did Jewish author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who was introduced to me by a Jewish friend over spaghetti dinner.

By no means do I object to conversion, as long as it does not involve coercion or intense mmanipulation. Many of my friends in Christ have been “evangelized,” that is, drawn to Jesus and his church’s ministry along a path leading away from prior faith commitments or from having no faith at all. But I am not convinced that evangelism is a zero sum game with conversion to Christianity as the sole objective. I believe that Jesus has much to offer adherents of other faith traditions and that these traditions offer Christians fresh perspectives with which to understand our own faith. I don’t believe we must choose between rejecting or devaluing the faiths of others on the one hand or watering down all faiths to some trite common denominator on the other. 

I personaly believe we have all been called, in some way, to spread the seeds of faith by “speaking of what we have seen and heard,” “telling the old, old story of Jesus and his love,” and showing God’s love in Word & Deed. We plant the seeds, the Holy Spirit brings the water and Jesus can be trusted to draw all people to himself in his own good time, in his own good way and on his own good terms.

We are products of seeds of faith being scattered, and as we grow we are to spread seeds of faith also.