Saturday, April 01, 2006

A grain of wheat

Note: In writing this sermon, I used as a starting point a sermon by Bruce Prewer entitled ‘One Buried Grain’, which is published on his web-site at  Some of the words, and many of the ideas, from Bruce’s sermon, have found their way into mine!

Rev’d Evan


This has got to be the smallest parable of the lot – so obvious, it hardly needs any explanation.  Grains of wheat are ploughed into the ground, you plant beans or peas in your vege garden. They are buried, and covered over.  They look like they’re dead and buried.  I remember as a child planting some wheat out in the backyard.  It took an act of faith, and it seemed like a miracle when, weeks later, little green shoots appeared, and I remember the excitement as the plants grew up and matured.  For a little boy, this was an amazing discovery.  From a few seeds I had a whole patch of wheat growing, and new seed heads forming.  You just put a few seeds in the ground and you get a whole pile of wheat!  Why doesn’t everyone do that?

So the weeks of Lent are coming to an end, today is the last of the Sundays in Lent, and next Sunday is Passion Sunday.  By now the disciplines of Lent are kicking in, if you decided to give something up, or if you took on an extra spiritual discipline, you begin to realise that we’re getting towards the serious end.  We find ourselves reading in church the passages that show us Jesus reflecting on the meaning of his own death, Jesus’ obscure invitation for us to follow in his footsteps, to die with him in order that we might live with him.

I sometimes reflect that we’re in the right place, in the Southern Hemisphere, for the moral seriousness of Holy Week.  In the Northern Hemisphere, of course, the light is growing, in fact the word ‘Lent’ itself comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word for spring – the lengthening days – here in Australia the last days of Lent coincide with the first chill of autumn and the realisation that the days are getting shorter.

Autumn is the season for planting wheat.  You plough and plant and then the seed lies quietly while the winter rains nourish the soil, and you wait for spring.  We understand this of course as Jesus referring to the meaning of his own death, to his resurrection from the dead in which as believers we see God’s promise of our own eternal life.  And in these final weeks of Lent, as the weather cools down and the sky turns grey, we find ourselves wondering what it all means.  This death, that Jesus must have realised was only the logical outcome for a prophet who takes the foolhardy leap from small-town popularity and success in Galilee into the dangerous undercurrents of political power in Jerusalem – what does it mean and what does it really accomplish?  What’s the bumper crop that this obscure grain of wheat is going to yield?  Is the significance of Jesus’ death simply that three days later he is going to be seen alive again?  Giving birth to a religion that promises eternal life to us as well, if we believe?  Is the meaning of all of this confined to a two thousand year-old story that we can either believe or disbelieve?

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.

Loss is gain. Death becomes life.  It is a paradoxical truth which for Jesus, as he works out the meaning of his own life, and chooses to live in obedience to the will of the one he calls his Father, is carrying him forward to the ultimate paradox of disgrace and humiliating death that contains the seeds of new life.  It’s also, I believe, a truth about us, an unalterable fact of human life.

This is what Jesus tells us: protect your life and it will shrink.  Give it up and it will expand.  It’s the truth that we celebrate, in the Eucharist, every single week, and it’s the central truth about our own personal lives as well.

It’s not an easy message to hear.  Jesus has got other messages that are a lot more pleasant.  The bit about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, the message that God counts every single hair of our heads, that’s a lot more reassuring.  We don’t like this talk about having to shrink, to contract, to give stuff up, we don’t like the sort of talk about having to be buried in the earth before we can start to really live.  We find it easier to interpret that sort of talk as a metaphor about what happens after our own physical deaths, about the promise of the next life in God’s heavenly kingdom.  But Jesus never confines his talk about God’s kingdom to the next world, the transformation he promises and the demands he makes always begin in the here and now. 

It’s not surprising that we don’t like this talk of dying and being buried. The world we live in gives us a different message, one that’s 100% opposite: ‘Save your life, protect yourself, pamper yourself.  Spoil yourself with all your energy and all your resources.  Don’t make yourself vulnerable.  Look after your own interests.’  That’s the gospel according to New Idea, the message of TV advertising.  ‘Spoil yourself.  Accumulate all the comforts and pleasures you can afford.  Because you’re worth it.’

There’s an image of Jesus that I think does a lot of damage, and I call it the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ image.  This image of Jesus makes him look so other-worldly, so goody-goody and ethereal, that he’s not much use to real men and women living in the real world.  Fortunately, that’s not the image of Jesus we get if we read the gospels – there we see a Jesus who loves to eat and drink with his friends, who needs human company, who has a sense of humour – a real flesh and blood Jesus who loves life and lives it to the full.  That’s why we need to sit up and take notice when he starts talking about the need for us to die in order that we can start to live.  Because this Jesus is a realist, and what this Jesus wants is for us to start living realistically, for us to reject the false gospel that our world holds out to us and discover a truth that is harder, deeper, and more enduring.

This is the way to live, Jesus assures us – leave the immature and egotistical stuff behind, stop holding on so tightly to your precious grain of wheat, take the risk of letting go of everything that seems so precious, and discover an abundant quality of life that’s more all the ‘me-first’ promises of this world lumped together.

Share your life, give of yourself, don’t keep anything in reserve.  And the life you get back in return, the life you find yourself sharing and giving, will blow your old life out of the water.  The deaths that Jesus asks us to die are the countless little deaths of learning to live selflessly in our relationships with the people we love, in our relationships with the people we find difficulty in loving.  According to Jesus, the meaning of your life and mine is the cross, and it’s a meaning that gets revealed in us not just after we die but in how we live, not for ourselves, but for others.

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s easy.  Long before he gets to Jerusalem, Jesus learns that being vulnerable and living for others is anything but a soft option.  Welcomed in some towns, hounded out of others, misunderstood, surrounded by people who saw in him a way to achieve their own ambitions, pursued by others who saw him as a threat.

And the closer he gets to Jerusalem, the harder it gets.  The story we read this morning maybe reveals some of the emotional turmoil for Jesus in those final days – some foreigners in Jerusalem for the festival have heard about Jesus and they want to meet with him.  Is this a temptation for Jesus to turn aside from his hard destiny.  What do they want?  What have they got to offer?  Be sensible!  Why lose your life in hard-hearted Jerusalem, when you’ve got an international reputation, when others want to hear your good news? 

Jesus isn’t one for taking the soft options though, and we know what happens next.  And it’s when we listen carefully to what Jesus himself says about his own destiny, that we begin to understand what his death might mean for us.  In John’s gospel we don’t hear anything about Jesus dying for our sins, but we do hear a lot about relationship – the life-giving relationship God has with us, and the life-giving relationships we have with one another.  Jesus’ death is both necessary and life-giving because out of it a new community is going to be formed – a community of people who understand the meaning of their own lives – and the meaning of their relationships with one another – not in terms of competition and self-fulfilment, but in terms of Jesus self-sacrificing love.

And that community is us.  That’s the Church, the true resurrection body of Christ.  The meaning of the cross is worked out in my life and in yours, the unlikely fruit that has sprung up from the single grain that Jesus lets fall into the earth is us.