John 12: 20-33

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 wish 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, 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27 “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. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

In this text, we don’t actually know if the Greeks asking to see Jesus actually got to see him. What mattered was their seeking him.  They reflected the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 56 that promises:  “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”  Jesus attracted people far and wide—people who were outside the chosen ones—and he gathered them to himself.  Jesus becomes the meeting place where humans encounter the divine.  They did not come to the Holy Mountain or to the temple.  They came to see Jesus.   This preemption of long standing assumptions and the challenge to long held privilege was the unacceptable threat that finally led to Jesus’ crucifixion.  Up until now, Jesus had been measured, even secretive (Tell no one…) but with the announcement that even Greeks sought him (the sign of the chosen one), he says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” 

The ‘hour’ is the point in time that secular and religious authority sought to eliminate Jesus’ way by killing him.  Throughout John’s gospel, John has been trying to answer the question “Who is Jesus?”  There have been multiple signs to indicate Jesus’ message and his standing as the Son of God.  Now is Jerusalem, Jesus doubles down.  We have already discussed his promise of eternal life but now Jesus describes (again) what that will mean.  Jesus contrasts the spiritual life that transcends the secular life of this world.  Jesus says that a life whose main goal is to protect self and to preserve what we know is short sighted and ultimately empty.  Life has meaning when we add to life—otherwise it is a life wasted.  Then comes the most difficult paradox, adding to life means giving up our lives.  Gaining the life that ultimately matters means giving up the life we know. Jesus illustrates his point saying:  “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.” 

Seeds have very little value as independent entities but if planted, they are transformed and become fruit— and the source of many seeds. But, unfortunately, no matter how desirable this transformation might be, it entails giving up what we know for a promise. As long as we are in a cool dry place, we can live as individual seeds for a very long time.  But until we ‘die’—until we are transformed, we will not add to life. That turns out to be very difficult to do in real life.  

Jesus says: “Those who love their life lose it…”, he is reminding us that, as much as we would wish otherwise,  there is much in life we cannot control or manage.  There are many aspects of life, large and small, that we must give up, lose or die to in order to find life. Most of us have an idea of the ‘good life’. A dear friend of mine told me that she knew her life had changed when she could not flirt her way out of a ticket.  The world values a young attractive life—but we don’t get to keep such a life.  Exercise and cosmetic surgery cannot stop our aging.  If we try to hold on to the life of this world (young and attractive), we will fail and likely will lose the life we have; left to depression.  

In FIRL, we heard the story of a young pregnant woman who sought to avoid the potential embarrassment of her water breaking in a public place.  When she entered a grocery store, she went first to the pickle aisle and picked up a jar of pickles.  In the event her water broke while in the store, her plan was to throw the pickle jar to the floor to ‘explain’ what was happening.  (I have no idea if she carried a pickle jar in other public places.) While I admire her ingenuity, all of us will be embarrassed in real life.  No amount of creative thinking, good behavior or obedience can protect us from ordinary fallibility. Yet most of us put enormous energy trying to maintain an image that is impossible to sustain.  

God is working in our lives to transform us. God is calling us to reject the ways of the world that routinely judge and rank one another—and turn instead toward Jesus’ way  (”….and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” ).  Jesus is not talking about hating life.  He wants us to have life but he wants us to reject the life that leads to dead ends. Jesus is talking about facing life as it is and ourselves as we are—in order to discover God’s love. 

Easier to say than to do.   Ron Johnson commented that it sometimes feels like there is something inside of him that works against his self interest.  John writes about this as the ‘ruler of this world.” The “ruler of this world “ would have us believe that life is found in managing our life, being self sufficient and masking our vulnerability. We are tempted to believe that our intelligence and diligence is sufficient.  We are tempted to numb or deny the evidence that life can overwhelm us.  And/or we are tempted to sink into complete despair.  In each case, when we succumb to these temptations, we fail to rely upon God. We can not imagine a life beyond what we know.   So we live worldly lives based upon scarcity and self protection.  We live our lives in hiding, inside our protective covering and afraid to be fully known.   

God is calling us outside of ourselves.  We are promised that we will be safe with God no matter what happens to us but that is a big promise and a big ask.  But a seed must break out of its protective covering in order to bear fruit.  A caterpillar’s body must literally turn to mush in order to become a butterfly. The way to life is to trust that we can live through such changes—that contrary to our most visceral feelings, the cross shows us the way.  Jesus inverts human values and is glorified upon the cross.  

In real life many of us are quite content to remain seeds—bundles of unrealized potential. The cross is a message that was hard to hear in his day and is hard to hear in ours.  New life, eternal life requires a period of darkness, if not death.  We must give up what we think we know. Every so-called weakness we have can be used for good.  Every so called strength can be overdone and isolate us.  But we can not learn that unless we give up our protective covering and see how God can use what is within us.  

The pandemic is changing us and it is frightening.  As a worshiping community, we cannot foresee what we will become.  All we can be sure of is that we cannot stay the same.  Returning to “normal” will happen but it will not be the normal we used to know.  The cross promises that God will be with us, no matter how difficult the future looks.  And the cross promises that there are possibilities beyond our imagining.  

We’ve been told the promise.  We’ve been shown the way.  Grant us the courage to live into God’s love.  It is not the way of the world.  Let it be so.