Sermon delivered by Heather Entrekin, pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, K.S., on Mar. 29 2009.
John 12: 20-33
The other day, I was having dinner with some friends at a nice bistro restaurant in Brookside. I ordered one of those crispy, individual pizzas but not with tomato sauce or pepperoni or mozzarella. I ordered a caramelized onion and brie pizza. When it arrived, one of my friends looked at it, looked at me, and said, “You eat strange things.”
The same could be said at the table of the Lord where Jesus invites all who follow him to eat and drink. It might look like bread and wine on that table, or in most Baptist services, grape juice, but Jesus says, “This is my body and my blood, my very self. Eat and drink of it.” This is strange food.
Once a child was coming forward here with her parents to receive communion and as they got close to the table I heard her say, “I don’t want to drink blood.” She had paid attention to the words that are so familiar to many of us that we may not hear them any more.
In John’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples are on the way to the table for the last time though the disciples don’t know that. Jesus tries once more to teach in a way that the disciples can hear. Lent is the season to try to open our ears, along with the first disciples, especially the ears of our hearts, and to struggle with these words.
The words are difficult because they are trying to explain something that is vastly greater than any word can hold or encompass – the Kingdom of God. These are teachings to help us understand what it means to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus is trying to help them understand what it means to live life the way God intended, with God ruling, reigning, rooted in it. What it means to have and to give abundant life.
You can’t do that with just any word so Jesus’ teaching here is full of metaphor, symbol, image, contradiction. It is jarring and confusing, dense and intense.
If you die, you’ll be fruitful.
If you love your life, you’ll lose it.
If you hate your life, you’ll keep it.
If you serve me, you must follow me, even to death.
This lection is hard. Lent is tough. This is not a season for sissies. But the death and resurrection Jesus speaks of in this teaching is central to Christian faith, so we need to struggle with this.
The twelfth chapter of John contains most of what Jesus has to say about his own death in that gospel. He is in Jerusalem during Passover. It is the last week of his life. Greeks have come to town for the festival and approach two disciples with Greek names, Philip and Andrew, and ask to see Jesus.
They are not locals. They are Gentiles who have come a good distance, who have heard even without cell phones or blackberries about this Hebrew holy man. It was a sign to Jesus that his time had come. It was a sign to the authorities that it was their time to get him out of the way. The better known he was the more trouble he was.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus says to the Greeks, the disciples and to the whole crowd standing around. “Honestly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” That’s a fairly gentle agricultural metaphor. It’s an image a gardener can embrace and appreciate. But what does it mean for the way we live our lives?
What Jesus says here is that if we do everything we can to protect our lives the way they are – to prevent conflict, prevent change, prevent pain – then at the end we’ll find out that we had no life at all. We are just a seed on a shelf. But if we hate our lives in this world, meaning hate all the ways we deaden, degrade and dissipate life by grasping comfort, safety, stuff and superiority – stop doing that and reach for God instead, then we’ll taste that abundant life we are so hungry for and we’ll become that abundant life for others.
Two choices. The same choices for Jesus and for us. He could have chosen to stop preaching and teaching in such a confrontational way, toned it down a little. He could have stopped eating with outcasts and started showing more respect for organized religion. He could have lived a longer life and he wouldn’t have had to lose it on a cross. If he loved his life and wanted to save it, that is what he could have done.
But if he loved something more than his life, then it was possible to give it away. That road carries the reality of suffering, not as its purpose but as a consequence. Life lived by the fruits of God’s spirit, values such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, kindness and self control, do not tend to be highly esteemed in our culture. These are not the virtues that earn million dollar bonues.
But this is not suffering for suffering’s sake – a message we got from a certain movie by Mel Gibson a couple of years ago. Note that there is suffering that has nothing to do with the gospel – genocide, famine, torture, incest. People who endure suffering like that have no choice and no one should have to endure it.
The only kind of suffering we are talking about is the kind Jesus chose – not as his goal, but as a by-product of his goal, which was to be fully who God had created him to be, no matter what it cost (Barbara Brown Taylor, Teaching Sermons on Suffering, 63). His goal was to obey the one and only commandment that matters in the end – to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor, which includes your enemy, as yourself.
One risks many kinds of death when one lives according to God’s commandment. Harry Bingham did. He was an American diplomat in France in the 1940s. Born to wealth and privilege, a great grandson of Charles Tiffany and son of a U.S. Senator, Bingham attended the best schools and had all the best opportunities.
But when he became a low-ranking diplomat in Marseilles as World War II approached, he discovered that his compassion and care for Jews trying to escape the Nazis was in conflict with American immigration rules and policies. He challenged the indifference and anti-Semitism of his State Department superiors. He sped up visa and travel documents at the consulate and disobeyed orders from Washington and thereby enabled 2,500 refugees to flee to safety in 10 months. And then he was summarily transferred out of France and all his hopes of becoming an ambassador some day were destroyed. He never had a career after that that amounted to much. (Peter Eisner, “Bingham’s List, Smithsonian, March 2009, 52)
A grain of wheat cannot grow unless it dies, Jesus said. You could be one spectacular grain of wheat if you choose, if your purpose in life is personal success, an impressive list of activities under your yearbook picture, a million dollar bonus, a spot on American Idol. You could be one gorgeous, fantastic specimen of a kernel of wheat, the very epitome of wheatiness. But unless you find a way to die to all that by offering yourself to others, giving and loving as Jesus does, you will never be bread. You will never feed anybody, not even yourself.
According to John, Jesus died to fill the world with wheat, with so many beloved daughters and sons of God that no one would ever be hungry again.
Henri Nouwen writes, “Our life itself is the greatest gift to give” (Life of the Beloved, 90). Not so much what we can do, but who we are, who we can be for one another. It is when we eat together, put down our weapons and pick up the bread and break it, that we most beautifully express our desire to be given to one another.
My friend, Chaplain Lee Rader at the Topeka Correctional Institution for Women, told how it happened at the prison the other day. They have a policy that allows prisoners the privilege of attending the worship services of their particular faith, once, twice or more a month depending upon their security level. Native Americans have a smudging ceremony where sage and other herbs are burned and the smoke swished around with a feather. After that, they have a big fry bread dinner.
Suddenly, a large number of inmates have declared themselves to be Native American. They like to get out. They like the smudging ceremony. When the smoking sage comes around, they stick their noses right in it and inhale. And they really like the fry bread and honey.
Lee objected to the dishonesty and the disrespect, to this way of manipulating the system for free time, free food and a free smoke. But when she expressed her objections in a planning meeting with the real Native Americans, one woman, imprisoned for murder, said, “But it’s our tradition to include everybody. And the fry bread is really good. I want everybody to enjoy it.”
So Lee let something die – pride, ego, control. Something happened that would not have been possible if she had not been willing to let that part of her fall to the ground. Everybody came to the table where Jesus could say, take it and eat, beloved children of God.