Primary Text (Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B): John 12:20-33
I’ve got a secret for you! It’s actually, I think, the secret to a life well lived – or, at least, part of that secret. But, before I tell you the secret, I want to share a story.
When I was a young child (perhaps three or four) I remember getting hopelessly stuck! I didn’t fall down a well or anything as dramatic as that but I did get stuck. And I did what most small children do when they get themselves stuck: I called out, “I’m stuck.” The first person I found was my brother. He was not much older than I; but, there I was standing with my hand immutably stuck in great-grandma’s old vase. My brother pulled and pulled on that vase but realized, as I screamed in pain, that it wasn’t coming off. My father came in, cool as a cucumber (undoubtedly bearing a bemused smirk on his face). He used warm soapy water to try to loosen the hand. When soap didn’t work he reached for the butter, then the WD-40.
Just then, my mother arrived home and saw the commotion. “Mommy I’m stuck,” I said with a mix of amusement and panic. She sat down, and as I climbed up on her lap asked, “How in the world did this happen?” “Well,” I tried to explain, “I dropped a piece of candy in the jar to see if I could see the very bottom. I couldn’t, so I reached in to get the candy back.” “Hmmm!? Honey, tell me the truth. Do you still have a hold of that candy?” “Hmm, humm,” was all I could muster, fearing I might lose my candy. “Let it go, honey. Let it go.” Sure enough, the vase slipped right off.
That’s right: I had my very own “South Indian Monkey Trap” experience. The trap, as described by Robert Pirsig in his sensibly eccentric, yet preposterously wise philosophical treatise, Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “consists of a hollowed-out coconut, chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole”. The monkey’s hand fits through the hole, but his clenched fist can’t fit back out. “The monkey is suddenly trapped.” But, like the monkey, I was not really trapped by anything physical. I was trapped by an idea, unable to see beyond the ingrained: “when you see rice (or candy), hold on tight!”
WE WISH TO SEE JESUS
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus!” I don’t know exactly why those Greeks wanted to see Jesus but I have a suspicion. He had just “cleansed” the Temple, an event likely occurring in the Court of the Gentiles; so, maybe, those Greeks had seen Jesus’ profound prophetic act of overturning the tables of the money-changers and driving out the animal sellers. Jesus’ reputation, though, had certainly preceded him on a number of accounts: He healed the royal official’s son, the paralytic, and the man with the withered hand. He restored sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and mobility to the lame. He drove out Legion from the Gerasene. He fed five thousand with five loaves and two fish, and four thousand with seven loaves. He walked on water and calmed the storm. And with the words Talitha cum he restored the girl to life.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Yeah!!? So do I! Don’t you?
So Philip tells Andrew about the Greeks and their request, and together they tell Jesus.
A GRAIN OF WHEAT
I told you at the start that I’ve got a secret for you, the secret to a life well-lived. Well, here it is:
“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…”
That’s Jesus’ response to those who want to see him – to the Greeks, to you, to me. I suspect the Greeks in today’s gospel did not go expecting to talk or hear about death. They just want to see Jesus. But somehow, seeing Jesus and death are intimately connected. Seeing Jesus is more than looking at him. Seeing Jesus is more than just believing the things he said and did, it’s following Jesus.
Jesus knows that his death is coming: Mary has just anointed his feet and immediately following this teaching Jesus would again speak indicating “the kind of death he was to die.” In other words, in the context here in John’s gospel, following Jesus means (first of all) following Jesus to Calvary! And, we follow Christ not as spectators but as participants. Seeing Jesus means dying to all the parts of our life that blind us: fear; the need to be right or to be in control; anger and resentment; the guilt and disappointments of our past; attachment to power, wealth, and reputation; the ways in which we separate ourselves from one another; our obsessions, compulsions, and emotional agendas; the ways in which we hurt one another and damage relationships. Ultimately, seeing Jesus means dying to our own selfishness and self-sufficiency.
But we don’t just follow Jesus to Calvary; we follow Jesus also through the tomb into resurrected life. “Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Triumph doesn’t mean that we get our way or that we avoid death. It means death is a gateway, not a prison, and the beginning not the end. Jesus did not ask to be saved from death. He is unwilling to settle for mere survival when the fullness of God’s life is before him. He knows that in God’s world strength is found in weakness, victory looks like defeat, and life is born of death. This is what allowed him to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, a city that will condemn and kill him. That is what allows us to ride triumphantly through life.
Regardless of what in our life has died or needs to die, God in Christ has already cleared the way forward. We have a path to follow: the path that is the death to self and selfishness, to all that enslaves us and binds us, to all that blinds us, to all that disorders our lives; and, the path that is resurrected life – lifted up in Christ’s crucifixion, lifted up in the resurrection; lifted up in the ascension. We die to self trusting that new life awaits!
You see, the secret is that “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.” Grains of wheat. That is what we are. Through death, however, we become the bread of life.