Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 8th of Tenth Month, 2023
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: John 12:20-26, NRSVUE
Jesus Predicts His Death
Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
Good morning, Friends!
Well, the weather has turned here in Richmond. Just in the last couple of days we’ve had the first really cool temperatures of the season: actually, pretty cold, down below 40 at night, and it’s hardly broken 60 during the day. The sun is still wonderfully warm, so if you’re out in it that makes a big difference, but otherwise there’s a chill in the air. In our yard the goldenrod and the asters are still in bloom, but it seems like they are attracting fewer and fewer pollinators, and they’ll soon be done. Others of the native flowers are already gone to seed, some of them weeks ago—so the Culver’s root and the black-eyed susans have lost their blooms and are flopped over, their whites and yellows and greens now mostly brown and black. And of course the trees are turning; the sugar maples on our street are showing some red and gold. They still have most of their leaves, but their winged seeds have helicoptered down to the sidewalks, where they crunch under my feet as I walk to and from the meetinghouse. Autumn has arrived for us here.
This particular turn of the seasons always brings a degree of melancholy for me. There is less of the year ahead than there is behind. Spring and summer are past and done, and
winter is nigh. Life around us is changing: the vibrant greens of the plant world are transformed to red and gold and black and brown. Some animals die, others go dormant, and still others build themselves up against the coming lean months. And our lives change as well, at least in that we shift indoors, adopting the new seasonal costume, preparing for the cold soon to arrive.
So in this time of the year, this passage from John’s Gospel that we’ve heard this morning sometimes comes to mind for me. As around us the seeds are falling from the flower heads and the trees into the earth, I think of the verse where Jesus speaks of the grain of wheat that falls and dies.
Otherwise, we would probably be reading this passage on the other side of winter, because of where it comes in the Gospel narrative; in its wider context, our passage comes at the very beginning of Jesus’ Passion, the last week of his life. As John tells the story, Jesus has just come from Bethany, where he has brought Lazarus back from death and restored him to his sisters. And from Bethany he comes into Jerusalem, riding a donkey’s colt through the city gate as crowds wave palm branches and cry, “Hosanna!” These are scenes of triumph: as he rides into the city, Jesus acts out a nonviolent victory over the powers of the world; and earlier at Bethany, Jesus actually defeats death.
But of course, these triumphs take place against a backdrop of growing tension: Jesus’ adversaries are all too aware of the amount of attention he has been getting. The Pharisees despair of being able to control the situation, saying to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (12:19). And so John tells us that the high priests are hatching a plan to put Jesus to death because of his popularity (11:53). Earlier in the story, we have read that the time is not yet right for Jesus, as in chapter seven, when he is teaching in the temple courts; then, the authorities “tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him because his hour had not yet come” (7:30). But now, Jesus begins to acknowledge that the time is approaching.
Hence his response, when “some Greeks” ask his disciples to see him; instead of responding to the request, either yea or nay, he says, “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” (12:24–25). The grain that falls into the earth and dies is a sort of mini-parable; Jesus speaks of himself, of his coming death, and of the resurrection. These things together are what it means for him to be glorified. Glory and glorification are somewhat strange concepts for us; in world at large, glory is something we attribute to winning athletes or other champions, and something we good modest Quakers know we are never to claim for ourselves.
But theologically, in the terms that are used in the Scriptures, glory is a bit hard to grasp. Our Friend Doug Gwyn writes that “Glory is the unworldly beauty and holiness of God” (Conversation with Christ, 78). As such, it is normally something that is hidden, or at least that we don’t notice; it takes a well-attuned soul to be able to perceive God’s unworldly beauty and holiness. So it is something that usually needs to be revealed, or unveiled. And in the Passion story, God’s glory is unequivocally and decisively revealed in Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross, and in God’s willingness to raise Jesus from the dead.
“...if [the grain] dies, it bears much fruit”: Jesus’ death will lead to a boundless yield of fruit for all, which at this point in the story no one else can see—glory still veiled. But Jesus is not speaking only of himself; the parable applies also to his followers, as we read on to verse 25: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Now, here’s another place we often get hung up: “eternal life”. For many in the church, “eternal life” is something that happens later—“when I die, hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away...” If we over-emphasize this aspect of the faith, we forget the presence of God and the presence of God's rule here and now. Eternal life has a present component—the possibility of God’s glory breaking through into our mundane existence. The lives that we live with God in the here and now are the beginning of eternal life. And this is the life that Jesus speaks of elsewhere in John's Gospel when he says he comes “that [we] may have life and have it abundantly” (10:10).
The mystery of the grain of wheat that falls and dies is that it does not truly die. In the natural world, the grain goes through the process that generations and generations of its forebears did: the seeds within the grain germinate in the soil, and, given the right conditions, they give life to the next generation of plants. And we can extend this truth as a spiritual metaphor as well, in a variety of ways.
We can look at it collectively: each generation of faithful people gives rise to the next, by consciously teaching and by modeling our faith to children and young adults and peers that we walk with along the way. Each of us here at West Richmond can think of elders of previous generations who have been seeds for us, whose grain has fallen to the earth and sprouted a new generation of faith in us.
We can look at it individually: in each of us, there are things that must fall away, in order for our lives to truly sprout into what God calls us to. We each have things that we feel we can't let go that keep us from living fully in God's Reign. Jesus' call is to let these things
fall, let them die, so that in the right season we may bear fruit.
And we can remember the Quaker metaphor of the Seed (with a capital S): the Seed is that God-planted part of us through which we commune with God, sometimes also called the Christ Within, or the Inward Teacher. Isaac Penington, one of the first Friends, wrote of “sinking down to the Seed”: letting all other things fall away, willing nothing of our own, submitting to God’s will, that God’s potential in each of us might be nourished and grow. As we make the soil of our hearts ready, we reach to the Seed; as we feel the Seed growing in us, God’s beauty and holiness—the glory of God—becomes more clearly revealed.
The mystery of the grain of wheat that falls and dies is that it does not truly die. The mystery of Jesus, the grain of wheat who fell into the earth, is that his death gave life to all. And the mystery of our lives is that in dying to self, we awaken to eternal life, abundant life in the Seed.
As we ready ourselves for open worship, here are some queries:
Who were the elders for you, who consciously taught and modeled their faith, and became seeds for your own faith? How are you called today to do this for the next generation?
What are the things in your life that you need to let die, in order to bear fruit for others and for God’s Reign?
How do you feel the Seed growing in you today, that God’s beauty and holiness might be more clearly revealed?
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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