Monday, March 30, 2009

As Bread or as Sprout

John 12:20-33 is the Gospel for the 5th Sunday in Lent

Something fresh is stirring when those Greeks approach Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip, one of the twelve disciples who, we have every reason to think, were Jewish, has also a Greek name. It’s no accident that these pilgrims approach Jesus through Philip. They look at him and think, ‘My people.’

Their approach seems to be a signal to Jesus that he is soon to pay the cost of his own discipleship to God. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” As we’re told in the final verse of our portion today, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

What kind of death? One that benefits all of humanity. With the approach of these Greeks, we are meant to hear, and to imagine Jesus hearing, the globalization of his mission on earth. Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus from the backwater region of Galilee, reveals his universal calling to restore to unity with God all mankind.

I expect these Greeks are still within earshot when Jesus goes on to preach his sermon about death. One reason I think that is the one-sentence synopsis we’re given sounds as if it had been drafted to appeal to a Greek mind shaped by Greek philosophy and religion. “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.”

How practical. To fulfill its maker’s purpose, a grain of wheat has one of two callings: to be ground into flour and made into bread, or to be sown in the earth as seed to ensure another harvest.

Think of that as a commentary on discipleship. If you have sat with Thomas Mikelson at any of our Lenten sessions, you have keen examples in mind. German Resistance pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, America’s prophet of nonviolence, Martin Luther King, Jr., El Salvador’s champion of the poor, Oscar Romero. In our final session today, we will consider what the cost of discipleship means to us. Our Lord’s sermon to the Greeks today makes plain a difficult lesson we’ve learned in the Lenten series: Disciples are disposable.

That may seem an odd way to put it, and perhaps it would be better, in our greening age, to say that disciples are recyclable. But our Lord’s little sermon is about death, isn’t it? So let’s not shrink from that.

He’s giving notice to the world that whoever follows him will have a higher concern and a deeper passion than self-satisfaction, personal comfort, lifetime security, and individual piety. The one who made us, the one who is redeeming all of life, has given us a calling. In order to fulfill our maker’s purpose, we will allow our substance to become bread for the hungry, and our spirit to be invested in the forming of new generations of disciples who will fulfill the mind of God on earth.

In his sermon, Jesus observes that a grain of wheat must die and rise, one way or another (either as bread or as sprout), and either way “it bears much fruit.” The commentator says that “fruit” is Gospel-writer John’s favorite term for the life of the community of faith. “Trust me on this,” she says; this bearing of fruit is evidence that the transforming power of Jesus’s death resides in the community, shapes the community, shows itself in how the community lives.

That works for me. The Church has two purposes, two ways of bearing fruit. One is to go beneath the millstone, ground into wheat, to rise as bread for the hungry. The other is to go into the soil as seed that must fall apart in order to sprout and create a new harvest.

Shall we cancel all church activities that do not fulfill one purpose or the other? Is this too extreme? Too much to ask?

To fulfill the purposes of the one who made us, the one who is redeeming all, reconciling all, hadn’t we better make sure that all we do in the community of faith serves one purpose or the other? In a day when churches are folding and closing and dying at an alarming rate, why not make every effort to die the right way, die his kind of death? Not death by attrition, or death by lack of vision, but to live that we bear fruit.

I doubt I’ve ever brought Erma Bombeck into the pulpit with me before, but today’s the day: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”

Jesus’s little sermon to the Greeks is a primer to the mystery of the Good News. He tells them that they must come to him through his death. They wish to see him? To follow him? He must wean them from their Greek idealism, their expectation that they may come to him through his words, his teaching, his message, as a journey of the mind, without getting their hands dirty or their feet wet. But he is not offering them an agreeable philosophy. He is calling them to a challenging life.

One comes to Jesus through his death. Today’s portion of John’s Gospel sets us on the way of the cross. One week from today we will wave palm branches at the gates of Jerusalem and rehearse the passion of Jesus Christ, and in the week that follows we will see how close we can draw to his death. We will walk the stations, we will let him wash our feet, we’ll stay with him on the Friday he makes good by becoming both the bread and the seed, and in the darkness of the Easter Vigil we’ll hear how the way of the cross fulfills the mind of our maker and see split-open the night of the soul by the spilling-out of unquenchable light.

That all this will happen, that the community will pour such effort into making clear the path and celebrating the love and preparing for the joy, is because we come to Jesus through his death. We are to die with him daily to the ways of the world, having placed our trust in him as way and truth and life. Lent and Holy Week are the Church’s global positioning device, pointing us to our purpose, guiding the community to die the right deaths that will bear fruit, drawing each of us to lay down the burdens that could be for us the wrong deaths, equipping each of us to bear and share those burdens that must be ours because they are also his.

Then Easter Day will come. As in our Gospel today, many visitors will fill the temple to observe the festival. A variety of motives will bring them here. Whatever those are, we’ll welcome a crowd at least twice our normal size.

I urge you to join me in going out of our way to greet all whose faces are not familiar to us. And keep an ear open. Some may wish to see Jesus.

It may seem anticlimactic by then, but the purpose of our liturgy on Easter Day will be to present the ancient and original truth, that we come to Jesus through his death, and in his community we are called to bear fruit, allowing our substance to become bread for the world, and our spirit to shape the future.