March 18, 2018
Jesus uses the arrival of some Greek-speaking Jews from the diaspora as an indication that his ministry is coming to its final fulfillment. He knows that this is the Passover that will be his last in this mortal existence. He is ready to talk now about what is going to happen to him and what it means. This will be his theme pretty much for the rest of the gospel.
The center and summary of this is an illustration: “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.” When a grain of wheat is planted in the earth, it does not literally die in the sense of being annihilated or destroyed. It dies in the sense of losing its existence as a single, individual, isolated seed. It loses its identity. It stops being a seed.
But it becomes something else. Through this figurative death it opens up into a new kind of life, a life that was embedded and encoded in it from the beginning. It breaks apart, sprouts, and becomes a plant, pushing up through the soil. It becomes a form of life that is structurally and apparently very different from the seed. One is a closed unit encased in a shell; the other an expanding, tall, growing, green stalk with leaves. But there is an essential continuity between the two. We don’t have a plant without the seed, and the seed’s whole reason for being is to become a plant, which, when it matures, bears many new seeds.
Then the Lord rather bluntly and directly interprets the image. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” It is phrased somewhat awkwardly because he is communicating a mystery beyond human language and reason. But if this were easy to talk about people like me would be out of a job.
Jesus is saying that humans are like seeds. We are self-contained, more or less independent individuals. But if we are so dedicated to this existence we have and know now that we seek and connive at all costs to preserve and protect it, we are like a seed that refuses to be planted. Seeds can stay seeds for a time; but eventually their potency wanes and they start to rot, or they get consumed by a bird or a squirrel. If they do not “die” by being planted in the ground they do not achieve their purpose, which is to transform into a plant to make more seeds. A seed that loves its own existence this much, loses it altogether.
But the seed that is not satisfied and is frustrated with being just a seed, and seeks instead to be buried alive in the soil and, in effect, die? Well, that is the seed that changes, sprouts, grows, and explodes with more new seeds.
The Lord is saying that just as the Creator engineers the planet in such a way that death may become a way to change into a new and amazingly more productive form of life, so it is with us humans. If we “die” by giving up and losing the life we know now, God has ordained that we not perish, but receive a whole new, different but continuous life. He calls this “eternal life,” to distinguish it from the temporal existence we consciously currently know.
The seed is the person we think we are. It is our ego-centric self that we have always thought was our whole and only self. It is who we unconsciously take ourselves to be. It is who everyone has always told us we are. It is the life we identify with and seek at all costs to preserve, protect, extend, enjoy, and make as comfortable as possible.
This is the mode of existence towards which Jesus recommends we act in a completely counter-intuitive way. The word he uses is “hate.” He means not so much emotional violence as he is underscoring our need to let this go. We need to reject it as our idea of the sum total of who we are. This self-image needs to die. He is not recommending self-hatred so much as a recognition that this view of ourselves is wrong. It is a kind of prison. It limits us. It deludes us into thinking we are small, disconnected, independent, vulnerable, and temporary. And thinking that way about ourselves has terrible and destructive consequences. It means we react to these perceived circumstances in fear, anger, and shame.
When we think of ourselves this way it doesn’t just hurt us, individually. Because we all do this, it means that we are engineering our whole world according to a false and incomplete understanding of who we are. We create institutions that serve and promote our fears. We project our anger onto others. We allow our shame to fester into hatred. All of this spawns the classical sins like greed, gluttony, and lust. And it all decays even further into evil catastrophes of injustice and violence, like war, torture, and slavery.
Jesus is saying that this all happens because we forget who we truly are, and what is really inside of us. We are unaware of what we are originally meant to be. That is something that is not fully revealed to us until our little, fearful seed existence is recognized, and given up, and in some sense dies, so that our true and ultimate life may emerge. The seed has to fall and be buried in the soil and crack open so it can become something new. It has to die.
Much of Christianity is about bringing people to this realization. This is what baptism is about. Baptism is a figurative dying and being reborn. We’re acting out the way a seed goes down into the soil by going down into the water. We have lost the visual/experiential piece, since we don’t usually baptize by immersion like the early church. But the point is the death of the old self and the emergence of the new. It becomes the spiritual journey of the Christian to live into this realization.
It is not about hating ourselves; it is about loving who we truly are so much that we are willing to relinquish the prison of who we only think we are.
Then Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” The eternal life he is talking about is a life of discipleship and service. The more completely the old, small, false, ego-centric self dissolves, the more we see that who we truly are is at one with the God who becomes flesh to dwell among us in Jesus, the Son of Man, the One who shows us our true humanity. In this realization we see that we are at the same time at one with everything and all people. To serve Christ is to serve others which is to serve our Self, our deepest most original Self, the place where we and God and creation all come together. God honors this kind of service.
This service is epitomized in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in which we also serve Christ and each other. This as well is an image or representation of a larger Way of life in which we mutually give and receive. We give what we have and receive what we need. That is God’s economic model. Take, bless, break, and give: those are the movements of the Sacrament.
The point of the new life of the seed as a plant is growth and multiplication. If the seed dies, says Jesus, it bears much fruit. A plant produces from one seed many, many seeds. A head of a mature wheat plant has 20-50 grains of wheat on it. From one apple seed grows a tree that can produce as many as 1000 apples a year. One acorn can grow a tree producing 10,000 acorns in a season.
God made life to grow, to produce, and to benefit all. Christ is the original grain of wheat who dies and is lifted up in new life; he is the vine and we are the branches channeling his energy into new life. He is the produce, the bread and the wine of the Sacrament, which represent his life, God’s love, poured out for us. He, his love, is our produce; he is what we serve others; he is what we become together. He is what we enable and encourage others to become.
If we are not bearing fruit, could it be because we are like the seed that doesn’t want to die? Are we caught in that troubled place where we are avoiding what Jesus calls “this hour,” the hour of his death? Are we just content to remain as seeds, unaware of our potential? Unconscious of the truth that we are made for eternal life? Are we by default therefore choosing eternal death?
Jesus says things like “Those who hate their life will keep it for eternal life” to shock us. He is not advocating self-punishment or suicide. He wants to disrupt our complacency and get us to think in a different way. He wants us to envision a better world together, and start living in it.
He is saying that our real life is bigger and better than we can imagine, and that by following in his way of humility, generosity, forgiveness, and acceptance, it can be realized in us and among us. But we have to give up the false way of selfishness, competition, injustice, suspicion, and acquisition. We have to give up the idea that we are independent entities, and start to see and live in our connectedness in and with everyone and everything, and even in God.
That starts here. Eternal life starts in this gospel community, where we start living according to Jesus’ commandments of love and justice, peace and joy. Eternal life starts at this table where we gather to remember how he gives his life for the life of the world. As we share in the Lord’s Body and Blood, we become him, and, taking on his ministry of love and service become one with others and one with God.