Sermon - 22nd March 2015
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies...
Scripture - John 12:23-26
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Today is the 5th Sunday of Lent. We are now two-thirds the way through Lent, and in a fortnight, we will be celebrating Easter. As you will have noticed, the date of Easter moves. The other two Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, still have calendars which are based on the cycle of the Moon. Easter is the one festival in the Christian calendar which is based on the movement of celestial bodies, falling on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox. For those of you who like church history, this was decided at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Broadly speaking, Easter falls at the same time as the week-long Jewish festival of Passover.
The Moon has been very much in the news in the past week when, last Friday, the UK experienced the rare event of a solar eclipse. It grew eerily dark around 9:30am and, cloud permitting, the Moon could be seen blocking out much of the Sun’s light. The Moon also affects the tides, and atypical high tides have also been in the news.
Our Metropolitan Church is an urban congregation, and for the most part, our lives are unaffected by the Sun, and even less by the Moon. We go to the same places; we do the same jobs all year round.
And so to the key verse in today’s reading:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…”
Wheat. A basic commodity, used in the production of key foods… bread, pasta, biscuits, cake - all come from wheat after it has been ground into flour. And the bread we shall bless, share and eat together later in today’s service at Communion is also comprised of wheat.
Our Metropolitan Church is an urban congregation, and for the most part, we are separated from the processes which produce our food. Some of us may bake our own bread; the adventurous among us might even make our own fresh pasta; however, I doubt that many of us will have ground wheat into flour, and even fewer will have been involved in farming wheat.
But for those alive when Jesus’ walked among us, things were very different. Jesus, His Disciples and followers were Jews, who lived their lives by a lunar calendar. The Disciples who were fishermen would have been aware of the effects of the Moon on the tides of the Sea of Galilee. Like all ancient societies, they were largely agrarian; many were subsistence farmers, producing for their own needs and maybe a little extra for selling at the market. Grinding wheat grain into flour to make bread was a daily task for every household. Planting wheat-grain and other seeds in spring was a necessity.
For those listening to these of Jesus’ words as He spoke them, they would have had an everyday relevance, a relevance which was crucial for survival, and it is into this context which Jesus speaks.
I am now going to give you a gift. I am going to give you all a grain of wheat. Next Sunday, you will receive another gift, a palm cross. I hope you like the gift. Take it home, put it somewhere that will remind you of Jesus’ words and the meaning of wheat, both for food and spiritually.
If we take a small step backwards and look at the narrative of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 12 begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, something which we will hear more about next week on Palm Sunday; and just before the reading we heard read to us today, there is a rather strange couple of verses:
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
These verses can be easily missed between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the verses in today’s reading which begins a longer discourse about Jesus’ impending death and resurrection.
Why was it important for the Gospel writer to mention these Greeks? It is interesting that they approached the Disciple Philip, for “Philip” is a Greek name; and Philip approached Andrew, who bears another Greek name.
The Gospel does not mention the Greeks further; Jesus’ words simply begin at this point, as we heard read. Some Bible commentators say that this is a way in which Jesus, without further comment, simply accepts the Greeks’ presence. The Greeks were non-Jews, and this can be interpreted as a way of showing the universality of the Gospel message to all nations.
It is also important to mention the phrase which Jesus uses to describe Himself: He calls Himself the “Son of Man”, a phrase used over 80 times in the New Testament as a whole, and also occurs in the Hebrew texts which speak of Jesus’ coming. The “Son of Man” is a phrase which is used exclusively in the Gospels to refer to Jesus’ coming foretold, His impending Crucifixion and Redemptive Work. Again, the term is not exclusive like the Hebrew title “Messiah”: the term speaks of Jesus’ humanity. Some modern English translations of the Bible translate the phrase as “Human One”.
And so to the key verse in today’s reading, the one printed on the card together with your grain of wheat. I have already described the context in which those listening to Jesus say these words back in first century Israel. For us, in urban Manchester in the 21st century, where we are generations removed from subsistence farming, we need to look at Jesus’ metaphor: what it means to understand His context, and how this metaphor might apply to us and our lives.
Next week, when we hear the Gospel Passion narrative read to us, we will hear how Jesus did not go wholly willingly to His death. In the garden of Gethsemane, He prayed. He prayed that His fate might be taken away; nevertheless, He remained obedient to His Father, God, and accepted His betrayal, trial and execution, without which there could be no resurrection.
In a while, during our Communion, we will proclaim the Central Mystery of our faith in that: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Unless Christ had died, He could not have risen.
Fortunately for us, we will almost certainly never be in the position to have to choose to die; however, there are occasions in life when we will have to take a chance, to take a risk or to dare.
In the third book of the Narnia stories by C S Lewis, the Lion, Aslan, who is a metaphor for Jesus in these stories, says to the brave talking War-horse, Bree, who when meeting Aslan for the first time, says: “Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.”
In life, there are times when we do take a chance, do risk something. If you can ride a bike, think of the first time you rode a bike without falling off. Or when you jumped into to a swimming pool worried about it being cold, only to find out it was fine once you were in the water. Or trying a new food you perhaps you thought you would not like, only to discover it was tasty.
These three examples in themselves might be small and perhaps trivial, but there are some choices and decisions in our lives which are irrevocable. Once we have started down that path, there is no turning back. We are committed. These are the decisions in our lives as Christians which are like the grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying.
Once the grain of wheat falls to the ground into the soil and comes into contact with moisture, it will germinate and sprout, and in time it will grow into a plant which will, in turn, flower and produce wheat which will be harvested, and the whole cycle will begin again.
Thinking of us, here as an LGBT congregation, some thoughts came to mind. As LGBT people, there was a time when we each acknowledged within ourselves our homosexuality, bisexuality or transgendered nature, and we decided to tell others about ourselves – whoever they might have been. We took a chance, took a risk, but once we had said the words, there was no going back. Until we “come out” as LGB or T, we are like the dry grain of wheat stuck under the tape on the little cards I gave you. But once we are “out”, we liberate ourselves and begin to grow more as humans.
And once we are out, there comes the next step. As humans, one of the most significant points on our journey as adults is sexual intimacy. This is another irrevocable point in life. Once we have shared intimacy, we cannot become a virgin again, but it can lead to a blossoming and deeply mutually rewarding relationship with another person.
For many of you in our church who were not born in the UK, you have also taken irrevocable steps in your lives, where you could no longer remain in your country of birth, out of fear for being LGB or T, and some of you have suffered terribly. You have come to the UK and seek asylum, where we hope and pray you will be able to find safety and blossom and become more of the lovely people who you are.
The final two verses of today’s reading then present us with some very strong words from Jesus:
“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, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.”
In the Gospels, Jesus often speaks in hyperbole: that is, he uses extreme language to make His point. Jesus’ message is a radical one. It was such a radical one, that they had Him killed because of it. Neither the Gospel writers nor Jesus is advocating that we should all become martyrs. The hyperbole of the language – the force of the language which is used – demonstrates to us clearly how important God and Jesus’ teaching should be in our lives.
At the moment, four of us at Metropolitan Church are taking part in a project at Gaydio to create two radio documentaries about “Faith and Sexuality”. One of the group members is a Muslim: we will call him Mark. Mark is a white, middle-aged man, born in the UK who converted [reverted] to Islam. Two weeks ago, he was sharing with the group about his life as a gay Muslim, and how, with his partner, a Muslim from birth, Mark has had to accept that for his partner, Allah (God) is first in life, Mohammed (the Prophet) is second, family comes third, and Mark comes fourth.
And so to my final point. Last week, Philip preached on another text from St John’s Gospel, including perhaps the most well-known verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Both last week’s text and this week’s text contain the shared theme of eternal life. At the start of Lent, we were marked with ash and were reminded that we are but dust and unto dust we shall return. At some point, all of us will die. We do not like to think about our mortality, but it is one thing of which we can all be certain. Our faith in Jesus is not just some spiritual bus ticket that will get us over to the other side. The eternal life begins now, at the moment we choose to say yes to Jesus, andin our faith and in our living out His teaching, we continually say yes to Jesus.
Jesus’ challenge to us in today’s reading is this: that we trust, that we dare to let go, to let the seed of our potential fall to the ground, where the seed will germinate and sprout. The loving arms of our church, and those of our loved ones, will protect us as we grow, and then, we can bear much fruit.