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. Jesus answered them, “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. 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 honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
I heard a song a long time ago – I guess it was a song – by the Talking Heads. It had music in the background, but mainly you heard a voice speaking, not wrap; not even rhyme, but a voice telling a strange story. The story was about a boy who imagined that all of us get to choose how our faces look. We do this by selecting a face that we want to look like when we are young, and over the years, by concentrating on it, we eventually look like that. This is why, the boy imagines, first impressions are so often correct.
But then the story introduces a complication. What if you realize, sometime after that childhood choice, that the face you selected was a mistake; really not right for you at all?
The Life Plan Question
It’s a rather absurd story, but it brings up a frightening question. Most of us have had some idea of the life we wanted to live. Of course lots of things happen that bend and shape our ideal life plan in ways we didn’t intend, but we make adjustments and keep pressing on.
What if the composition of our life plan had some basic errors? What if the elements of our plan that we were sure were going to give us meaning and joy turned out to be ineffective, or even harmful?
If our life plan included having a big thick juicy stake at every dinner followed by a huge bowl of ice cream for dessert, probably we have not thought it through sufficiently.
Life Plans that Loose Life
This kind of confusion is exactly what Jesus was talking about in this text from John. There are life plans that lead to loosing life – in ways that go far deeper than health. On the other hand, there are life plans that lead to keeping life as it was meant to be lived.
It is tricky though, because it turns out that the path to finding life and the path to loosing life are counter-intuitive. Loving life leads to loosing it, and hating life leads to finding it. Jesus says:
25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The Dying Seed Metaphor
What in the world is he talking about? The best way to think of it, is to think of a garden. It starts with a seed. The hope is that it will end with a fruitful crop. If you love the seed and keep it in a protective container on the shelf, you will harvest nothing.
But if you “hate” the seed, in a manner of speaking, and “kill it” by burying it in the ground, then the magic happens, and it grows up and produces a fruitful plant.
24 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.
The seed has to be sacrificed, so to speak, in order to produce fruit. Sacrifice turns out to be the key.
Loving and Loosing Life
Is it possible for us to love our lives in a way that ends up loosing them? This is exactly what happens all the time, on all kinds of levels, from the deeply personal to the level of families, to communities, even nations.
If we indulge ourselves in easy lives in which we never break a sweat or that get out of breath, then chances are, we will end up with broken health long before our time. But for most of us, exercise is never what we would prefer to be doing.
It turns out that self-indulgence is at the root of a lot of the mistakes we make and the problems we have. We know that we shouldn’t eat that, but we want it badly. We know that that drink is one too many, but we take it anyway. We know that indulging our impulse to say it that way, with that tone, with those words will poison the relationship, but we let loose because they deserve to hear it.
Unforeseen Errors of Indulgence
Sometimes we are aware of the stupidity of our choices even while we are making them, but other times, we don’t see the consequences, and our life plan seems to be working for our benefit, and only later do we see its errors.
People who study such things tell us that all kinds of ways in which our culture has defined the good life end up contributing to our pain. We get what we always wanted and in the end, it makes us miserable.
We thought that by having more and more income, conveniences and entertainments we would have happy, stress-free lives, but it turns out that
wealth and possessions is not a predictor of happiness and meaning.
The truth is that the more selfish and self-indulgent we are, the more miserable we become. The more we love our lives, as Jesus said, the more we lose them.
There is an alternative, however, that leads to fruitfulness, but it is found, counter-intuitively, in sacrifice. When you sacrifice the seed in the soil, it flourishes. Sacrifice comfort and time everyday for physical exercise, and we become healthier. Sacrifice time and energy serving people in need, sacrifice money on worthwhile causes, and we find our lives have meaning and joy.
The Jesus Way
This is the Jesus way. Jesus invites us to be his followers, even though following is going to include sacrifice. But it precisely that sacrifice that is going to produce life for us.
This text began with that odd story of the Greeks who want to see Jesus. John’s gospel goes into great detail about the process – first they meet Phillip then Andrew who go together to arrange the meeting with Jesus. Why does John tell it this way?
This story is about the harvest that Jesus’ sacrifice is going to produce. It is about the whole world being drawn to Jesus when he is lifted up, as he will be soon, on a cross on which he sacrificed his life for us.
Is this a good thing that these Greeks want to see Jesus? Well of course it is, we would say, but let’s think of this a bit further. For Jewish people in Jesus’ day, the vision of the good life was all of Abraham’s descendants living peacefully and securely without anyone being bothered by Greek – that is by gentiles, by the other guys.
That vision of the good life may have been common, but it was going to have to be sacrificed. Jesus had the goal of drawing all people into the circle of his life-giving family.
The ideal of the good life surrounded by people who look like us, speak our language, eat our cuisine, and have the same life goals of a home in the suburbs with a well-kept lawn for our grandkids to play on was going to have to be sacrificed. The door was going to be open now to Greeks – different people.
Jesus’ Invitation to Finding Life
Jesus is inviting all of us to be his followers. He is inviting us to find life by means of sacrificially loosing our lives.
The question is how? How might God be calling us to loose our lives on behalf of others?
Some of us still have the health and energy to invest our time in ministries of compassion. Some of us can sacrifice some of our hours at the Christian Service Center or building a Habitat for Humanity house.
Some of us can work on justice issues like affordable homeowners insurance. Others can go play bingo at Golden Living. Some can tutor children after school. Some can help us work with children in the new Kids night out program and VBS.
Some of us can be actively involved in addressing structural issues like poverty, hunger, health care, mental health issues, homelessness.
All of us are able to give funds to enable ministries of care and compassion, rehabilitation, literacy, and evangelism.
All of us are able to sacrifice time to pray for people in need and for the people who serve them.
Come, Jesus is calling us; loose your life. Sacrifice your seeds; plant them all. And then watch God fill your life with joy and meaning. Follow Jesus, as St. Francis came to learn:
“for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”