Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018

John 12:20-33
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We gather on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, on the threshold of the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday and the agonizing moments of Holy Week. It’s the time of the liturgical calendar when death begins to show itself a little more clearly, the time when we are reminded of the reason for this Lenten season.

The passage that Pastor Cathy just read a few moments ago comes from the Gospel of John, a gospel that scholars suggest was written for one of the earliest Christian communities that they might clarify and deepen their own understandings of the faith.[1] The Gospel, as you may know, begins with the beautiful hymn that we read each Christmas Eve: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.[2] Two of the very first stories in this Gospel are of Jesus calling Andrew and Philip, the two disciples that appear in our passage this morning. “Come and see,” Jesus said to them. “Follow me.” For the author of this Gospel, the call to the disciples was simultaneously a call to this early community, a call inviting them to join with those who have decided to follow Jesus.

The passage that we have heard today, then, seems to be a corollary or continuation of that original call. Yes, Jesus is still calling the disciples and thus the readers to follow him, but he begins to let on that following him is not without cost. The truth of the matter is, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. If you love your life you’ll lose it; if you hate your life in this world you’ll keep it for eternal life.[3] Let me be the first to admit that these are not necessarily comforting words. This is not the passage that I turn to when I need some uplifting or encouraging message; if someone asked me what my favorite Bible verse is, I would not answer them with this one. But here we are this morning, given these challenging words in this season of Lent, for the full hope of Easter does not come until we have encountered the grim reality of Good Friday.

Try as we might, we cannot avoid dealing with death—with the death of Jesus, with the death of others, or with our own deaths—for it is part of what it means to be human. We are human, after all, which means that we are finite. Sooner or later, whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to look into the face of death; in the Church, it’s something that we encounter every year.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that we have to like death. I imagine that there are very few among us, if any, who  actively like death, and I would dare to believe that we all long for life that’s abundant, worthwhile, and fulfilling. Jesus’ words in our passage this morning can quite frankly read as the antithesis to our faith that celebrates a God who so loved the world that we might not perish but have everlasting life, as our Gospel lesson last week proclaimed.[4] But they’re words that we have to confront as they show up time and time again in our Gospels, as we also read in the Gospel of Matthew: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.[5]

In his book When Breath Becomes Air, the late Paul Kalanithi (Kah-LAWN-nee-thee), a neurosurgeon at Stanford University, grapples with his terminal lung cancer. The book begins telling us about his life as a doctor, about how he sought to understand death as the person who was seeking to make people well. After learning that he himself had cancer, however, he began to grapple with what death meant on a personal and inward level. Speaking about this shift in thinking, he wrote:

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling.[6]

Unsettling is a right word for that, I would imagine. After all, we may objectively know that we’re going to die, but we try not to think about the when or the how of it.

But there comes a time when we more vividly realize that we are dust and that we are returning to dust; that we will die. For those who know anything about the study of philosophy, you will know that this is one of the foremost problems that philosophers throughout the ages have sought to solve. It’s both a blessing and a curse; the fact that we can conceptualize our deaths separates us from other animals, distinguishing us as having some kind living spirit within our bones. But then we also have to grapple with that difficult realization that, sooner or later, death will come for us.

And so we do what we can to prolong the inevitable. Perhaps we make sure to eat the right things, to do the right exercises, or to take the right vitamins. Maybe we become extra careful to avoid taking too many risks, or maybe we try to make sure that our finances are in order that we get the medical care we need when we get it. This is all good, I think; there are some things that are simply common sense. But there can come a time when we get so caught up in protecting our lives that we are paralyzed from actually living how we have been created to live.

For death is a part of life. We live, we move, and we have our being in this cycle of life within which death plays a crucial role. It’s like a grain of wheat, Jesus says, that falls into the earth and dies, thereby bearing much fruit. If our faith is a way that tells us the meaning of life and how to live, surely a part of it is a lesson on how to die.

But it seems that we far too often don’t allow ourselves to die. And I don’t just mean a physical death, though that is surely part of it. We don’t allow ourselves to experience the death of beliefs and ideas, to encounter the deaths of those parts of ourselves that we would quite frankly be so much better off without, to know what it means for friendships and relationships to die. We want to believe that, through our own sheer will power, we can create a life that stays exactly as it is, impervious to the heartbreak of endings. We want to believe that if we don’t open ourselves up to others, if we don’t take risks with friendships or experiences, that if we have build up our protective barriers we can have the kind of life that is always happy, safe, and predictable. But when we are so focused on our own lives—when all of our life is pointed towards ourselves—we have already experienced a kind of death. When we love our own lives in a way that’s perpetually turned inwards towards survival, we have already begun to die, though not in a way that can lead to life.

But it seems that this is the way of our world, is it not? We’re taught to do what we can to succeed, to do anything in our power to ensure that we minimize the natural cycle of life and death. We’re told that there’s only so much money, food, and resources to go around, so we better do what we can to live safely and comfortably, even if that means that large swaths of humankind do not get enough to simply live. Even when we know that what we consume is not ultimately going to save our lives, and even when we know that we are literally killing others because of our consumption, we are still sold the distorted belief that our lives become more meaningful when our homes are full of the best things. We’re trained to believe that the only way to save our own lives is by taking the lives of others, be it through giant walls, through more guns, or through the death penalty. Our world seems to be running on the notion that since none of us are making it out alive, we might as well do what we can for ourselves, to turn inwards to our own comfort at the cost of others’ lives.

If you love your life in that world, you can be sure that you have already lost your life. But if you hate those parts of your life that are so intertwined with that world—if you’re able to see through the lies that world wants to push down on you—you may very well find that you will find eternal life. For if we can be free enough to die to a life shaped by that world, we will find what it means to live fully and freely in the way of Jesus.[7] If we can be free enough to die to a life so shaped by the inward focus of sin, we will find what it means to live fully and freely in the love of God.

And when we find that we are able to live fully and freely in that love, we will discover anew the truth that death is only part of the whole story, making way for the new life of resurrection.

And so, my friends, I must ask you a crucial question: what is it within you that needs to die? What is that within your life that needs to be let go? For whether we like it or not, we are always experiencing death. Today it may be a friendship, a belief, or a part of our own self, and tomorrow it may very well be that very self. It’s inevitable. When we try to avoid this death—when we try to do everything in our power to ensure that we don’t die—we will find that we are slowly killing ourselves. But when we embrace finitude as part of life, we find that we gain eternal life.

Always remember that you are dust, and to dust you are returning. But our God plays around in that dust, forming something new and breathing into it life—again

and again

and again.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Eugene Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament, 673.
[2] John 1:1,14
[3] John 12:24-25 in The Inclusive Bible
[4] John 3:16
[5] Matthew 16:24-25
[6] Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
[7] Charles L. Campbell, “John 12:20-33” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor