For those of us residing in the northern hemisphere, spring is finally and officially here. Each spring, I usually get the urge to do some spring cleaning—clearing house, so to speak. You know the deal: suddenly, you want to hose down the windows, pull out all dead growth around the outside of your home, organize your linen closet, or streamline your kitchen. Unfortunately, time doesn’t always cooperate; these tasks always take much longer than I think they will take and often outrun my enthusiasm. My persistent inertia, despite the urge to clean, is hard to overcome. Sometimes it is easier to just shrug and say, “I will get to it after Easter.”
Yet my soul still irresistibly yearns to participate in a new beginning, to participate in Spring, especially after feeling dormant. And what about you? Seasonally, we are tied to new beginnings. Every couple of months, we often culturally reassess. Think about it: every September, we naturally think “back to school”; every January, the turn of the calendar brings new year’s resolution-making; and Spring, with its sunshine and burst of green and flower, leaves behind winter dormancy and promises new growth.
But, something must usually be relinquished in that new growth. Dead wood must be cleared away; frozen water must thaw for fish to become more active; birds must moult feathers to grow. The philosopher, Seneca, once famously said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” To clean house, at the very least, one must forfeit time and energy. Yet, quite a lot of relinquishment happens when when we clear house too. Out go the sweaters that no longer fit, the detritus that has built up over the winter, and the unused abundance that lies gathering dust. Philosophically and psychologically, we often need to let go of something so that something might begin. In this case, a less cluttered existence.
In today’s scripture, some unknown Greeks run to tell Philip, who then tells Andrew, that they wish to see Jesus. And Jesus responds by telling a cryptic little story about a single grain of wheat that must die before it bears any fruit. As they listen, they are confounded that this Jesus that they so want to see ominously begins speaking about the Son of Man being lifted up, being glorified somehow, along with the idea that anyone who loves her life will lose it, but the one who hates his life in this world will somehow, someway, gain eternal life.
Really, it is quite confounding—they just want to see Jesus, for heaven’s sake—and here he is telling them riddles about gardening, death, and eternal life! Not the best way to attract converts, but Jesus seems to think it is necessary.
We don’t like to associate death with new beginnings, yet there it is. In John’s gospel, Jesus likens himself to the grain of wheat that will die to become something else, something larger and greater than a single grain or a single person or a single event.
I am reminded of a farewell letter written to a mother in 1945. That year, before the end of the war, Seaman Kim Malthe-Bruun was executed for resisting the Nazis. He wrote to his mother:
“Dear Mother: Today, together with Jorgen, Nils, and Ludwig, I was a arraigned before a Military Tribunal. We were condemned to death. I know that you are a courageous woman, and that you will bear this, but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it, you must also understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere – in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile. You will encounter that something which perhaps had value in me, you will cherish it and you will not forget me. And so I shall have a chance to grow, to become large and mature. I shall be living with all of you whose hearts I once filled…Finally, there is a girl whom I call mine. Make her realize that the stars still shine and that I have been only a milestone on her road. Help her on: She can still become very happy. In haste-”
Your eldest child and only son,
We are confounded like the disciples. We want to see Jesus, a living Jesus, not a dead Jesus, just as we want to see a living Kim. There is something about the way Jesus speaks that we internally resist on principle. We don’t want anyone to suffer on our account, whether Kim or Jesus or the man down the street who kindly takes the risk to hold the traffic just so we can cross. We don’t want some life to end so that another’s life can continue –ours or anyone else’s. So perhaps it is more helpful to come at our scripture from a different angle.
In your life, what have you had to let go of, so that a new beginning could be made? What has died in your life before the new could come to pass?
It’s an uncomfortable question because, again, we don’t like to think of anything “dying” or “going away” before a beginning or a transformation happens. It seems altogether unjust for something we have loved or even just tolerated to pass away just so that something better, larger, or different can take its place.
And yet. Like that grain of wheat, we know that some things have a kind of dying inherent to their growth. There is a quote by C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame that captures this quite well, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” Likewise, it would be a sadder world would caterpillars remain caterpillars, a seed to remain just a seed, or humans to remain perpetually and unalterably in their infancy.
We might overcome our resistance to Jesus’ metaphor by arguing that, unless we are talking about Death with a capital “D,” most things (and people) transform from one life stage to the next, and that frequently involves a lesser loss of some kind. But sometimes those losses are quite major and we resist them at every turn. Perhaps today we might metaphorically consider the many deaths or losses that we’ve experienced which paved the way for a kind of resurrection.
However, –per John’s gospel–Jesus was clearly referring to his death in this passage…Jesus tries to get the disciples to understand that there are times when something being born in us and in the world requires a kind of death first. For example, we might die to selfishness in order that more self-less behavior and desires might take root. We might die to our need for personal safety in order that we might take greater risks for others. We might die to our rigidness so that we might be more spontaneous. And Jesus’ intimations of his dying might lead the disciples to ponder their very own living and purpose.
There are also those movements that depend upon the death of a way of life in order that a more sustainable and equitable way of being might blossom. The death of xenophobia, the death of prejudice, the death of accepted gender inequality, or the death of white supremacy are forms of this. We rightly bemoan the death of innocence, and yet, so often we assume a false innocence that must be squarely faced and set aside in order that we and others may more fully grow into the people God would have us become.
In order for a more just vision of God’s kin-dom, these things must fall away or be transformed. Where, in our society, can we see that kind of death underway?
Importantly, this passage zeros in on the “single grain” which dies. What is that “single grain” for you? What are you preserving to your detriment? And conversely, what in your life and relationships is worth preserving at all costs?
These are some of the questions which might nip at our heels today if we, like the disciples, actually want to see Jesus. So often we want to see what is easy, convenient, expedient, and comfortable. Jesus doesn’t answer his disciples this way—instead, he points to servanthood and a kind of detachment from the typical ways in which we try to “preserve” our lives at the expense of kin-dom values or at the expense of a larger vision. Eternal life is jeopardized in those moments because we are focused on human things and not divine things.
Again, we might ask ourselves, “What are we preserving to our detriment?” Likewise, “what new beginning are we forsaking because we can not let go of what might ultimately need to be relinquished?”
Jesus is clearly troubled in our story. He intuits that some ending of his life is at hand. Yet he is clear in his purpose and in his mission. Like the biblical Mordecai and Queen Esther, Jesus determines that it is for this very reason—this larger purpose—that he now faces “this hour.” (see the book of Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures)
For all of us who are trying to get thru this pandemic, perhaps we have questioned God in the midst of hardship, likewise saying, “God please save me from this hour!” And yet, we are here, sharing this moment in time with one another. Perhaps we have come to this hour to rededicate ourselves to a movement that is worth building, worth transforming, and worth dedicating our lives to—even if it also means that we might lose parts of ourselves that we would initially resist. For in doing so, we might—like Jesus—bear much fruit in time.