March 24, 2012
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“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.”
So here is Jesus visiting the home of his friend Lazarus in Bethany. Bethany is just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem. Jesus and his friends had just returned to the area after fleeing to Ephriam about 20 miles north of there. They had fled because Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead like a week or two before, and was attracting a lot of attention, particularly the attention of the chief priests and Pharisees. These religious leaders were getting nervous. Healing a few demoniacs, curing a blind man or two, that is fine, but raising someone from the dead; that was going to draw some attention. It was drawing attention. In fact, John tells us that the chief priests were plotting to kill Lazarus, too. They wanted to hide the evidence of the deep miracles Jesus had been performing, for too many were deserting and believing in this Jesus character. Remember, there were a lot of these Messianic figures wandering around the Levant at that time. Lots. What our messiah was doing was a bit better than the others. He was gaining a reputation; that would not do.
It is so sordid; this affair, the journey towards the passion. The suspicions, plots and intrigue of the collaborators, the priests and Pharisees. The imperial domination of the Romans. The treachery of Judas. Sordid… And it is so beautiful, this affair, the journey towards the passion. The faith of the disciples and their supporters. The adoration of Mary who at Lazarus’ house broke open the jar of nard and anointed her Lord’s feet. The joyousness or at least good humor of the people of Jerusalem, welcoming Jesus riding on a young donkey into the city to shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord…” The Greeks in our Gospel today, the ones who wanted to speak with Jesus, they were walking into the city with Jesus during that first liturgy of the Palms.
And there is Jesus. He’s had these crazy three years and is now more or less on the run. They are fugitives. He knew that he had gained the attention of the authorities and surely knew that his life was in danger, and the lives of his friends as well. He must have sensed betrayal lurking in the background. His soul was troubled, how could it not be? And what does he do? He leads his band of friends right into the heart of it, right to the center of religious power in Jerusalem. And he does it in a way guaranteed to draw attention. They put on that fantastic parade, mocking earthly kings and even emperors. There are those who suggest that on the other side of the city Pilate was processing into Jerusalem from his headquarters in Ceasarea, the seat of Roman power. He did this every year, marching into the city with two or three legions aimed at keeping the peace during the annual Passover Festivals. Jesus and his friend’s entrance parade was a mockery of the martial pomp and circumstance that Pilate would have demanded. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel,” they shouted, waving palms and laying down their cloaks. Jesus must have known that His days were numbered. He must have known that His was going to be a hard end. And He asks rhetorically, “What should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No,” He answers, “it is for this reason I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
So that’s the context. That is what is going on in this scene as these Greeks seek an audience with Jesus. And in that moment, in that chaotic moment, what does Jesus say to them? “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.”
Loving our life. What does that mean, to love a life? First off, it means that we have to consider it ours. It is something, some process that is possessed 0-po9by our self. Which of course posits that there is a self, that the self is an autonomous being separate from others, separate from God, even. That is one of the ways to describe the doctrine of original sin, that existential separation from God that we all experience, well, almost all of us. There those few rare saints who achieved the Christian equivalent of Enlightenment. The technical term is Union with God. Read the words of St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich. Each of these people found union with God primarily in following Jesus’ admonition to hate their lives. They didn’t hate life, each of these and any saints love life, they love life as deeply as you can imagine, but hating life as Jesus teaches means that they lost the sense that the life they lived was theirs to begin with. It is God’s life. A songwriter I appreciate writes “these are not my tunes/ but they are mine to use.” They come for the universe, they exist and by our work they come together in the form we hear, but they are not our creation. It is just like life. It is not our life, but it is ours to use. What we call our life is actually God’s, it is part of the immeasurable fabric of existence, you are an eddy of energy in the ocean of being, a swirl of consciousness in relationship with an infinite whirlwind, a bubble of reason, memory and skill in the cloud of unknowable vastness. God graces us with life. It is a gift. Like I said last week, Sam Smith’s sweatshirt with the picture of the Milky Way and the sign saying “You are here.” Our tiny little lives are not even a hiccup in time-space when we take them for granted. Our lives are worth hating when we take them for granted, when we fail to see the infinite implications of every life, every sentient being. We are myopic critters. We are so enthralled with our own lives, our own issues, our own stories and ideas and habits. We are more distractible then the magpie at the Raptor Center with all of her cat toys and bits of shiny stuff. So many of us walk around thinking, “O! I am so interesting.” Or “My problems are so interesting, so pressing, so important. The most important thing in the world, actually.”
The thing is, though, you are important. Desperately important, actually. It is our myopia, our disctractions, our narcisimsm that gets in our way. It is our attachment to the story of our life, to the control of our life, its management and micromanagement. The life that Jesus tells us to hate is not the infinitely valuable and important blessing of life which we have been give by grace alone. The life we need to put aside, to hate, as Jesus puts it, is this distracted, self-referential, self-important treatment of life. We need to walk away from that kind of life, if it is even life at all.
That is what Jesus is teaching us here. That is what Jesus is doing in His relentless journey towards the passion. Jesus is leading us to this lesson. He loves life; your life, my life, the life we share together in our families, in this community and the communities we radiate out into the world through. He loves the pulse of life itself, what Dylan Thomas called “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” He loves that kind of life more than we can ask or imagine. As He leads us He is being led by God to do what needs to be done. Why did it happen this way? Why is He being led to the Cross? Of all places, a Cross? I do not know. Why is childbirth so painful and bloody? Why does producing food depend on killing other creatures? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that life, the will to live, ruah, the breath of God is so deep, so vast, so penetrating and insurmountable that even the evil of the Cross, the evil of the oppression, violence and imperial injustice it represents, even that cannot extinguish life, not the eternal life, not the inevitability of life that God intends. It is this radical living of life that Jesus is leading us towards.
We must die to this life, this crowded, crunched up, inward life that most all of us take for granted, we must die to it and be born anew into the spacious life God in Christ wishes for us. A life lived fully, authentically, joyously. A life lived to serve others. A life lived with dignity, with purpose, in community. A life lived with meaning, and not for us, not meaning of our own making, but the making of the world, the meaning God makes of things. This sort of life is eternal. This sort of life is the sort of life God wants for us. May we get out of our own, and God’s way as we trudge onward to Easter. “Have Mercy on us, O God, according to you loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out our offenses.” AMEN