Who here remembers the two inevitable things in life? For those who are still wondering, they are death and taxes! It is worth the reminder that out of the two, taxes is the only one where we can get an automatic extension! Many of us have taxes on our mind with the traditional filing date for the income tax less than a month away. However, our passage today from John focuses our attention on the topic of death – Jesus; death. Jesus it seems has his upcoming death weighing heavy on his heart.
Jesus has taken the news of the Greeks wanting to see him as a sign that his hour had come. Jesus knew that he had come to bring the gospel not just to the Jewish people but indeed to the entire world. The message has to spread and grow. And Jesus knew how this would happen. He was to become that grain of wheat – sacrificing his life on the cross – and through that sacrifice life would spread to all people in his name. So, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the inevitable shock of his death. Jesus is also expressing his own anxiety about his impending death, but knows in the end, it is for this purpose that he came into the world.
The topic of death, even for people like us who come to church, who believe in God and strive to follow Jesus, is not an easy one to raise. Especially now all around us, we see the stirring of spring in nature around us, people are looking though seed catalogues, we are counting down the days to planting. The beginnings of life, not the approach of death, is on our minds.
Living in a pre-scientific, agricultural world, Jesus’ disciples would appreciate the metaphor of planting a seed, see it apparently die, in order to become a plant that bears much fruit. Jesus latches on to this image in order to explain to his disciples the purpose of his impending death.
For Jesus, death was just days away and his soul is troubled. As he will later pray in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father save me from this hour”, Jesus struggles, because he knew he came into the world to die for our sins. Jesus is bracing himself, speaking for himself as much as teaching his disciples, that life can get lost if we treasure and make the things of the world a priority. We need to die to selfishness. Eternal life should be our priority over the things of the world. Death is the great reminder of the passing nature of life, and how we should keep our affairs in order- especially our spiritual priorities.
Why is it so hard to talk about death, to confront death, openly like Jesus did? Our faith teaches us that death, redeemed by Christ, leads us not to annihilation or non-existence as we fear, but to the fullness of eternal life with God. Facing death while we are alive can awaken in us the desire to live our lives with clarity, energy and purpose.
Facing death can be hard and painful. We rarely treat adequately the wounds that death deals to us. Most of us bury our mourning and fear half-alive in our hearts. And the reality is people do die ugly, unjust, premature deaths. People die alone and unloved. People die with bitterness, anger, resentments and fear. Death wounds in ways that seems humanly impossible to recover -- especially if death comes to a child or in an otherwise premature manner; or if it comes suddenly, hits too often, or arrives in a vicious manner -- as in murder, the kind of death Jesus endured.
But we must remember that life is this way too. People live in ugly, unjust ways. People live alone and unloved. People live with bitterness, anger and resentments, consumed with fear. Life brings us wounds and obstacles that seem impossible to recover from. We bury life and joy in the ground of our hearts and don’t let them bloom. Neither life nor death is for the weak of heart.
If we allow ourselves to sit along side death, like the gospel asks us this week, it will lead us where our soul is troubled, like Jesus’s was. Death would talk to us about the loss. The memories. The good times and the bad. The sorrow. The unfinished business. The broken dreams. Sitting with death just a little while we come to experience the source of real disease. We come to see how we love or do not love in the course of our lives. Jesus would remind his disciples of the priority of love in the great discourse he gave right before he died, when he declares: “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13: 34-35.
Through the lens of love, Jesus prepares to face the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the desertion of his disciples, becoming a pawn between religious and political leaders who would torture, mock and kill Jesus because they saw him as a threat to their power and status. As Jesus struggles with death, struggles with the hour that is coming, he models trust in God. He knows that he would be that seed, come to die, so all may live.
We may not be imminently facing the physical death of our body, but every day we have the opportunity to put to death parts of ourselves that keep us from loving. The fear. The selfishness. The petty jealousies. Jesus is not telling us to hate life per se, but to not make a priority those worldly things and forces that would detract us from loving and relating well. Put God first, Jesus, says, our neighbors second, ourselves last, and then we will have our priorities straight. Every day we reach out in love to someone else or act sacrificially our ego dies, dies to produce life, life that in Christ’s name brings us to life eternal.
It is said that at the same time the Passover Lamb was killed in the Temple Jesus died on the cross. The Passover Lamb was a cover while Jesus’ death took sin away. Timing was everything. Not only did Jesus die at the right time, but He rose from the grave at the right time as well. On the Sunday after Jesus’ death, the Sunday of the resurrection, The Jews celebrated the Feast of First fruits, which was the beginning of the barley harvest. The Israelites practiced giving God the first portion of their harvest by faith trusting that God would be faithful and bring about a full harvest for them. Jesus rose on that very day. God showing that He is giving us His best and that there will, indeed be a full harvest coming in the future. Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruit of the resurrections to come. Jesus the holy seed that has born fruit of abundant life for all.
As we approach the end of Lent, let us begin to contemplate dying to live, like Jesus did. Not in a morbid, depressing way. But as a way to understand how precious the gift of life, especially eternal life. Because through Jesus we too die to live, burying the seed of our life in the world with God’s grace, bear the fruit of the gospel into the world. Amen.