Fifth Sunday in Lent (5B)
March 18, 2018
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. John 12:24
Our passage from the gospel of John is framed by a request from a group of Greeks. Having come to Jerusalem for the Passover, which was six days away, they approach the disciple Philip who together with Andrew bring this request to Jesus. It is a request to see him. As is often the case with the gospel of John, this request is more than it seems. Jesus responds to it as if they have asked not to come and speak with him, but to visually contemplate him, as if he were an icon, a multivalent tableau. Jesus frames his response with the ideas of his “hour” and his “glory.” This idea of the “hour” comes up repeatedly in John, often in the phrase “my hour has not yet come.” But now, he declares, it has come. “The hour has come for the Son of Humanity to be glorified.” Now he steps into a zone where the events he would undergo and the actions he would take all create a portrait he wants us to take in, to see at the deepest level. This is the gateway to John’s Passion Narrative, a series of stories leading up to and including Jesus’ death and resurrection. These stories form a textured, unified whole that the Gospel of John uniquely calls Jesus’ “lifting up.” This verb ὑψόω, “I lift up,” occurs frequently in John’s gospel. It carries a sense of being lifted up on high, of exaltation, as well as of visual display. We hear it toward the end of our passage when Jesus references being “lifted up from the earth” (Jn 12:32)
We heard this theme of uplifting last week as well, in the passage from the third chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus strangely compares himself to the bronze serpent on the pole. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” he said, “so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14). If you recall from Natalie’s sermon last week, that reference comes from the book of Numbers (21:4-9) in which the Israelites in the wilderness, rebelling against God, were bitten by serpents and then enabled to be healed by looking at a bronze serpent on a pole that God directed Moses to make and lift up. The serpent serves as a visual sign of illness that heals you when you look at it. Crucial to the healing dimension of that looking is that it takes you back through the story of the injury— not simply the present brokenness but its history. John’s gospel wants to say, and uniquely so, that Jesus’ own “uplifting” has this healing effect. Jesus is the wilderness serpent on the pole. And so in our passage today, when Jesus describes the outcome of the difficult days that lay ahead of him, he again gives this odd visual of being lifted up, evoking this dimension of healing, and on a vast scale as well. The Greek reads not specifically all people, as the NRSV translates it, but simply πάντας, “all things.” The scale is cosmic. It is as if all creation might turn and look, and be drawn upward with him as he is lifted up. As if all things might be healed.
A further dimension of this uplifting, this healing, is signaled earlier in today’s passage through a language of seeds and planting. Just after his response to the Greeks about his “hour” having come, Jesus declares, “Very truly I say to 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.” Here we get the visual of a grain proliferating only through its death. The text doesn’t just say “the grain has to die.” It has to fall into the earth(πεσὼν εἰς τὴν γῆν ἀποθάνῃ) and die. This falling is the bookend to the rising. What grows up must first have fallen down. The whole process is one of growth. When Jesus references being lifted up, he says specifically “when I am lifted up from the earth.” This visual of being lifted up carries much meaning. Both his death and his resurrection life are being shown to us at once. The death is a birth. To look upon the one being lifted up is to be reminded of a history of injury. It is to be brought into a cycle of death and new birth. It is to be is to be healed. It is to be born anew.
To see Jesus in this sense, as the Greeks requested, is to be shown an icon that is both challenging and deeply hopeful. But it is no passive seeing. It calls something out of us. It takes us on a journey. All through Lent we have been walking the wilderness, journeying with Jesus, making our way toward Holy Week and the sacred “hour” of a “glory” none of us can fully comprehend. Just after referencing the fruit born of a dying, planted seed, Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12:25). Each year there is something that Lent calls us to lose in order to receive it at a deeper level, transformed. When Jesus speaks of our “life in this world,” I hear him asking what we may be holding onto in our lives with a grip too tight. On what might we loosen our hold, letting it go? What in our lives needs to fall into the ground so that it might die and sprout and grow upwards into something newer and more glorious than we could possibly imagine? It might be an object, a practice, an identity, or perhaps some dimension of a relationship.
In our weekly Lent series, “Forgive Us As We Forgive,” we have been sitting with this invitation, this challenge. We have been learning about and sharing with another how the call to forgiveness which we take in each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, is actually a dimension of the call to turning and growth that is fundamental to our lives as Christians. As William Countryman points out in his book Forgiven and Forgiving, forgiveness is deeply connected to metanoia, usually translated as “repentance” or “conversion.” This term, meta-noiaultimately points to a transformation of mind, a letting go of our limited perspectives and seeking instead to take on as much as we can “the mind of God.”“Conversion is nothing less,” says Countryman, “than having our minds transformed according to the mind of God. By God’s grace, we seethings differently. And conversion – this new grasp of the world we live in – makes forgiveness possible for us.”
This taking on of God’s mind, this turning, does not necessarily happen in a straight-forward or easy manner. It is part of a process that Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho write about in their book The Book of Forgiving, on which we have also drawn in our Lent series. TheTutus describe us as invited into a cycle of forgiveness characterized by four specific steps: telling the story of what happened; naming the hurt, that is, naming how what happened has impacted you; and then comes forgiveness – granting it or receiving it, depending on whether you are the injured or injuring party.I see this step of forgiveness as what Countryman sees in connection with metanoia, by God’s grace, opening ourselves to the mind of God that we might perceive the injury as much as possible through God’s eyes, to seek to perceive the whole context and its circumstances as God might. The fourth and final step is either renewing the relationship that had been injured or releasing it. The Tutus do not presume that this cycle necessarily results in the reconciliation of all parties. They also don’t presume to know how long it might take—the steps, they say, can cycle back on one another along the way. What they do convey is that this processbrings abouthealing. Having been through this process in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, as well as in other interpersonal circumstances, they speak to the power of forgiveness in opening up a future that acknowledges, is impacted by, but is not imprisoned byhistory. This healing can touch individual hurts, and it can speak to injuries vast in scope.
This good news invites us to refuse to despair in the face of the magnitude of our injuries, whether individual, familial, communal, or vastly wider in scope. God knows those hurts are present. God knows human beings have been harmed and continue to deeply wound each other. All of us are caught up in cycles of violence and harm. The good news is that God is with us in those places, God in Christ has come close to the pain, to use the language of Faith in Action that Natalie drew upon last week. Christ reminds us that we need not despair, however overwhelmed we may feel. Already Christ has given us the graceful gift of reconciliation and calls us to receive and embody it in all contexts. Not by ignoring our histories but by reckoning with them truly, authentically, seeking the mind of God that we might step out of what the Tutus call the cycle of vengeance and into the cycle of forgiveness, that all injustices, all cruelty, all vitriol, all racism, all sexism and abuse, all homophobia and transphobia, all gun-violence, truly all things—indeed even the earth itself -- might be transformed.
This healing with its invitation to look, to take in, to reckon with the whole of our actions -- this is an extension of what John’s gospel describes of Jesus in our reading this morning. In a book by Caroline Walker Bynum, a scholar of gender and embodiment in Western Medieval Christian thought, I once came upon a fifteenth century image of Jesus on the cross that particularly arrested me.In it he stands upright, holding his arms out, cruciform and crucified though no longer on a cross. Growing up, through, and out of the wounds on his hands and feet is a vine of both wheat and grapes. A chalice stands next to him, making clear a Communion connection. As a growing, living entity who has passed through death, this Jesus looks to me like a seed bearing plant with fruit offered to us. He is lifted up for us to meditate upon, a visual image of the paschal mystery as growth through death into newness of life, rendered as a sacrament to nourish and transform our own lives, our own bodies. And so this day we are invited to behold Jesus, to see him as wounded and transformed. To perceive and dwell prayerfully with the great sign of healing lifted up from the earth so that all things, including us, might be made new, might be drawn into a life whose transformation reverberates profoundly with the grace-filled freedom of God’s forgiveness.
William Countryman, Forgiven and Forging (Morehouse Publishing, 1998). In his use of this phrase, “taking on the mind of God,” Countryman cites the former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, e.g. p. 2.
Desmond and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), 49.
Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 107. The painting, dated 1469, is by the Studio of Friedrich Herlin and entitled “Christ with Ears of Wheat and Grape Vine.”