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Lent 5

Lent 5B: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13

Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

March 17, 2024



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. – John 12:24

 

            On Tuesday morning this week I woke up with a refrain in my head from an anthem by the liturgical music composer Marty Haugen. “Unless a Grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it will remain a single grain. But if it dies new life will grow and bring forth fruit. The fruit of love for the life of the world.”[1] This hadn’t been a familiar refrain to me until last June when I sat down to talk with my friend Iain, who was dying. One of many long conversations we had over his last year, in this one he shared that this anthem, along with Canticle of the Turning, was his favorite. I was very familiar with Canticle, a contemporary rendering of Mary’s Magnificat, but the Haugen anthem was completely new to me. As this was the conversation in which I went on to “trick” him into helping plan his funeral (as he later laughingly glossed it to our friend, Deacon Hailey McKeefrey Delmas), I pushed back when he demurred that Unless a Grain of Wheat probably wouldn’t work. Yes it could! I said. It could be a beautiful Communion anthem. And so it became. A small impromptu choir, including members of Iain’s parish, St. Peter’s Redwood City, and our friend Sarah Lawton sang the verses while the refrain was printed in the booklet for the rest of us to join. All day long on Tuesday that refrain flowed through my head, prompted by today’s gospel on which I was anticipating preaching. And then I remembered at the end of the day when I logged onto Facebook that it was also Iain’s birthday. Thank you, friend.

            Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it will remain a single grain. But if it dies new life will grow and bring forth fruit. The fruit of love for the life of the world. The end of Haugen’s refrain pushes the boundaries of our text somewhat, and I’ll return to that, but otherwise its translation of John 12:24 overlaps with our own.

It begins with the image of the grain, ὁ κόκκος, a seed. How fantastic and truly fruitful this image is! Jesus uses the same term for seed in other gospels, particularly the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32 and Luke 13:19). The mustard seed, you’ll recall, is tiny. The plant that emerges from it is huge by comparison, large and expansive enough to accommodate untold numbers of birds and their nests. Seeds are transformative. They incubate vast, wild growth. The Apostle Paul also uses this term in the famous fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians.[2] “But someone will ask,” he says, “‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain” (1 Cor 15:35-37). Insulting interjection notwithstanding, Paul is working with the same image Jesus had: a seed that grows into something gloriously transformed from its current form, a process we need help imagining. As Paul describes it, that transformation requires something first, namely death. And this is where Paul’s interjection comes in. Lest resurrection seem ridiculous or irrational – which, if we’re honest, it can indeed seem – Paul is saying, it’s not actually unfamiliar to you. Life emerging out of death is something we observe every day in the plant world. The seed of new life very often comes from the death of a parent blossom. I think of the large, pepper-corn-like Morning Glory seeds emerging from their globe-like pods, or of the vast quantities of tiny California Poppy seeds that tumble out of their dried spears. If you weren’t already familiar with them, you couldn’t look at these seeds and know what amazing, colorful new forms can grow from them. Their richly embodied life is made possible by the death of their previous blossoms. Seed into plant, plant into bloom, bloom into seed, death  and life woven together in an expansively fruitful cycle.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it will remain a single grain. In John’s gospel Jesus has traveled into Jerusalem with many others for Passover. John’s version of the entry into Jerusalem, the story we’ll hear next Sunday, has already happened (John 12:12-19). He is approached by Greek speaking Jews who sought him out through his disciples Philip and Andrew. In reply to their expressed desire of this new group to see him, Jesus references the arriving “hour” of his glorification, a glory that we readers/listeners are implicitly invited to contemplate ourselves. What does that glorification look like? It looks like the mystery of death and resurrection. For John’s Jesus, that mystery has a distinctive verticality combined with the image of death and new life, of deep growth in God. This is where the seed image comes in. The grain first “falls into the earth and dies.” Note that it falls—I think of it as a kind of tumbling, not entirely in control. Note too that it falls into the earth, the place from which seeds and their new life emerge. But that emergence requires death. Without it the seed remains as it is – the translation we are given is “a single grain,” which is true enough. But the word grain is missing here. The adjective, μόνος, can be rendered single, or alone. There is a solitary quality to the single grain image. But by contrast, the death process that allows the grain to grow brings about πολὺν, many. More specifically πολὺν καρπὸν, “much fruit.” Abundance. A single grain abides or remains in in a more solitary state, but through the process of falling to the earth it grows and connects into something larger than itself, something replete with life, something deeply communal, abundantly relational.

Haugen’s anthem lyric reads, But if it dies new life will grow and bring forth fruit. The fruit of love for the life of the world. Love in John’s gospel is a deep abiding that connects with the life of the collective whole. John uses the image of the vine and its multiple branches to envision this whole in the fifteenth chapter of this gospel, as we will hear in Eastertide. In our passage, love has is a living quality that rises like a stalk of wheat growing up toward the sky. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus invites us to envision, “will draw all people to myself,” as our translation rendered it (John 12:32). But the word people is not in the Greek – it is simply πάντας, all plural, all things, the whole. If we hear this phrase in a relational context we might think of the moment in the nineteenth chapter of John’s gospel when Jesus, near death on the cross, lifted up, looks down and gives the beloved disciple and Mary his mother to one another, through language of beholding: “woman, behold your Son…behold your mother” (19:26-27). We behold Jesus having fallen to the earth, now in and through death being lifted up, redrawing boundaries of family, creating new possibilities of life and love in the midst of and in the face of the death-dealing systems of his world, of our world. This is love that acknowledges tragedy and horror, systemic evil, pain and suffering, and plants itself in death in order to birth something new, expansive, connected, just. I am reminded of the revolutionary proverb, drawn colorfully on one of the signs we made back in 2017: “They thought they could bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”[3] I am reminded too of the life that bursts forth in decorations of hope, community, and possibility imaged in the decorations strung across this space today. The incredible creative effort that went into their creation over several weeks, the life experienced even in the process of their construction as much as their enjoyment last night (and today).

Jesus invites us into love, a love that imagines new possibilities for life and relationship, a love that refuses enmeshment in the death-dealing structures of our world, a love that opens itself to transformation from out of death. A deeply creative love that bears fruit in living color, drawing people together into newness of community, possibility, and life, on this side of the grave, even as it promises resurrection on the other side of death. Jesus invites us to behold this process together: a seed falling into the earth, relinquishing the world’s power, refusing familiar order that gives us the illusion of control, bearing forth new abundant life together, in community. Jesus invites us into love.


Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it will remain a single grain, but if it dies new life will grow and bring forth fruit, the fruit of love for the life of the world. Amen.

 

 


[1] Marty Haugen, “Unless a Grain of Wheat Falls into the Earth,” GIA Publications.

[2] Κόκκος in Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, (1885) 1979), 352.

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