It’s the time of year for sowing seeds. Even if you’re not the world’s greatest gardener can I encourage you sow something in the next few weeks? While many restrictions remain in place and we have less to look forward to, sowing seeds can be a great way of building anticipation and generating hope at minimal expense.
A seed is an amazing thing. Outwardly most seeds don’t look like very much. Some are like dust in the bottom of the packet. If we did not know any better, I am sure no one would believe they could produce a crop of vegetables or flowers. It is an act of faith; perhaps more or less depending on your horticultural skills.
Yet, the truth is that even in the tiniest and most insignificant seed, the potential for life lies within. But none of that life will emerge if the seed is left in the packet. Instead, the reverse will happen. Over time, most seeds will lose their ability to produce new life. For the non-gardeners among you, every packet comes with a ‘sow by’ date. The seed must be sown, to be cast adrift into the soil or the compost in the pot…to be buried if you like, to be lost, to die and cease to exist as a seed if it is to germinate and produce a new fruitful plant.
For Jesus, this is a powerful illustration, not only for his own life but for his followers too. It is the Passover festival in Jerusalem and Jesus has arrived on the back of a donkey, making the bold statement that he has come as king …but more of that next week. People from all over the world had come to the city for the great Jewish festival celebrating God’s rescue of his people from the grip of Egyptian oppression. There is added excitement because news is spreading fast that Jesus was in town. Could he be the one, the Messiah? Would he free the Jews from Roman oppression? Everyone wants a bit of Jesus, a bit of the action including some Greeks who met up with Philip. He told Andrew and the pair of them went to tell Jesus that he was in demand. His popularity and celebrity status were growing.
Jesus appears to agree with them. ‘The hour has come’ he says, ‘for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ (John 12.23) Then as so often happens with Jesus, there is more to it than meets the eye. He wants the disciples to see things a little differently from the Jerusalem crowds, from contemporary thought. He wants them to be counter cultural.
He introduces the little parable about a seed, a grain of wheat. It must fall into the earth and die. If it doesn’t, it will remain no more than a single grain, but if it dies in the soil, it will bear much fruit. It will, as we know, reproduce itself many times over because each ear of wheat contains many grains.
In understanding what Jesus was saying, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know that he had to die; that his body had to be sown like a seed, giving himself up, carrying the pain and guilt of the world’s sin in order that those who would believe in him would receive forgiveness and new life. Jesus’ earthly life is the seed that must be sown, that must be given up for the life of the world; in order to bear fruit in all who come to him in faith.
Jesus uses the picture of the seed being sown to foretell what he knows will happen to him very shortly in the fevered atmosphere of Jerusalem. Then he casts it wider; to whoever will listen. ‘Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ (John 12.25) These are strong words. The pandemic has rather focused our minds on the importance we place on life. Do we lockdown society to preserve human life at all costs or do we allow people to retain some freedoms accepting that more would fall victim to the virus? That has been the difficult call that our leaders have had to make over the last year, but it illustrates how much we value physical life. It is precious and sacred. It is not something that should be easily given up.
But Jesus reminds us here as elsewhere that the special gift of physical human life is part of something much bigger; of eternal life, of the life that is God. When we fail to see it like that and spend all our energies trying to make our human lives more comfortable, believing that improved standards of living and entertainment alone will satisfy us, we are on a hiding to nothing. The potential for meaningful eternal life in God dies. We will lose our life. We are simply giving the packet of seeds pride of place on the mantlepiece while the contents go out of date and die.
If on the other hand we stop loving our lives for themselves, even hate them by contrast. If we are prepared to use our lives in ways that will develop and grow our faith in Jesus and encourage others to join us in that faith, then they will be fruitful in eternal things, in the life of God. In denying ourselves, we are in effect sowing the gift of our physical life so that from it comes endless blossom. Tellingly, Jesus continues: ‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’ (John 12.26) For Jesus, his glorification was just around the corner, but it was not the glorification of his life in the way we might expect for an earthly monarch. Instead, it was to be the glory that God would bring to him through the cross …and he calls on us to follow him.
Human instinct is to hold on to what we have, to preserve life as we experience it, to make life as comfortable for ourselves and those around us. Yet, in these words and the events of the last week of his ministry, Jesus looks beyond that instinct to truth and life which can only be found in relationship with God. Through death, he will make a way to eternal life and he calls us to follow him in that.
Our Lent Course has done much to help us think about how we share the Christian story. This week, we shall look at our world and explore the ways in which people ask questions like: ‘whare we?’, ‘what is wrong?’ what’s the solution?’ and what’s the future?’ Despite many people’s concerns with wealth, status and image, those key questions are not far below the surface. When hear them asked, it is a chance for us to help them see that in Jesus, his countercultural teaching, sacrificial death and glorious resurrection lies the answer.
Lent 5 Passion Sunday 21.03.2021