I’ve been struck this Lent by the movement in our Sunday Gospel readings. Like an ocean current, they have been drawing us along Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. We began by being sent with him into the wilderness, where we are tempted and tried. In the desert we learn to clarify what is truly important — to cleanse the Temples of our hearts and minds, so to speak — and to take up our crosses and follow him, not because we have something to earn or to prove, but simply because we have received God’s new life and our lives are caught up in the current of that grace.
And now, today, Jesus offers us a sobering, but hopeful message: It is at this point, when we have taken up our crosses, when the weight of the world and its injustices and intransigence crush us like a germ of wheat, that we find our true lives:
Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. (John 12.23-25)
There’s an important interpretive question here and throughout John about what ‘eternal life’ means. In English, this expression is normally taken to mean life forever after death. But, whatever we may believe about the prospect of life after death, it’s unlikely that this is what John had in mind. It is not life that lasts for eternity, but rather life here and now that has the characteristics of Eternity. N.T Wright is on to something when he translates it as “the life of God’s New Age.” It is the Kingdom of God here present that is in view here: Those who love life-as-it-is will lose it, but those who surrender that life will live the Kingdom-of-God life. In other words, by giving up the way of the world, our lives are transfigured — no longer chaff, weeds growing wild, but beautiful trees bearing good fruit, our lights no longer dim but shining out brightly from the hilltops for all to see. There is love, joy peace, and so on in this world, but these signs of the good life do not come by clinging to what we know or by doing business-as-usual.
(As a side note, I think this yet another reason why it’s important to listen to marginalized voices in theology: Who is most likely to understand what it means to find true life after being crushed by the weight of the world than those our world likes most to crush?)
Of course for Jesus, all this talk of giving up one’s life and taking up one’s cross is not metaphorical. He knows where his life is headed. And, considering this discourse takes place just days before his crucifixion, it is headed there quickly. He says, “What should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ ” (12.27). This is a hard teaching, even for those of us who have had two thousand years to digest it. This is where the whole divine project of the Incarnation ends. The cross is not a set back for God’s plans; it is their fulfillment. Becoming human, showing humanity what life really looks like, was always going to end like this. God does not look like the world as we know it, God does not act like the power-brokers. God is not a ‘winner’. God looks like a man hanging on a cross, betrayed by religion, killed by the state, abandoned by his friends.
This is not shameful, the text says, but is actually a manifestation of God’s glory. It is in being crushed that the wheat bears its fruit.
“Now is the judgment of the world,” he continues. There is an inherent ambiguity in this expression that I think is intentional. The world is judged, but not with wrath and vengeance, but by its own judgment. In casting judgment against Jesus, the world reveals just how lost it is. The one who comes to heal, to speak truth, to do justice and make peace — he is the one the world cannot let live, the one it must crush.
And then come some of the most evocative words in the New Testament: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Again, characteristic of John’s love of rich double entendres, there is ambiguity here. The text has in view Jesus’ being ‘lifted up’ onto the cross. His death has a kind of spiritual gravitational pull, drawing in all of those crushed by the world who see in his death their own. But he will also be lifted up from the dead on Easter, drawing into new life those the world has crushed. And at his Ascension, he will draw them up with him to the throne of God.
And so there is hope — a promise of a new life of joy, love, and grace — in this reading from St. John’s Gospel, even as it presents us with a sobering truth. Those who cling to the ways of this world will lose their way. But those who let go of their life, will find it truly. For the wheat bears its fruit in dying.