“Very truly I tell you unless a grain of wheat ... dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus only ever offered two explanations for his death (although he anticipated it several times). All the gospels report in different ways that he died at Passover and shared a last meal with his disciples in which he wrote himself into the sacred meal as the Pascal lamb, as bread and wine. And then this story which he told to the Greeks – those outside the Jewish faith. (RCL John 12:24)
Now we have since the first century made up some fairly complicated and rock solid explanations of the meaning of the death of Jesus but these words are simple, profound and symbolic rather than legalistic or prescriptive. “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.”
Then and now people could understand from their experience of agriculture and nature that for many species the seed of last year’s crop needed to apparently die by falling into the ground before more could be grown. The Gentiles may have known, and certainly Jews of Greek and Israel would have known that God had often spoken promises of hope and words of judgement in images of agriculture. And the Greeks, Gentile and Jewish, would have been familiar with images of the great cycle of life - birth, life, death, and new life – that were present in the wisdom traditions.
The image of the grain of wheat that dies and becomes many grains is a timeless image of new life that comes out of old and really quite universal. In this way it is a very contemporary image of life and death that helps us understand not only the death of Jesus but also helps us understand our own experience of the little deaths of failure and endings and the great death that awaits us but we trust will only prove to be the great transition.
Firstly we need to say a little about the image in terms of the death of Jesus, although that will of course become our special focus at Easter. In claiming this saying by Jesus and applying it to Jesus we are claiming that his death – for all its pain and suffering and apparent failure – was part of a great cosmic cycle of living and dying which brought life to the many, which multiplied life and magnified love. We are declaring it purposeful and salvific.
In the light of the reading from Jeremiah about the Passover covenant and the new covenant that will be put in the hearts of the people directly so that they/we will know the Lord and not need to be taught, I believe that Jesus as the representative person of the old and new testaments is bringing to a conclusion the old covenant and subsuming it within the greater covenant of his sacrificial death that bring life multiplied and magnified. It is not that old covenant is wrong but rather as we will say at Easter that death is swallowed up by life we can understand that the old covenant of the perilous journey from slavery and oppression to freedom is swallowed up within the new covenant of the death of the single seed that become the birthing of the great life.
And now how we might gain comfort and wisdom and strength from the image of the grain of wheat that dies in our own small ordinary lives? Psychologically there is much truth in this image. We constantly need to let things – ideas, obsessions, loves, hates, judgments – die away, fall away, so that what is next, what is better, what is more life giving can emerge from the earth of our life.
I’m not sure why so many of us find this so hard to do, why the metaphoric death of something feels so much like – death! Most us resist death, endings, letting go, giving away and giving up even when we’ve been through the process often enough to know that it is necessary and “works”. I guess partly because dying of any kind is painful and has some uncertainty to it. That there will be life the other side does not mean we know precisely what sort of life will be the other side of what we are giving up and giving over. And of course by definition when we die, even metaphorically, we give over control.
It is interesting that in Luke’s account of the garden of Gethsemane Jesus sweats great drops of blood he is so distraught by the process but by the time of the reference to his obedience and suffering in this morning’s reading he is talking about the glory of God. The suffering has been tidied up in some way. So whilst I love John’s gospel I think we need the more earthy gruesome accounts that we will hear over the next few weeks so that we can recognise our fear and struggle in the story of Jesus, so that we can see the humanity which we share with Jesus.
But not all death is metaphoric or tidy and we all have handed those we love over through the gates of death and know that one day we too shall need to give ourselves over to that process. Are we living and preparing to die in such a way that our death will most likely lead to rich life for us and for many?
Each little death of ours – of our ego, of our ailing bodies, of our ambitions and dreams – is a practice for the last death. We practice greeting death with courage and even familiarity so that the final death will be a going home, a passing over, a return to the source. Preparing for our death can also be a time of blessing for others, a preparing for the fruitfulness which will come from our dying. Have we written love letters to those we will leave behind? Have we written a will that will bring fruit to another generation of family and community including the church? Have we planted the seeds of joy and renewal – in our gardens, in our relationships, in our broken world?
And in truly cyclical wisdom – as the image of the seed dying into new life is – we are invited into an ever deepening understanding that we come from the cosmic stardust of heaven and shall return to it and in so doing will play our part in the dance of the Creator and creation. A great waltz, maybe a tango, a great circle dance of union and reunion, of return and return again.
So as we edge closer to the great mystery of Easter let us companion Jesus on his journey of surrender and death into life that we might be season by season renewed and prepared for our own great journey
that will not end until we are one with him and with all that are gathered up in his love.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come gather us in.