“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” As Vernon writes, this passage from John chapter 12, which Faith in Real Life discussed this week, highlights the divide over how we value life. “Our individual identity resides in how we are different,” but “Our unity with God depends upon how we are the same.” Often we find ourselves caught somewhere between these two points, but living out the faith we proclaim will find us following Christ’s example.
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
These last few days have been strange and a bit disorienting. I’ve been melancholy and have felt distant from the text. Usually I have some spark or reaction to a text that grows over the week. Not this week. As I have observed these feelings I have come to the conclusion that I am both resisting Lent more this year and paradoxically, I am taking Lent more seriously. It is hard to trust God in the face of the many changes, losses and deaths that surround us. It is always tempting to call the difficult and terrible things that happen in our lives ‘bad’—but we do not get to make that call. It is God’s alone. There is no way we, or the disciples could imagine the new life Jesus promised. They could only see the defeat and pain. But suffering, loneliness and even death did not alter Jesus’ reliance upon God and he did his best to explain that to his disciples.
“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.” I have no idea how the first century citizen understood plant growth but on the face of it, even today, it is inconceivable. A single seed is buried—for days. Its shape,form and substance ‘disappear’. It dies. And then it is transformed. The single seed becomes something entirely different and it becomes the source of many, many more seeds. It is so commonplace, I think we forget how amazing it is.
It is a good image and one most of us can grasp. But in real life, such transformation is disconcerting and often very expensive. It means letting go, surrendering our idea of who we are and trusting our lives to God. Whether it is facing our mortality, facing changes in the routines and relationships or giving up the idea we can manage our worlds, most of us hold on to what we know. We hold on to what we call our ‘self’.
Our individual identity resides in how we are different. How we compare and how we rank are the world’s ways of defining people and we all buy in at some level. Instead of living life fully within the limits of our lives, we waste our life energy trying to hold on to what we cannot keep or complaining about what we do not like. I can not explain why some people live in poverty and I live comfortably. I cannot explain why some people have cancer and others do not. All I know is that trying to explain such things often distracts us from living until we die.
Our unity with God depends upon how we are the same. Everyone of us is created by God and everyone of us is dependent upon God. The only self that can transcend time is the self that relies upon God. Everything else we would rely upon to define us will fade and finally end. Eventually our looks, our wisdom, our wealth, our social status and even our egos will be lost.
The crucifixion and resurrection make it abundantly clear that what we call life is very different from what Jesus called life. Eternal life is not a continuation of what we know, it is a something brand new. It is a new creation. It is a trust in God and a unity with God no matter what happens to us.
I can understand that concept but in real life, the life I know is all that I know. This year Lent has pressed upon me that Jesus calls us into an unknown future. And though he promises transformation, we cannot keep things ‘as they were’. I understand and the more I understand that this is the Lenten call, the more melancholy and resistant I become. I do not give up what I know easily. It is hard to live into that unknown future.
There is an Indian parable that applies here. A young man is taken aside by his grandfather. The grandfather tells him that there are two wolves inside of him. One is aggressive, demanding and always wants to win. The other is calmer, kinder and more mindful. The young man asks, Which will I become? The grandfather answers, It depends on which one you feed. Each day we choose whom we will serve.
Will we hold on to what we know? Can we trust God? Can we choose to lose our identities as individual kernels of grain in the faith that something different, even unimaginable can result? This is a daily discipline and one I understand a whole lot better than I practise. The promise of new life is comforting. The losses and lostness that are required to get there is another story all together. But Lent means choosing to enter our grief and our disorientation. Choose this path. It is counterintuitive and full of sorrow but Jesus promises that this is the way to eternal life.
“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
Follow Him. Join Him. His steadfast love endures forever. Let it be so.
P.S. I realized as I worked on this blog that the emotional tone is the product of my own transitions as well as the spate of deaths that have hit the church. Personally, I am settling into a new life at the church but I was unprepared for the emotional jolt of leaving a space I had used for over 21 years. Even a ‘good’ change includes loss. I have always been a man of routines but I didn’t quite know how much I had invested in them until they changed. Likewise, the deaths at the church. We all ‘know’ death is coming but even a ‘good ‘death changes everything. And a sudden death slaps us in the face. The promise of resurrection does not soften such disorientation as much as it allows us to endure and live through it. I believe that is what Jesus did on the cross. God be with us all.