Mother Katherine’s sermon preached March 21, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Mar 21, 2021 in Lent, Sermons

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 21, 2021

This is one of my favorite passages in the gospels. Here Jesus explains what we know as “Good Friday” by pointing to Easter and showing it is possible only through enduring what comes before it, through experiencing our present trials as part of walking with him. He tells them that hour has come, and “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.”

Jesus speaks this hard truth anyone would rather avoid, though cannot. Like the Easter hymn says of the wheat buried in dark earth, Love is come again like wheat that springeth green. But to do so, first it must stop being only a single grain—it must die to that limiting reality—and then be in the dark earth where it ‘dies’, transforms, and begins life anew. One solitary grain of wheat becoming as many as 120 more grains! Salvation requires such transformation and promises it, and the experience of Jesus’ next days will follow this analogy, they will learn it first hand.

This is where Jesus’ focus is when the Greeks come and ask to see him. They are not Jews, but they’ve heard of him and want to know for themselves. Philip hears them and confers with Andrew, and they go to tell Jesus. I picture him like a parent working from home, trying to avoid the hundredth distracting request of the day from his child saying, “Hey dad, guess what?!” Like the work-focused parent, Jesus doesn’t really answer their question. He tells them what’s on his mind instead; “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.” I can imagine Andrew and Philip looking perplexed as they think, but what about the Greeks? Do the two disciples understand Jesus has catapulted ahead to the big-picture fulfillment? Philip and Andrew had been with Jesus some three years now and a part of him is in them too. They could have answered the Greeks’ request by being themselves part of what Jesus has ‘planted.’

Jesus’ metaphor of a grain of wheat is genius, and the time has come for the disciples to carry out his ministry and for Jesus’ death, burial and ‘glorification,’ meaning to esteem, to ascribe weight by recognizing the real substance of him. What’s beautiful about Jesus answer here is that rather than speak only of himself, he speaks of them too as grains of wheat to be transformed into holy fruitfulness. 

Once again we are talking about experience, not knowledge or doctrine or worthiness. Experience. Because salvation is first an experience. All the rest comes after the primacy of personal experience of love, one in which self is no longer at the center, and yet we become even more ourselves. Think of it like singing beautiful hymns together, being awed by the mountains or a sunset, grieving alongside someone you love—even falling in love itself. All of these are experiences akin to salvation, and their potency is indelible because we cease to be the center. We lose ourselves in them and that experience leaves us greater or more somehow, more enriched than before. When we love someone and care about another we are able to set aside so much of our own egos or those me-first kind of wants. Against all odds this experience of love doesn’t diminish us, it gives us more, makes us more. (Jesus’ new math?!) 

It is another paradox in our walk with Christ; that the experience of love makes us feel we are more genuinely ourselves, as we surrender more and more to Jesus’ way. This is what Jesus is getting at when he speaks of those cherishing their own life above all will lose it, those with less love for their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal (my translation). This, Jesus tells them, is happening soon, ‘the hour has come,’ and they will see and know this holy paradox. It is what we just sang in the hymn,  “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul?” Jesus could have left Jerusalem and avoided crucifixion, been just another itinerant teacher and healer and seldom remembered much beyond his own generation. Instead, he loves us enough to go all the way into this death to be raised anew like that grain of wheat. Did they know and love him as the savior of the world before his death and resurrection? I can’t say exactly, though him having done so, their surprised awe and joy becomes an emphatic yes! 

We can turn those questions around to ourselves too; Do we love Christ so that he will save us? (Like using a loyalty card to get the most points or the best price?) To love God IS to be saved. Do we love him and do as he commanded because it’s our ticket to heaven? Loving and living his way IS heaven, on either side of the grave. 

Salvation in Christ is freely given us, we cannot set about to achieve it any more than we can decide to love someone. It must be experienced, given and received. We can rationally choose to be moral beings, to be Episcopalians, but we cannot intellectually choose to love, we must experience it. We can read about snow or even see pictures, but they cannot come close to the experience of the world shining white outside your window, or the shimmering flakes falling into your face from the night sky. It bursts in on our consciousness whether we believe in it or not! Can you recall the first time —or the most recent time —you experienced God’s love? Often it comes upon us out of a ‘grain of wheat’ period; when we endure a kind of death or grieve a loss, eventually looking up from an earthy darkness, we rise to discover what we have become in the process.

Whether one considers it an act of God or simply think you’re lucky to have been in the right time and place, it is a time which can leave us breathless, surprised, opened up in a new way and blessed. Treating it like a fluke does nothing at all for us, except maybe get us back to our social media screens quicker. Pausing to be present and let it wash over us, be in us, is balm for the soul and nourishment for the spirit. It strengthens us for the next time of falling to the ground. 

He tells them, “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.” Jesus did not avoid his cross or his death, and we cannot avoid pain or loss or death either. But we can trust that from it God can bring life. Today is a good time for us to remember that promise; after a year of widespread death by infectious disease, missing the joy in human contact, and just this week tragic deaths brought on by a shooter in Atlanta. We need this truth today. Like a flashlight in the night this truth illumines our path home, Jesus’ promise is one we can grasp tightly and trust.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Or, because the word means both, “Sir, we wish to experience Jesus.” It’s what people of all ages and origins and distinctions have wanted from that time forward, and even if one doesn’t say so plainly, we still seek to experience his love as those Greek gentiles did. Today Jesus has to be seen through his people, through you and me, there is no other way. Who do you know that seems never to have known such a gift? Perhaps it’s someone who loves no one but themselves, or who is wrapped up in resentment or spews endless vitriol, someone profoundly incapacitated or paralyzed by the life they’ve had? For them, perhaps their whole self is saying (without words), Friend, I wish to see Jesus! And for that person, (for every person) there is someone who can be the bearer of the experience, the Christ moment that needs to happen—and maybe it is you. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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