A sermon on John 12: 24-25 by Nathan Nettleton
A truly remarkable man died this week. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard of the death of Jim Stynes. I do have one friend who hadn’t heard of Jim Stynes until he heard of his death, but he does live under a rock, and after just a few days he now knows quite a bit about Jim Stynes. My wife Margie can usually be relied upon to not have heard of anyone who was once a footballer, but in the case of Jim Stynes, not only had she heard of him, but she had met him, had a serious professional conversation with him, found him to be both charming and impressive, and distinctly remembers him having to duck his head to get through the door of her office!
My daughter Acacia completed a school research project on Jim Stynes just a couple of weeks ago. It was for Health Studies, and they had to choose and research a well-known person who had battled cancer, and Acacia chose big Jimmy. Acacia is never half-hearted in her research efforts, so she knows quite a bit about him now and was upset to hear of his death. Her thoughts went out immediately to his kids. I think the fact that Jim Stynes was a just couple of years younger than me may have made Acacia (and me) more aware of what the death of a father would mean.
So I was the one in our family with the least personal connection to Jimmy Stynes, although I think I’m the only one of us who saw him play football. But you don’t have to have had a personal connection or seen him play football to have a sense of loss at the death of this man. There was a six page lift-out in the Age newspaper the day after he died. Even in sports-mad Melbourne, I can’t remember that happening too often before. And he’s being given a state funeral. They don’t hand those out for nothing. It might have been football that first brought Jim Stynes to prominence, but there are a lot of people who have little interest in football who regard Jim Stynes as a hero and are grieving his death this week.
There are plenty of ways of explaining why he was so loved and admired, and lots of people have already done that, but I want to veer off in a slightly unorthodox direction and suggest that a big part of what earned him such reverence was that he was an outstanding example of the truth of something we heard Jesus say in our gospel reading tonight. It is not because it had anything to do with Jesus that we loved Jimmy Stynes for this, but because deep down we all know it to be profoundly true, and we recognise that most fully and most easily when we see it lived out before our eyes by someone like Jimmy Stynes. So, as extreme as it may sound, I am suggesting that Jim Stynes was, in some ways, a Christ-like figure, and that that was why people loved and admired him so much. And because of that, the Jim Stynes story can help us see something of what Jesus is on about and what it means to follow him.
As we heard earlier, Jesus said, “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.”
Although this saying does have reference to what happens when a person dies, and Jesus was increasingly aware of his own impending death when he said it, it is not only or even mainly about what happens after a person’s death. It is about what happens in the way we live our life. If your life is about yourself and about establishing and guarding your own little space, your own little profile, your own little identity, then you will never be known or remembered for anything much more than your own little self. It is when you give up defining and defending your self and begin to give yourself away openly and generously that your life becomes a seedbed from which a bumper harvest of good things will grow which all the world will celebrate and enjoy and remember you for.
This is the number one thing about Jimmy Stynes that was so loved and will be long remembered. As Garry Lyon said, in a tribute that contained lots of fascinating insights into the dynamics of male friendships, “I was in awe of his capacity to spread himself around so generously.” The last word is the key. Some people spread themselves around desperately and needily. Jim Stynes spread himself around generously.
At some level, nearly everyone recognises how important that is. We hunger to be able to live like that. But as the metaphor Jesus uses makes clear, it is not easy to do. You can’t take hold of such a life without first releasing your grip on the life you think you own, and that takes more courage than most of us can muster. We are afraid that if we let go, we will simply disappear and be lost. Let me read you a quote from a book called Waiting, by Marya Hornbacher. She is not a Christian. In fact she is writing for people who know they need a spiritual transformation in their life but who don’t have any belief in God. But she sounds a lot like Jimmy Stynes and a lot like Jesus when she says:
“We need — our spirits are desperate for — the value of giving. Only when we have dislodged the deeply embedded desire to have, to keep, to own, will we make room for the spiritual self, which longs to give. It is in giving that the spirit connects with and works in the world. Until we allow it to do that, we will remain disconnected, isolated, and deeply afraid. Our lives as moral, spiritual beings will not begin until we value giving more that we value what we have. If our question truly is, how do I live? then the answer can only be I give.”
Sounds a lot like Jesus to me. “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.”
There are a lot of people who have become wealthy and influential and who have given it away generously, using their wealth and influence in charitable and philanthropic ways. But most of them still don’t inspire a six page lift-out and a state funeral. What else was it that made Jim Stynes stand out from the pack (apart from being close to two metres tall)? No doubt some of it can be explained just in terms of charisma. Jimmy was hugely charismatic and drew people to him effortlessly. They say that no one could work a room like him and that when he smiled at people, they had a tendency to reach into their pockets and give money. But there are other great fundraisers and magnetic personalities who haven’t evoked anything like the same affection. I think the difference again comes back to a generosity of spirit that was never content to just do good at a distance. The Reach Foundation that he established may now employ 200 people and work with 60,000 kids a year, but for Jimmy it seems that it was never about doing philanthropy for a generalised needy demographic somewhere. It was personal. As Gerard Whateley put it in a tribute this week:
“He didn’t speak in platitudes; he spoke directly to those that needed help. To the teenager in foster care full of bitterness and rebellion. The soul that seemed destined to be lost to drugs and crime or the scourge of youth suicide. His gift was the ability to reach across a divide no other figure of authority could bridge. He connected with the most disaffected.”
Another thing that has come through in many of the tributes was again summed up by Garry Lyon: “I was in awe of his total lack of self-pity.” This unusual lack to self-pity became most apparent in his battle with cancer over the last couple of years, but those who knew him had already seen it. But I think again that it is this same thing that Jesus is talking about: the ability to give oneself away generously. If my life is all about myself and I need to cling to it desperately, then confronting the prospect of losing my life will fill me with self-pity. Of course, the truth is that all of us have to confront the prospect of losing our life, because all of us are going to, but in an age when we can mostly avoid it so successfully for so long, we mostly live in denial until something like cancer kicks down our defences. But when cancer came Jimmy’s way, it seems that there wasn’t the usual denial to kick down and so self-pity didn’t get a look in. Acacia tells me that Jimmy spoke often of being grateful for the cancer and the things it had taught him and the opportunities it had opened up for him. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.” Because Jimmy gave his life away generously to others, when cancer came after him, he didn’t react with self-pity and suddenly change tack to try to focus all his energy on himself and saving his own life. Sure he put a fair amount of energy into that, but in the bigger picture he said, “Right then, what new tools and new opportunities does this give me to help make the world a better place?” Everything, even life with cancer, was a gift to be received with an open heart and shared generously for the life of the world. “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.”
Jesus went on to say, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” That doesn’t sound much like Jimmy if you take it too literally. By all accounts he was a man with a huge love of life. But, by all accounts so was Jesus, so I don’t think Jesus meant you shouldn’t love life or you shouldn’t care about your own life. The love-hate contrast he draws here is a bit of hyperbole that Jesus uses a few times while means something more like you shouldn’t fall in love with your own life or treat your self as though you were the be all and end all. It is the kind of rhetorical flourish you might hear said of Jim Stynes: he gave his life away so freely that you’d think he didn’t want it. And in so doing, he clearly demonstrated the truth of what Jesus said: those who give their lives away find that in so doing, they have gained life in all its fullness.
There’s lots more I could say, but I’ll limit myself to just one final point. I commented before about our tendency to avoid facing the prospect of death. I think that some of the depth of public grief for this man can be explained by the way his death challenges that denial and avoidance. You see, not only was Jimmy only 45 years old and the father of young children, and not only was he an elite athlete who should therefore be at less risk of health problems than most of us, but he was the most indestructible of them all. This guy played more consecutive games than any other player because nothing seemed to be able to keep him down. Several times he ended a game with injuries that everyone thought would keep him out of the game for weeks or even months, but every time he would pass a rigorous fitness test the next Friday and play again. True to form, he survived the cancer about two years longer than expected, bouncing back after repeated bouts of surgery, and so it seemed impossible to believe that he wouldn’t ultimately defeat the cancer and live to a ripe old age. So Jimmy’s death confronts us all with the reality that we ritually reminded one another of on Ash Wednesday: remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return; may the Lord give you life. If we have the courage to accept it, it might be the one last gift he wanted to give us as he departed.
The truth is that the cancer never defeated Jimmy Stynes. He was going to die anyway, just as we all do. Cancer only wins when it stops us from living our lives fully and generously right to the end, and Jimmy triumphed over that spectacularly and even miraculously. Along the journey, he inspired many many other people to believe that its possible and to embrace life rather than succumb to despair and self-pity. That’s why this city has made such a big deal of his passing this week. It’s also why I think that his life and death give us a window into what it looks like to live out these words of Jesus. And so as we continue our Lenten journey in the company of Jesus who calls us to follow him in the giving up and giving away of our own lives, we can do worse than look to the story of Jimmy Stynes for a glimpse of what that looks like when lived out boldly and expansively. That’s the life we have been baptised into. That’s the life we are seeking to pass on to our catechumens and our children. None of us here have either the athletic prowess or the charismatic leadership gifts that Jimmy possessed, so when our time comes, we are not likely to get six page lift-outs and state funerals. But if those things had mattered to Jim Stynes, he wouldn’t have got them either, because if you’re seeking your own glory, you haven’t begun to give yourself away. But give yourself away, generously and without self-pity, and you will be loved and honoured in this life and in the resurrection. “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 give away their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”