A sermon on John 12:20-33 by Nathan Nettleton
One of the things many people find objectionable about the Christian faith is the apparent emphasis on self-denial. When Jesus uses words like those from today’s gospel reading – “Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal”- it is easy to hear the message as being very negative and life-denying.
It can seem as though our message becomes particularly bleak during this season of Lent. There is even more emphasis that usual on rooting out the sin in our lives and giving up things in order to try to discipline our bodies and our minds. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of beginning to think of Christianity that way ourselves and seeing those disciplines of self-denial as an end in themselves rather than as arduous but still necessary means to an end. Sometimes we can forget that the promise of Jesus Christ is life in all its fullness and that any of his statements about self-denial and giving up your life can only be properly understood as a part of that bigger picture.
Perhaps the most helpful image Jesus gives us to enable us to better understand all this is the one also contained in tonight’s gospel reading. “Very truly, I tell you, a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces much fruit.” Clearly Jesus is seeing a link between releasing our grip on life as we know it, and receiving the gift of life in all its fullness.
To some extent this is just common sense, something we learned in childhood, but we still find it remarkably difficult to apply it to the various areas of our lives. In early childhood we learn that you can’t hold everything at once. Parents of young children watch this realisation dawning. I remember seeing Acacia struggling with this reality when she was about two. She would be standing there with a toy in each hand looking at another toy that she really wanted to pick up and I could see her wrestling with the dilemma of whether she could bring herself to put one down in order to pick it up. Something must be relinquished if something else is to be gained. Sometimes she couldn’t sort it out so she’d just scream instead.
In some ways, what Jesus is saying is as simple as that. It is not possible to have everything or be everything at the same time. You can’t be a peace-maker and a fighter at the same time. You have to choose. You can’t spend eighty hours a week at the office and have a healthy relationship with your children. You have to choose. You can’t grow into the person you really want to be and refuse to change at the same time. You have to choose.
Pretty much everybody has dreams about what they’d like to become. It doesn’t mean that they hate themselves, but they have ways in which they aspire to be different than they are now. They want to learn to appreciate the little things, or they want be less driven by what other people think, or they want to be simpler and calmer and more at peace with the world. Listen to people making resolutions each new year’s eve and you’ll know that pretty much everyone has some sort of vision of the sort of person they’d like to be. What we don’t often ask ourselves is what price we are willing to pay to see that vision turned into reality.
God has a vision of the sort of person God wants us to be, because God knows what we were created to be. God knows what we are capable of becoming and is even more acutely aware than we are of how far short of that vision we actually are. And God is eager to see us growing into that vision and becoming the people we were created to be. But God will not impose it on us. God will not ride rough-shod over our wills and force us to become something we are not willing to become. So God calls us and pleads with us to follow. God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ to show us what the vision looks like – to show us what it looks like when love and freedom and grace and peace reach the fullness of their potential in a human being. And in Jesus Christ God also shows us what it can cost to become that and live that way. And in the end the choice is ours.
If we agree, God will do much of the work within us. We are not left completely to our own devises to try to work it all out by ourselves. Given permission, the Holy Spirit will get to work within us and begin reconstructing us, transfiguring us into the fullness of the potential that was always within us. But the Spirit will not usually fight us. Any areas of our life where we are unwilling to relinquish our grip will remain no-go areas for God’s Spirit. The more parts of your life you declare off-limits, consciously or unconsciously, the less God will have to work with to bring that vision to fulfilment and the more meagre the results will be.
If a grain of wheat drops into the ground and dies, then it produces much fruit. If a grain of wheat refuses to give up its present state of existence it will remain simply a grain of wheat and will produce nothing. When David is baptised in the Paschal Vigil service on Saturday week, he will be enacting his own letting go of his life, his own dropping to the ground and dying. He will be saying, in his words and his actions that night, that he is willing to give it all up to allow God to raise him to new life and remake him in the image of Christ. Most of us have already made such a statement, in our baptism, but the call to let go and entrust our lives to Christ is an ongoing, day-by-day one. If we are willing to let go of the life we have and place it in God’s hands, then God will be free to work with us and in us and we will be enabled to grow into what God only knows we are capable of being. But if we refuse to give up our lives and hold tenaciously onto life as we presently know it then, just like the grain of wheat, we will remain locked within the present limitations of our life and thereby prevented from ever becoming anything more. God offers us everything, but forces on us nothing. What price are you willing to pay to become the person you want to be and the person God makes it possible for you to be? It is not just a question of how much do you want to change. Often we can desperately want to change, but still be unwilling to let go of what we presently are. We have learned to live with our neuroses and our failings — we have even learned to make them work for us in their own twisted sorts of ways — and the possibility of real change is actually a terrifying step into the unknown. We continue to want it all —the security of our broken but familiar present and the wholeness we crave.
The message of most of today’s consumer marketing is that you can have it all, that you don’t have to choose between things, you can just have everything. It’s a lie. Some thing exclude other things – they take up the only available space. You cannot commit your life to acquiring things and possessing things and controlling things and simultaneously expect to be growing in love and grace and in your capacity to appreciate the simple things in life. The prayer of commitment at the end of our liturgy during Lent sums up the choice Jesus calls us to follow him in making:
- When the marketers offer everything
if only we have the money;
and you offer everything
if only we will do without;
I will take up my cross and follow you.
- When the marketers offer everything
If your hands are full, if your life is full, you’re going to have to put some things down before you can receive the fullness of life God promises to give you. God will give you everything if you’ll create the space. But as we know only too well, creating the space is a tough call, a hard road, and an unpopular choice. In a “you can have it all” kind of world, it is no surprise that the message of Jesus Christ is easily caricatured as life-denying, as stifling, as simply denying yourself all the good things that the world can offer. But when we re-read those easily ridiculed sayings of Jesus against the bigger picture of his call to life in all its fullness, perhaps we’ll see why so many of those who do the ridiculing are still making the same new year’s resolutions year after year after year. In Jesus of Nazareth we see that there’s a high price to be paid, but in the risen Christ we also see that it turns out to be a bargain!