King's Acre Church, 2 April 2006

Dying to Live

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.”
“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.”

Now, I'm sure all of us are familiar with the concept of sprouting seeds – perhaps you've grown mustard and cress on a damp tissue to have in your salad, or perhaps you started a broad bean in a jar with blotting-paper when you were at school. I know we did. And we learnt all about how a seed was made, and how some were monocotyledons and some were dicotyledons. And no matter which way up you planted the seed, it always cleverly sent its roots downwards and its shoots upwards.

But for a seed to grow, it can't remain the same. The dicotyledons, I seem to remember, turned themselves into the first leaves, to get energy from the sun as well as providing energy from the stored carbohydrate. Monocotyledons, like wheat, remain in the ground and gradually disintegrate as their energy is taken up by the growing plant.

If I have a handful of wheat grains, I can eat them, one way or another. What do we eat that is made of wheat? (Cakes, bread, pasta, noodles, bulghur wheat, easy-cook wheat, kasha/buckwheat, pancakes). Or I could sow it, and grow more wheat.

Farmers nowadays buy seed wheat that has often been treated with fungicide and stuff like that so that when they sow it, it will be more likely to grow. But back in Jesus' time, and, indeed, until quite recently, you had to save some of the wheat from your crop so that you could plant that, and it would grow and you would have more for next year. And if there was a famine, it made it very difficult, because you had to choose between saving your wheat to grow, in the hope that you would have a better crop next year, or eating it then, and risking starving next year if you couldn't get any more.

You basically had a choice. Either you were satisfied now, and let next year take care of itself, or you rationed yourself now in order to have plenty next year. There basically wasn't any other choice. And, in fact, it was no choice at all. You had to have your seed wheat, or you would starve next year.

What's more, it wasn't enough just to store the seed wheat in your shed, or your cupboard, where the mice would probably eat it anyway. You had to go out there in the spring and plough your fields, and harrow them, and sow the seed – Jesus told one or two stories about people doing that, you might remember – and probably put fertiliser on the crop, and make sure your animals didn't get in there and eat it before it was ready, and so on and so forth. And eventually, assuming it didn't suddenly decide to throw a storm and flatten the whole field, you would be able to harvest your wheat.

The image of sowing a seed was very important to Jesus. We're a bit removed from it, here in the inner city – for us, wheat comes in the form of bread or pasta, or just perhaps those treated wheat grains that only take ten minutes to cook, and very good they are, too! But for Jesus, and, indeed for countryfolk today, growing crops are very important. I expect, when we go on our trip to Sussex at the end of this month, we shall see crops growing in the fields – and incidentally, grass is a crop, too, which is why it's not okay to walk all over a field that looks as though it's just growing grass! It's made into animal fodder for the winter months. Anyway, the point is, Jesus, and the people listening to him, would have been very familiar with someone going out to sow wheat – in fact, many of them would have done it themselves. You remember that story he told about the sower who went out to sow, and some seed fell on the path, and some fell among the rocks, and some fell in a weed-choked bit of the headland, but most of it fell on the good, rich soil, and grew and produced lots more wheat for next year. I always imagine that when he told that story for the first time, someone was actually sowing in the field, so he could point to them as an illustration.

But the point of today's reading is that Jesus was focussing on death. The seed must die, in order to sprout and to bring forth fruit. And Jesus knew that he, too, was going to have to die.

And he says that we, too, must die.

Those who love their life lose it,
and those who hate their life in this world
will keep it for eternal life.”

Sounds awful, doesn't it – if you enjoy life, it'll be taken away from you, and if you don't enjoy it, you'll have it forever! But I don't think that was actually what Jesus meant! In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, you often used very exaggerated expressions – if you wanted to say you preferred apples to pomegranates, for instance, you would say that you loved apples, and hated pomegranates. Remember how God allegedly said “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”. Same thing – just meant Jacob was the chosen one, not Esau. And it's like that when Jesus says “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

He doesn't mean to actually hate them, of course – how could he? Not when he tells us to love one another! But the idea is to put Jesus first.

And similarly, in the passage we're looking at, he doesn't mean it's wrong to be happy! We aren't meant to hate our lives and loathe ourselves – again, how could we, when we are commanded to love our neighbours as we love ourselves? It's fine to be happy, it's fine to enjoy life, it's fine to love, and to be loved. But, if we are to be Jesus' people, we do need to keep a light hold on things. One translation puts it: “The selfish person dies lonely. But the person who rejects selfishness will live forever.“

We don't like to talk about death in this day and age, of course, but all of us are going to die one day. In our society, death is brushed under the carpet, we use euphemisms like “called to higher service” or “passed over” or even “fallen asleep”. We assume that it won't happen to us until we are old and grey and full of sleep, and about ready to go. But that isn't always the case.

Time was, people often died young, and very often babies died. In fact, they used to ask of a new baby, “Has it come to stay?” because, all too often, it hadn't. And, sadly, women often died when they had babies, too. Modern medicine means that this doesn't happen nearly so much nowadays, and we try not to think about death and dying too much, and when we do, we tend to get all sentimental.

Jesus wasn't sentimental! He was realistic. He didn't want to die, but he knew that his death would bring about infinitely greater things than his being alive could ever do.

But it's not just about death. For Jesus, it was. But for us, it might be about change and growth. Think of those people whom God has called to serve him in another country, for instance. They had to let go of their old lives, and make a complete change. They had to die to their old lives, as it were, and allow a new life to grow. And you can't do that if you're still clinging on to your old life, whether actually, or just going back to it all the time in memory, and wishing you were still there! Letting go of the old, allowing it to die, allows for the new to grow.

If you think about it, a bird has to hatch from an egg, and a caterpillar has to pupate to turn into a butterfly. And if, for some reason, a baby bird doesn't grow inside the egg, or a caterpillar doesn't come out of its pupa into a butterfly, then the egg goes bad and the pupa rots away. We need to allow God to grow us and change us. The old preachers called it “Dying to self”; in our day, perhaps, we're more apt to call it “Letting go and letting God.” Whichever.

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.”

If we can let go, and let God; if we can hold very lightly to our present lives, no matter how happy they are; if we are prepared to “die to self”, then we, too, will bear much fruit. But we can't do it unless.

And one final thought: “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die....” It reminds me of what Jesus told his disciples a little later: “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” And again: “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.

When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.

So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

And that, my friends, is what Easter is all about. No one will take our joy from us. Amen.

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