Unless a Grain Falls
5th Sunday in Lent
25 March 2012
One of my favorite church events of the year is the darkest thing we do. We gather every year on Good Friday, at nighttime, to walk through the story of Jesus’ last hours, to meditate on his crucifixion, and to sit in silence, in the dark, together. The service stands in stark contrast to my other favorite service, which happens on Christmas Eve, and is filled not with silence but with song, not with darkness but with light. On Christmas Eve we rejoice that God has come among us. On Good Friday night, we mourn God’s absence, the death of Jesus at our own hands.
One Good Friday, about nine or ten years ago, Paul and I were hustling around getting ready for the service, which involves a lot of attention to logistical detail. The lights have to go off at just the right time, the candles have to be snuffed out at various intervals throughout the service, readers have to do their readings, in the dark. For a service that is about crucial existential issues such as darkness, anguish, abandonment, death, and emptiness, there are an awful lot of pedestrian details to tend to.
On this particular evening, everything was finally in place, and we were ready to go. But just as I was about to enter the sanctuary to begin the service, a 6 year-old girl stopped me. “Pastor Stacey,” she said. “I understand that Jesus had to die on the cross. But what I don’t understand is why. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Why did Jesus have to die?”
What the little girl didn’t know is that she was asking one of the core questions of our faith, one that theologians have wrestled with for centuries. It is the deepest mystery, the darkest center of our faith. What does it mean when we say that Christ died for us? What exactly happened when he did? What happened for God in that moment, and what happened for us? How was anything made different, how was anything made right?
These are questions for which I could have offered elaborate theories worked out by long-dead theologians. I could have used words like “ransom,” or “substitute,” or “sacrifice,” or “moral influence,” or, my favorite, “Christus Victor.” I could have said things that made it sound like the whole thing was some sort of neat equation, that, once understood, was easily assimilated into right living. I didn’t say any of that.
Truth is, I don’t remember what I did say. I just remember her question, and how it hollowed me out. How it drew me up short. How it resonated with my own sense of wonder and longing. I remember finally going on into the service, and listening to the old story again. I remember sitting in the dark.
Sometimes lately, as I’ve been reading current news, I have felt a sense of pressing darkness. Reading the story of innocent civilians in Afghanistan – many of them women and children – asleep in their beds, in their homes – gunned down by an American soldier. I can’t bear it. And I think about that soldier, and what darkness must have taken hold of his mind, his soul, in the moments when he perpetrated such horror. And I think about his family. And I think about all the soldiers on all sides, and all the families, and all the civilians with war all around them. It’s too much.
And then this week, reading and hearing the story of Trayvon Martin, innocent, unarmed, 17 year-old kid, on his way to a friend’s house with some Skittles and an iced tea. Gunned down by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman because the guy thought Trayvon, a black kid in a hoodie, looked “suspicious.” And the gunman hasn’t been arrested because he claimed self-defense, against an unarmed kid. And I listened to the 911 calls, with Trayvon begging for help in the background. And I think about his mama. And I can’t bear it. The darkness, the hate, the fear – I want to look away. I want all of it to go away.
And I know these two stories are just two out of thousands, out of hundreds of thousands, of horrors and hatreds that happen every day.
Where is Jesus, in all this darkness? What did his death do, after all?
Some foreigners came one day to Phillip, one of Jesus’ disciples. They were Greeks, in Jerusalem for Passover. They came to Phillip and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” And Phillip told Andrew, and together they went and told Jesus. And here is how Jesus responded to this request – he told them he was going to die. “We would see Jesus,” they had said. “You want to see? See this: my suffering, my death.”
He tells a little parable. “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
What does a seed do, but go down into the dark? It falls down, into the deep, into the dank earth. And it dies. It cracks open and gives itself up. And it does this not for the sake of dying but for the sake of living, for life to spring out of it. And this is how Jesus responds when the Greeks say they wish to see him. Look at this, he says. Look at the seed, how it falls, how it dies.
“We want to see Jesus,” the Greeks say. “We want to see Jesus,” we say. And Jesus says, “Look at the dark. Look at this death.”
We would rather not, truth be told. We would rather make neat theories about what his death does, than to actually look at him there, hanging on the cross. It’s safer to theorize than to ponder the agony of his suffering, the horror of his death. It’s safer to make the cross a puzzle to be solved than to let our own hearts be pierced by his pain and by the pain of the world God loves.
Jesus saw his death coming, and John makes it very clear that he gave himself to it, he was no victim. It was what we came for – to give himself completely, in love. The grain falls to the ground and dies so that the wheat can grow. His death, like that of the seed, is necessary, and it is life-giving.[i] What’s more, in John, “fruit” is a way Jesus has of talking about the life of the community of faith.[ii] The saving power of his death will result in the blossoming of a community of believers who will redefine the meaning of life on the basis of Jesus’ death, on the basis of his self-giving love.[iii] If he hadn’t died, we wouldn’t be here. The seed of his life would fall to the earth, be buried, sit there in the dark, hidden, until it swelled, cracked, and broke open with new life,[iv] blooming into fields of wheat, blooming into a community of the beloved, who would offer their own lives in love, too.
He speaks of his death in this way – like the necessary self-offering of the seed – but then he moves from talking about what is hidden in the earth to what will be up high and visible, his cross. He says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John points out that he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. And those words are meant literally – he will be lifted up, on a cross, strung up there for all to see, nailed to two pieces of wood, to suffer, to bleed, to thirst, to die.
He was speaking of the manner of his death, but he was speaking also of its meaning, and of its power: he would be lifted up – raised, exalted, elevated over all other powers. He would be lifted up –to show us the very heart of God, impaled upon a cross. This is what we need to see when we look at his death – God, broken like us, broken for us, broken with love, bearing all our sickness and sadness, and drawing it all into himself, and then drawing us all to himself.
In his suffering and death, Jesus absorbed the worst the world could do and he didn’t do any of it back. It was put to death with him. Which is not at all to say that bad things don’t still happen, but that in his death he broke their power over us.[v] He conquered their ability to define us - or our response. In his death, the power of God’s transforming, self-giving love was lifted up over every other power.
We hear the news in our world, of suffering and death, and we want to look away. This is not what we want to see. We say with the Greeks, “We want to see Jesus.” And he tells us where to find him – look at the darkness, look at the cross.
Look at those innocent lives cut down in their beds in Afghanistan. Look at the soldiers, their families, so much pain on all sides of every war. Look at Trayvon Martin, look at boys like him everywhere, under suspicion, under threat of violence, for the color of their skin. Look at so much darkness and you will see God, cruciform. Christ, suffering, dying, but still lifted up, still drawing it all into himself and drawing us all to him, to love. Do not look away from the pain of our world – Christ is in it all, crucified. And Christ must in our response to it all.
The truth of the cross is that ours it not the only heart that breaks over this mad world. God’s own son laid down his life in solidarity with all the pain that ever was and that ever would be. The cross is the form of God’s love over our lives. The cross is meant to become the shape of our love in response.
All the suffering in our world is lifted up into God’s breaking heart. The cross reaches into every hidden place of pain or guilt, its arms span all suffering, all loss, all sin, and all death. The cross reaches all of it, and somehow, somehow will transform it all. Look at such love as this. Be drawn by such love as this. And then let our hearts, like his, crack like seeds that fall to the ground, so that what comes forth is more love, more life, his life, in us.
[i] Gail O’Day. New Interpreter’s Bible. “John.” 714. R. Alan Culpepper. The Gospel and Letters of John. 194.
[ii] O’Day. 711.
[iii] O’Day. 714.
[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor. “Unless a Grain Falls.” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering. 64.
[v] Taylor. 64.