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April 2, 2006 (Lent V)—“The Seed That Bears Much Fruit”
Pastor David Barber
John 12: 20–33
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Next Sunday will be the 61st anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Just about two months ago on February 4, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth.
The last couple days of his life are somewhat obscure, but we do have some testimony from other prisoners. He was imprisoned with others from all over Europe, and one of those prisoners was an English officer by the name of Payne Best.
In writing about Bonhoeffer he tells us that “Bonhoeffer...was all humility and sweetness; he always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive... He was one of the very few men that I ever met to whom God was real and close.”
On Sunday, April 8th, “Pastor Bonhoeffer held a little service for the prisoners. He spoke just the right words to express the spirit of their imprisonment...
“He had barely finished the last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said: ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.’ Those words ‘come with us’—for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing—the scaffold.”
Payne Best writes: “We bade him good-bye—he drew me aside—‘This is the end,’ he said. ‘For me the beginning of life.’ Next day on April 9th, at Flossenburg, he was hanged.”
The events of the day before took place at Schonberg, a little village in the Bavarian forest. “A school classroom was his last halting place, and men from every country of Europe and of differing creeds were his last companions on earth.”
Today Jesus tells us, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Again and again in one situation after another we have seen where the death of a seed, the death of a person, the death of our ego, the death of our hopes and dreams has resulted in something that has borne abundant fruit.
In our Gospel for today, some Greeks came to Philip wanting to see Jesus. Perhaps they had heard of his many signs and wonders and wanted to meet this illustrious worker of miracles.
But now Jesus heroically says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” The hour is finally here. On three other occasions in the Gospel of John, Jesus has told us that his hour had not yet come. In addition, on three other occasions, Jesus referred to his impending hour.
But now he says, “It’s here. The hour of glorification has arrived.”
At last, at long last, the Son shall be glorified, Enough of this waiting! At last Jesus shall finally throw off the clothes of his humanity and reveal his “glory.” At long last Jesus will step to the stage and be recognized as the “Man of the Year” and receive his reward.
But the glory that Jesus talks about and the glory that we often envision are 180 degrees apart. His glory is shocking.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies...”
We praise God as the glorious one who is high and exalted and lifted up, but Jesus speaks of divine glory—as a seed falling to the earth and dying.
He speaks of God’s glory not in terms of his exaltation but in terms of his humiliation. He speaks of God stooping down. He points us to the cross and the glorification that happens there. As with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jesus shows us a glory that is viewed from the underside of life.
In contrast to the cross, we usually think of God’s glory as a matter of God’s exalted distance. We are low. God is high. God is transcendent, eternal, invisible, and infinite.
For instance, we usually don’t build one-story churches or naves, do we? If we can afford it, we try to build our churches as grand and glorious as we can—high, lifted up, and exalted.
We don’t write church anthems for the harmonica or the kazoo, but we throw up a thousand pipes and pullout all the stops on the organ and we sing, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”—except during Lent of course.
The Greeks came to Philip and they said, “We wish to see Jesus.” We want to see the glorious one who has come from a glorious God.
But then they were shown the one who said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.”
This is not our idea of glory. Those who receive glory in our world make the cover of Time magazine. They do the victory dance in the end zone after the touchdown. They give you the finger—the index finger, of course—shouting, “We’re number one!” The road to glory is the road to the “Final Four” and the NCAA basketball championship.
Several years ago there was a movie that inspired many in the field of education—Mr. Holland’s Opus. Mr. Holland was a musician who desperately wanted to compose a symphony. That was his dream—the goal that he has set for himself in order to be successful.
But his wife becomes pregnant. Perhaps he didn’t realize his part in this particular predicament because he receives the news ungracefully. How’s he going to have time and money to compose a symphony with a child to support?
He comes to grips with the reality that stares him in the face, and he finds a job as a music teacher in order to make enough money to support a child and to have time to compose his life’s work.
He had never taught before. He was given a class of students who were musically illiterate and didn’t want to be there. He didn’t want to be there either. He was simply using his teaching job.
He believed that his talent and his creativity could be utilized to the greatest degree by composing a symphony. But his teaching responsibilities forced him to make choices between his students and fulfilling his dream.
Bit by bit this independent composer understands that his true calling is teaching and helping his students to realize their potential. As a result, he becomes a positive and empowering force in the lives of his students.
In the end, the fruit of his labor does not appear as notes on a page. It’s all the individual students that he encouraged and nurtured through his teaching. This is the fruit that grew and prospered and endured when he surrendered himself and his life-long dream of composing a symphony.
Perhaps Mr. Holland represents the many people who mirror the single grain of wheat that dies but never receive recognition and sometimes never see the abundant fruit that grows as a result of their surrendering—for instance,
“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.”
We lift up the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it’s good that we have such examples to give us inspiration and to show us what it means to be faithful.
Not all of us can do and will do what he did. But who knows! He didn’t set off one day to be a martyr. This is where the path led him just by being faithful and responsible and obedient to God in ordinary ways everyday in the context in which he lived.
Right here in this place opportunities present themselves in the living room, in the classroom, in the shop, in the nursing home, in the church, in the political process—opportunities abound where we can become that grain of wheat that dies in order to bring forth abundance.
By the way we teach, by the way we parent, by the way we treat this child, this parishioner, this creation, this person who is poor, by the decisions we make each and every day, we are given an opportunity to become the words of Jesus.
The Gospel of John makes it very clear that the death of Jesus on the cross is an act he freely chose out of love for God and for the world. This is a love that knows no limits, and this is how he will be glorified.
He suffered and was crucified. He became a grain of wheat. He was cast into the earth and buried under the sod.
In his dying, he was lifted up from the earth—and this was the only time that he was high enough to look down upon us from the heights of glory. He looked down upon us from his cross.
In a similar fashion, St. Francis captures this glory when he prays:
“Grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and
it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Copyright © 2006 David Barber
Comments welcome at email@example.com