Last Sunday I was the guest preacher at a small Presbyterian church. The Biblical text for the sermon was John 12:20-36, with a concentration on verses 23-26; Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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 love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
Honestly, last week I struggled with the passage and where I should go with the message. I’m not sure why but I think it has much to do with the whole dying to live thing. I understand it intellectually. And I try to understand it faithfully. We see examples of it throughout history. Through Jesus’ death we know that life was brought to a broken world. Our world. And in modern history we have examples of one’s death resulting in fruit for many. Martin Luther King’s death, as cruel as it was, resulted in concrete steps being made in the quest for equality for all. Although we know if we’re honest with ourselves we still have a long way to go in respecting and honoring each other as fellow receivers of the divine gift of life. We still struggle to see the image of God in one another.
I’m appreciative of those who have served so courageously and at such risk, even to the point of death so that we might enjoy the freedoms that we have today in this country. And I still marvel at the courage of the firefighters and police who so bravely entered burning towers on 9/11, not thinking for a second of their own safety. My husband and I had a friend, a fireman, who was one of those who gave his life that day. He and his partner had evacuated the day care center located in a building nearby to the towers. He called his wife and told her he was safe. He got off the phone and told his partner to stay put as he walked in to one of the towers. Minutes later it crumbled. At his funeral he was celebrated for giving his life for others.
We all benefit from brave men and women who are willing to lose their lives for something greater than themselves. I appreciate those who live out this way of being, this way of sacrificial love, the way of Jesus.
I don’t know why I struggled so with this passage. Maybe it’s because I know I’m not so brave. Maybe it is because this whole death thing has been too close of a companion of mine recently. Last Thursday I went to the memorial service for a sorority sister of mine. She died from injuries sustained when she fell down the stairs in her home while going up to get the notes of a speech she was going to give at her next Al-Anon meeting. A talk in which her story would no doubt serve to encourage others in their own walk to healing and wholeness. She fell and hit her head and never regained consciousness. She fell because she was shaky from the effects of the Parkinson disease that had plagued her body for the last fifteen years. Her Parkinson’s disease had not been her only cross to bear. Three years ago her youngest daughter had died from a drug overdose after a long struggle and a recent fragile attempt at recovery. My friend had also struggled with and supported her husband in his own battle with addictions and the resulting consequences. When I think of it, her life had been filled with all kinds of death, even as she lived.
Perhaps that is why I struggled with this passage.
Or, maybe it is because, a week ago Monday, another longtime friend lost her son at the young and vibrant age of 34. He was a husband and father of two precious children. He was an integral part of a family business that, for decades, has provided life shaping and enriching experiences for young girls through their camp in the hill country. He lived his life for God, his family, and for the joy of making life giving memories for so many. He died of an apparent heart attack after a workout. His wife found him. They had planned a trip to Disney World for last week. Instead she planned his memorial service. Maybe that is why I struggled so with this passage.
I ache for the sadness of these two precious families. It occurs to me grief is a lot like Holy Saturday. It is after the excruciating pain of the cross, but before the dawn of resurrection day, when we discover the beauty of new life. The deepened joy that comes from having trusted in the love of God through all things. Holy Saturday. Grief. There is nothing we can do to restore life as it was, or to rush what life might become. It is a time that demands surrender, and waiting, and trusting.
But, even as I continue to struggle with this passage that serves as a call to let go of our lives in order to gain real life, I remember the service for my friend. And as I remember her I remember that even in the face of a disease she knew would eventually rob her of her physical and mental abilities, and ultimately take her life, I never saw her that she didn’t have the most beautiful smile on her face that you’d ever see; the kind that comes from the bottom of the heart and flows from the eyes. I never saw her that she didn’t have a funny story to tell, usually telling it in one long run on sentence in order to get it all out before the laughter ensued. She always had a word of encouragement for others, even as she honestly shared the challenges of her own life. She had a strength and resilience about her that was undeniable. Undeniable because it was grounded in the power of God. She knew more than many of us about the need for surrendering what we think life should be in order to experience the power of what life can really be. A power that sustains us through death and lifts us to a life that is eternal in its peace and available in the now, even in the midst of whatever circumstances might be. Her willingness to surrender and to experience life in God’s power was contagious. As her daughter gave one of the most poised and poignant eulogies I’ve ever heard she spoke of her own daughter, my friend’s granddaughter. When they told the 4 year old of her grandmother’s death the first thing she said, “You mean she’s in heaven with Jesus? Yes. Then why are you so sad? Well, because we will miss her. Oh, but you don’t have to be sad. We will see her again.” Out of the mouths of babes we are reminded that God’s love transcends all things and holds all time. Love conquers even death. Hope in the midst of Holy Saturday.
And in the days since the death of my other friend’s son, there have been countless moments of grace and joy as relationships have been renewed, perhaps even mended, as so many gathered to sit with this family in their Holy Saturday. I wasn’t able to be there in person but I received messages from others who were there and each one spoke of the beauty and joy that was undeniably present in the midst of the pain.
In the presence of death there has come much life. And it’s no accident that in the course of Jesus telling his disciples, telling us, that we must be willing to let go of our lives in order to experience what it is to really live, he also tells us we must serve. My friend, age 60, and the son of my friend who was only 34 when he died had one major thing in common. Their lives were both drink offerings poured out in love for others. Their lives bore fruit that nurtured and will continue to nurture the lives of others and bring glory to God. Death cannot destroy lives lived in the power of Love. Because life lived in the power of Love transcends all circumstances, transcends the limits of our own senses, and flourishes in joy forever.
And maybe that, even though I struggle with it, is why this passage is so important to our encouragement in the life of faith. Because death does happen. It must happen. And sometimes, especially when it comes to our egos….well it must happen daily. And the harder we cling to the survival of the lives we have created for ourselves the less able we are to recognize the life we have been created to live.
If you are reading this post, I may or may not know you, your story, your joys and your sorrows. But I know we are all human beings, created in the image of the One who created us in love. And we are here in the world in this “now”, together as fellow travelers and seekers of real life. My prayer for you and for me is that today we might both have to courage to cling a little less to the way we think our lives should look and be a little more open to the vision God has for our lives, depending on his courage to meet us in our fear. May the words of Jesus empower us today as they empowered a rag tag band of followers so many years ago. Followers who would learn what it means to be willing to die to what has been before in order to live a new way of being that brings us eternity right here in the now. A way of relationship over religion. Of love and compassion over fear and hate. Of mercy over condemnation. Of forgiveness over revenge. Of service over oppression. A way of grace that brings life, even in the midst of death. The way of Christ. The love of Christ. Life in Christ. Now and Forever.
Something to chew on….
Picture: Lisa Bonner