Homily for Tuesday in Holy Week, April 3, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Jeremiah 31:31-34Hebrews 5:5-10
Psalm 51:1-13John 12:20-33

Unless a grain of wheat falls

“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.”
John 12:24

I am thinking that when you heard this evening’s Gospel, you probably thought to yourself — hey, wait a sec, didn’t we just hear this passage? The answer is — yes, we did. We heard virtually the same passage from the Gospel of John less than ten days ago, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. The story of some Greeks asking to meet Jesus is important, because Jesus takes this encounter as the sign that he has been waiting for, the signal from God that the decisive moment has arrived: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). Passover is at hand, and Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds are coming out to meet him, eager to see what he will do and whether he will lead a violent rebellion against Roman authority. When Andrew and Philip tell Jesus that the Greeks want to see him, Jesus answers, “The hour has come” — in other words, the chain of events that will lead to his death, resurrection, and ascension — will now begin. The Greeks symbolize the world that wants to see Jesus, and Jesus will now give his life for the world.

And then he says that line that we know so well: “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.” This saying of Jesus was so basic to his mission that it shows up in each of the four Gospels, and twice in Luke (Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:23-24, Luke 17:33). Christians call it the Paschal Mystery, that process of going down into death and rising up to new life. It is the mystery that Jesus expressed in his teachings and parables, and that he embodied in his self-giving on the cross. There is a death we have to die, if we want to save our life — a life we have to lose, if we want to be truly alive.

What needs to die in order for you to be fully alive? What do you need to relinquish and let go — to drop, to renounce, to stop doing — so that divine life can move through you and so that you can bear fruit? Exactly 30 years ago I walked into a Good Friday service and realized that I needed to die — my way of being needed to die; my way of thinking needed to die. I was like an isolated grain of wheat that had been refusing for too long to fall into the earth and die. That night I saw that if I wanted life to flow through me, if I wanted to bear fruit, then I needed to die.

Pretty much every religion says the same thing: we need to die before we die, if we want to be fully alive. There is a life that can come to us only if we let our small selves die, and open ourselves to the divine life that wants to flow through us.

Where do you identify with that hardheaded, hard-hearted seed that keeps itself isolated and apart? Maybe you know what it’s like to have your life close in on its small ego-self and its insistent ambitions and needs. Maybe you cling tight to a certain point of view, and you keep advocating for it over and over, and you know you’re right, you’re right, you’re right, you’re right, and the other person is wrong! (I know about that one.) Maybe you race through the day clenched by anxiety or stress, too busy to let go in love. Maybe you simply feel alone and small — that your life can’t possibly make a difference, and that essentially you’re on your own. All kinds of things can close us in on ourselves – pride or fear or shame. Many of us suffer from the illusion that we are completely separate from each other and that our identity stops with our own skin.

Well, here comes Jesus, telling us not to live like that isolated grain of wheat but to go ahead and die. Die to yourself! Die to your worries! Die to your fear and your shame, and give yourself away in love! Even die to who you think you are! You’re not who you think you are. God has a larger identity to give you. Let God break open that hard shell of yours! Step out of your smaller self and into your true, free self in God! Let the love that is in you begin to flow!

We may have to weep when that happens, for we release a lifetime of pain when we open ourselves to love. And we may have to laugh when that happens, for it brings joy when we give ourselves fully to each moment, with nothing held back. We may have to dance when that happens, and we may be led to search out new ways of living with other people and with nature and with the world around us.

When our hardened hearts break open – when we die to our habit of self-absorption and self-promotion, and live no longer for ourselves alone – God can move through us at last and our lives can bear fruit. What within you needs to die tonight, what needs to fall away, to break open — so that new life can flow through?

I want to leave you with a poem that uses some different imagery. Imagine a barbed wire fence with strands just 18 inches apart. Imagine a deer approaching that fence, and finding a way to move through it. The poem is by Jane Hirshfield, and entitled “The Supple Deer” 1 :

The quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches

Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground,
the deer poured through.

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.

I don’t know how a stag turns
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.

Not of the deer:

To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.

I invite you in the silence to be that porous, to have such largeness pass through. Whether you imagine strands of barbed wire around your heart, or a hardened shell, I invite you to ask God to open you, so that God’s love can pass through.

1. Jane Hirshfield, “The Supple Deer,” Come, Thief, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, p. 89.