Jesus, in the context of John 12 and his fast approaching appointment with the cross, tells his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, echoes these words: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”
Living as high on the food chain as I do, being so far removed from “the land” and the agrarian world of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, I never understood what this meant—aside from the fact that it’s a reference to death and resurrection. Cornelius Plantinga, in this sermon on Jesus’ words in John 12, describes it like this:
Jesus wants us to go down into a death that will cause new life to spring up twenty-fold, but we keep clinging to our old life. We’re like a grain of wheat. Jesus says we’re like a grain of wheat. You know, wheat is a cultivated grass, and for thousands of years people have cultivated those strains in which the kernels cling to the head. And we understand. If the kernels are loose on the head, the wind just blows them off. So for millennia farmers have sown the kind of wheat in which the kernels stick.
That’s the kind of wheat Jesus is talking about, and he says we’re like a kernel that clings to the spike of its old life. The trouble is there isn’t any future there. No glory there. No miracle of multiplication. To get food from wheat, you have to thresh the grain off the head. The grain of wheat “dies” not by falling into the ground. It dies by being stripped from the head. It’s viable off the head, but it will generate life only if it is pulled away from its old source of life and buried in the ground where moisture and nutrients will bring forth its life.
It occurred to me recently while reflecting on Jesus’ words—as it has always occurred to Christians like Plantinga who are smarter than I am—that this applies not only to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and our own death and future resurrection, but also to living the Christian life in general: we all die a series of deaths along life’s journey home to be with God.
It happens all the time in the Christian life! Or it at least it ought to.
For example, I’ve struggled mightily over the years with what I sacrificed in order to answer God’s call into ministry. I had no idea it would be as costly and difficult as it turned out to be: to leave behind a reasonably successful career, to sell a home, to uproot my family, to afford an expensive seminary education, to start over again on the bottom rung of a new career—one which doesn’t pay as much to begin with, or come with as much “prestige,” or feed the ego nearly as well as other careers.
Don’t get me wrong: Professional ministry certainly can feed the ego, as it has fed mine over the years (though please beware of us ministers when this is happening); but when a minister decides to finally do ministry right—or take some halting steps in the direction of doing it right—the job has a way of beating the ego to death. Just stomping it flat!
What’s the poem by Donne? “Batter my heart, three-person’d God…” Please, God, the batter is well-blended, I promise! 😉
And this is true for all Christians. What does our United Methodist Book of Discipline say? We Christians are all ministers, lay or ordained.
My point is, this is a little death I have to die. This little grain of pride—which believes that the world or, worse, God owes me something for “answering the call”—needs to be stripped from the stalk and blown away. Then, when it lands in the earth, who knows what might happen?
But it hurts to “die” in this way: to realize—as if it surprises me!—that I’m not, nor will I be, God’s gift to my profession, or to the United Methodist Church, or to any local church; to learn to say, “Who cares?” and trust Jesus when he tells us that whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
I believe that on the other side of every little death we die lies the opportunity to experience more of this abundant life that Jesus promises.
Speaking of which, here’s a great mournful song about dying (as opposed to all those bright and happy songs about dying?) by the Lost Dogs. The lead vocal is by the late, great Gene Eugene.