Jeremiah 31:31-34 † Psalm 119:9-16 † Hebrews 5:5-10 † John 12:20-33
A video version of this sermon can be found here.
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. Here is the crux, the turning point of John’s gospel. It marks the major turn in the structure of the book. The hour has indeed come, even though we are only halfway through the gospel. “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”[i] We should not miss this. And if we do not understand, we are wise to listen and open ourselves to it until we do.
To accentuate the point, we hear not only the voice of Jesus, but the voice of heaven affirm it. In the other gospels—in Matthew, Mark, and Luke—the voice of God is also heard, but at Jesus’ baptism. In John, it is heard here and here only. “I have glorified it—God’s name, that is—and I will glorify it again.”
Why here? And what does it mean? This is a strange affirmation to a strange fruit.
Perhaps it seems counterintuitive to believe that death breeds life. We do know, though, the truth of this text so central to our Christian faith. We have seen again and again the power of self-giving and sacrifice. Martyrs through history have given themselves so that life would change for the many.
In June 1963, President Kennedy asked Congress for a comprehensive rights bill. He had momentum on his side because of the murder of Medgar Evers. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson was able to secure the bill’s passage in 1964, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.[ii] It ended the application of “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws that had been such a scourge on our society.
This was not the end, of course. The passage brought increased support, but also fierce opposition and white hostility. Non-violent protest continued and grew and on March 7, 1965, six hundred activists set out on a march from Selma to Montgomery to peacefully protest the continued violations of civil rights for people of color. They did not get far. When the reached Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge they were brutalized by hundreds of deputies and state troopers on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The event was broadcast live on TV, stunning and horrifying the American public. It galvanized civil rights activists who converged on Selma in solidarity to demand federal intervention, and it gave President Johnson the momentum he needed to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other practices used to prevent people of color from voting. By the middle of 1966, over half a million Southern blacks had registered to vote, and by 1968, almost four hundred African Americans had been elected to office. Even staunch segregationists like Southern democrat George Wallace saw the writing on the wall. He began to shed his segregationist rhetoric and attempt to appeal to black voters.
The Fair Housing Act became law on April 11, 1968, just days after King’s assassination. It prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, and religion. The work, of course, was far from done, but the strange fruit of seeds dying to germinate into new life continues. The last 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s life continues to resonate in our national consciousness as the scourge of violence on people of color continues to be hard to ignore. And the death of 8 souls in Atlanta this week only accentuates the truth that black and brown lives are sacrificed in numbers unequal to white lives.
Which gets us to what this text does not say. This is not a text to be used to justify the deaths of others for the sake of the privileged. Consider who Jesus is in John’s gospel. The first half of the book from which we pivot on this very text, is punctuated by seven signs. Seven miracles that inform the glorification that is the subject of the last half.
Seven miraculous signs.
Jesus is in no way powerless in this book. He has tremendous power and, we might even say, tremendous privilege. Can you imagine what it would be like to change water into wine, as he does at Cana for his first sign?[iii] Or to heal a child with a word and from a distance as he does for the royal official’s son in Capernaum?[iv] Can you imagine the power he possessed when he healed the paralytic at the pool in Bethesda who seemed not particularly motivated to healing?[v]
Feeding five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, walking on water, healing the man blind from birth, raising Lazarus from the dead.[vi] Can you imagine that kind of power.
This, you see, is not a call to a powerless, historically marginalized and oppressed group of people to further sacrifice themselves for the sake of their oppressors. This is a call to the privileged. This is a word for those of us who are advantaged by any and all measures to consider the way of our salvation. This is a word for me as a white, financially stable, cisgender, heterosexual male who has enjoyed and continues to enjoy just about every privilege there is. Perhaps it is for you too in the ways that you share my social location.
John’s message is for the powerful, and it could not be clearer: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”[vii] We have gone too long in delegating the work of discipleship to those who continue to suffer at our very hands. The work of finally achieving the beloved community that we long for is ours. It is the work of those of us who have power to lose it, to yield it, to redirect in in ways that allow love to germinate and grow, expand and blossom and come to fruition. The move from us and them to we is ours to do.
And, yes, it may feel like sacrifice. But it isn’t. It is an act of self-preservation. It is the way of salvation. To give of ourselves is to save ourselves. If we do not understand this, it is because we have not yet tried.
A God speaks from the sky in John, immediately after Jesus says this: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
Do you notice how the voice gives no attention to Jesus’ first instinct to save himself? The affirmation is for the second alone because this is where the possibility lies, this is where new life comes to term.
Beloved, we don’t know what it will look like to do this exactly, any more than we can watch a seed underground take root, germinate, break ground, grow and yield fruit. But we know enough. We know that this is the way, and faith calls us to walk it.
Perhaps the first step is just to listen to the experience of another with less judgment than we have brought to any previous conversation, to choose to believe the testimony of someone who does not share our story. Perhaps it means to look for ways to situate ourselves in service to someone of color—to work for them, advocate for them, encourage them, trust them. Perhaps it means to speak out in places where we would prefer to remain silent and to be silent when we would prefer to speak out. It surely means to toil long and lovingly and prayerfully in expanding our loves so that they ultimately have no boundaries, as the powerful, privileged one before us did.
There are endless ways of losing our lives that we might together save them. What possible harm could it do to follow this way? Indeed, it may just save our future.
Thanks be to God.
[i] John 12:31. Emphasis mine.
[ii] See, among many resources, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965”, retrieved on March 19, 2021 from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/postwarera/civil-rights-movement/a/the-civil-rights-act-of-1964-and-the-voting-rights-act-of-1965.
[iii] John 2:1-11.
[iv] John 4:46-54.
[v] John 6:5-14.
[vi] In order: John 6:5-14; 9:1-7; 11:1-45.
[vii] John 12:25.
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