The 5th Sunday of Lent, March 21, 2021
by Allison Courey
During Lent, about fifteen of us are reading Diana Butler Bass’ newest book, Grounded. It’s about finding God in the world, which basically means the ways God is revealed to us in our lives outside the walls of the church. My favourite chapter is about meeting God in the soil, or how reconnecting to the land has spiritual significance. Butler Bass explains that it is impossible to read the bible without understanding how the land factors into the relationship between God and humans. She says that, “the whole story of the Hebrew Bible is that of land, its abundance, and its fruitfulness, and how humans are disconnected from the land by sin or connected to it through acts of faith and justice.”
But in the New Testament as well, people often understand their relationship with God as reflected in their relationship with the land. This is partly because these were agrarian people whose daily lives were deeply entwined with crop cycles and weather patterns. But I think there’s more to it than that. I believe that the health of our relationship with God really is connected to the health of the land. The more we connect with the land, the closer we are to God - and vice versa.
So in John’s gospel today we find Jesus telling another story about crops in order to help us understand what it means to follow him: 12:24-26.
If we were together in person right now, I’d love to hear your first reactions to this story. But most likely you felt one of two ways: either you were inspired by the thought of a seed growing into something beautiful, or you were uncomfortable with Jesus saying we are supposed to hate our lives.
Let’s start with the second response. We talked about this passage in our lectio divina group last week and I told them I would look up the Greek word Jesus uses to see if he’s really saying we’re supposed to hate our lives. Sometimes there are nuances lost in translation that can be better understood in the original language. But it turns out that the translation is pretty direct - Jesus really does tell us that we are supposed to “abhor” or “greatly dislike” our lives.
This story is in John’s Gospel, which uses more extreme language than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John was originally writing to a community with a mystical bent which was more interested in spiritual metaphor than physical facts. It was the last of the four Gospels to be written, which means the readers were living in increasingly tumultuous times and Christians were beginning to experience more serious persecutions.
Mark MacDonald, the Indigenous archbishop in Canada, once told me that the elders say there are four Gospels because there are four directions. It is impossible to capture the life of Jesus from just one perspective, so we have four viewpoints to give us a more rounded picture of what Jesus was like. John’s Gospel gives us the most unique perspective and tends to use more extreme language in order to make its message clear. Much of the book is intentionally metaphorical.
So with that in mind, when Jesus tells the crowd that if they love their life they will lose it and if they hate their life they will save it, he is emphasizing the need to let go of our old way of life if we want to follow him. If our priorities are to focus on number one, make money, and put our own concerns first, we are going to find ourselves becoming more and more miserable and alone. If, however, we invest in caring for others, in compassion and generosity and care for the earth, we will find that our joy and sense of contentment will increase. This is where he uses the image of a single grain of wheat being buried in the earth only to re-emerge as a green stalk that will be covered in a hundred new grains.
When Jesus tells us to die to ourselves or carry our cross, he is talking about intentionally rejecting some of our most basic instincts to invest primarily in ourselves, to prioritize wealth and power and privilege. He’s telling us that God did not intend for us to live that way. He’s talking about metanoia, the Greek word which we translate into English as repentance but which really means turning away from our old priorities completely and embracing a new way of living in the world.
But choosing to die to ourselves is really difficult. It reminds me of an experience I had while living in Winnipeg’s inner city. I had a neighbour who was about five or six who I invited on a trip to the beach. This was a kid who’s entire world consisted of a ten block concrete radius and they couldn’t imagine what I meant when I talked about the beach. They did not want to go. They would have preferred I just take them to the splash pad up the street. But eventually we did manage to convince our little neighbour to come along, and I will never forget what it was like to watch them walking onto the beach for the first time. The water went on forever and the sand stretched out in both directions. There was so much sand! This was not like a splash pad at all. This was more like paradise.
We took our neighbour to the beach many times after that, and they never tired of the water. The beach opened up a world of possibility for them that didn’t exist in the inner city. Over the next several years, their ideas about what might be possible for their life blossomed.
I am a lot like that kid living in the inner city and never leaving my neighbourhood. I am comfortable with just going to the splash pad and have a hard time imagining what the beach will be like. My automatic way of thinking in any situation is about myself: how will this affect me? What do I need right now? How am I feeling and what makes me comfortable?
But Jesus explains that as long as we live like that, we will be like that single seed, full of potential but not becoming much at all. I just planted my tomatoes this week, and it is pretty incredible to watch those tiny little seeds grow into five foot plants which will feed my family all year.
St. Paul calls this process, “being transformed by the renewing of your mind.” When we die to ourselves, we are actually opening ourselves up to blossom and grow and bear fruit. Burying the seed may look like a kind of death, but it is actually the way of real life.
But it’s important to realize that when Jesus talks about dying to ourselves, he is not suggesting that we become overworked volunteers without boundaries. Jesus often took time to rest and was able to say “no” when he needed to. Becoming like Jesus is not about doing more and more; it is about a mental shift. When our minds are oriented toward Jesus, we begin to act out of generosity and compassion, not motivated by guilt, but because we see the world with new eyes.
One of the best examples of dying to yourself and refocusing on the way of Jesus is a little book from the 16th century called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” In it, a monk named Brother Lawrence writes about turning his thoughts back to God every moment of every day. Learning to reorient your life in the way of Jesus, he teaches, is something we must practice again and again and again. Essentially, whenever you have a new thought or conversation or decision, you quickly ask yourself, “Am I thinking about this in the way Jesus would?” How is God present in this moment? How can I be part of what God is doing here?
In the coming days, we will walk with Jesus as he actually does die and creates new life. You will also watch as the soil comes alive after being dead all winter. My prayer for you is that you will also allow yourself to let go of your fears and be grown into the new creation God has in mind for your life.