My grandfather was a wheat farmer. His annual struggle was to get the ground plowed and get the wheat in the ground. Then it was in the earth’s hands … God’s hands … as the prayer for rain at the right time became his daily utterance. Then the grain grew. Then the harvest. Then repeat.
Some summers in my teen years, I would spend some of my summertime in the Texas Panhandle. I would plow behind him as Grandpa drove the combine to bring in the grain. On more than one occasion, I can remember holding wheat grain in my hand and thinking that each of these kernels can produce a plant that can grow lots more kernels, and all it took was putting it into the earth … with maybe a little well-timed rain.
Jesus said this was like death. “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’ve been pondering that in recent days. It really doesn’t sound logical, does it? What is the connection between death and fruitfulness?
Jesus doesn’t stop there: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world 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.” (John 12:25-26). This seems to be leading us deeper into the darkness of the grave … of hate … of loss.
As is usually the case, there is so much more here to give us hope. We tend to be such literal folk that we often miss the deeper meaning of what is happening in this text. Any good Methodist will probably recognize this section of John 12 as being a formal part of our funeral liturgy. It is tied to death in such a way that we see it as a person’s lasting legacy that outlives our frail human bodies. It is used as a call to see the many ways that the individual has influenced friends and family … to see love that is transmitted from person to person long after the loved one has died.
While this isn’t a “wrong” use of the text, I would dare to tell the editors of our United Methodist Book of Worship that we might be missing the deepest point of this text.
You see, John is talking about this Christ who, to use Father Richard Rohr’s description, is universal … cosmic. The Jesus of John’s Gospel isn’t just asking us to give him some time … or money … or to lend an ear … and then get back to business as usual. Jesus here is asking for all of us … everything we have … our souls. Further, he is asking us to give up the notion that this is all about the individual.
Individual rights … individual strengths … individual talent … individual souls.
We think we have overcome this by the notion of how we need each other … as our sports teams need teammates to succeed in their endeavors. We often hear, “There is no ‘I’ in “team.'” And that sounds wonderful … right up until we hear that there is a “V” … as in MVP (Most Valuable Player). It is then that we realize it is still about the individual … the hero.
Then we look up and here comes Jesus. It isn’t as much about the individual as our western culture would have us believe. It is about being folded into the whole of creation. The idea of the individual grain, as Jesus implies, is that its ultimate purpose is to be folded into the ground … into the larger whole.
When Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world keep it for eternal life,” he has stopped preaching and gone to meddling. As a matter of fact, in the midst of the funeral service, I have, in the past, tried to lessen the blow by saying “do not love their life” instead of “hate their life.” Hate sounds harsh … like when Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel to hate father and mother, brother and sister.” Where are you taking us, Jesus?
To make it even worse, it isn’t just that we are called to hate our “life” in this world … we are called to hate our “soul.” In John 12, the Greek uses two different words for “life.” The first is ψυχη (psükā) from which we get our word “psyche.” It isn’t our “life” we are to hate in this world. It is our “soul.”
Jesus then tells us that this is so we can keep it for ζωην αιωνιον (zoān aōnion) … eternal life. And ζωη … zoe (pronounced zoā) … has to do with life that is connected … collective … abundant. The human soul is the grain of wheat that, if it is to bear fruit, is folded into the universal zoe … the richest definition of life!
The individual soul finds its life only in the collective life of the divine!
Because our English is limited to using the word “life” for both of the two Greek words for life in this passage, we easily miss the deeper implications.
We live in a culture so focused on individuals that one of our primary motivations for being faithful members of the institutional church is so we can save our souls. It is certainly part of my Wesleyan tradition where even our founder, John Wesley, was so concerned about the experience of salvation that he spent many anxious moments wondering if he would ever experience the assurance of salvation.
In The Universal Christ, Rohr shares an insight revealed through John Dominic Crossan’s study of Eastern and Western images of the resurrection, through which “we have two extremely different theologies of its very meaning. The West declared, ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ as an individual; the Eastern church saw it in at least three ways: the trampling of hell, the corporate leading out of hell, and the corporate uplifting of humanity with Christ.” (Rohr, The Universal Christ, p. 105)
In my mind, we have so over-localized the experience of salvation that we have missed the harm we have done … to people … to animals … to our planet … all because it is about “me and my salvation.” Wesley’s own journey, when understood in his larger narrative, was the journey of folding his own life into the greater collective and, therefore, into the most abundant life God could offer.
Wesley understood the path of salvation to be the continual outpouring of himself into the poor, the disenfranchised, the people for whom church had become an empty shell. The message of Jesus is unmistakable here. When we pour our “souls” into caring for others … for the earth … for all of God’s creation, we will discover a fruitfulness unlike we ever thought possible.
Jesus was speaking, not only of his own death, but his own life as being folded into all things in the cosmos. The way Jesus understood life was zoe … not the individual soul, which, at best, is a single grain of wheat. He understood life from the perspective of God … the divine Trinity … as being infinitely more abundant through the sacred community of God. And community is not an act of heroism or individuality. It is an act of faith.
The problem here is that the human ego will always prefer individualism over community. Later in John 12, Jesus is fully aware of this truth when he “departed and hid from them.” (John 12:36b) In this hidden place he realizes that his disciples … like contemporary Christians … have a really hard time understanding this. The ego just doesn’t want us to go there.
And as the reality sets in for Jesus, he cries aloud … he doesn’t whisper … he shouts: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” He is asking us to see him, not as an individual savior or hero, but as a pathway into the community of the Trinity. This journey into divine communion can be disorienting … it can feel like darkness.
That’s where we find ourselves when we fall into the earth and die … when we find our souls folded into the wholeness of creation … it feels like death and darkness. But on the other side of death is resurrection … not life as we have known it … life as God intends it.
So with every act of solidarity … with every act of mercy … with every act that creates beloved community, we fold ourselves into the sacred wholeness. Into the life of God. It is there that we will discover life that is brighter and richer and more fruitful than our souls could ever imagine!
We will have become fruitful grain!