Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
March 18, 2018
Lessons: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people understand that following Jesus means dying many little deaths to self and all that would stand between us and God’s amazing grace, mercy, and love.
Key Scripture: 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
“Americans are arguably the best in the world at burying existential anxieties under a mound of French fries and a trip to Walmart to save a nickel on a lemon and a flamethrower,” said psychologist Sheldon Solomon in an interview in The Atlantic. Solomon has been studying the fear of death for most of his career and is the originator of terror-management theory that explains the anxiety and denial behind our awareness of mortality and how those emotions affect our cognition and behaviors.
Yes, we are a death-avoidant culture that prefers uplifting and encouraging sympathy cards and “Celebrations of Life” instead of funerals. Instead of naming death, we prefer sayings like “she passed away,” or “God must have needed another angel.” In fact, for the most part we are quite content to leave the details of death to professionals in the fields of medicine, religion, and mortuary science. Yet no matter how much we try to sanitize it, prettify it, or ignore it, death will not be denied. No one gets out of this life alive.
In this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus is confronting his own mortality and impending death as he tries to help his disciples understand what’s on the horizon. His time and way to be glorified are not what they are expecting. Visions of palaces and removal of the oppressive rule of Rome and Herod dance before their eyes. Memories of the triumphant donkey ride into Jerusalem are still fresh and vivid. Surely Jesus will reign over Jerusalem in kingly glory.
Then the foreigners come asking to see Jesus, but evidently they get more than they bargained for when Jesus begins to talk about the cost of discipleship. The single grain of wheat must die to bear fruit. Love your life and lose it, or hate your life in the world and gain forever life. If you want to serve Jesus you have to follow him. But follow Jesus where?
Those who were looking for straight talk and easy answers likely went away disappointed that day—or angry and confused. In the next few verses we learn that Jesus went away and hid from the crowd after making these pronouncements. Folks aren’t too keen on bad or weirdly unexpected news. Even with Jesus right in front of them, they didn’t get it, didn’t understand what he was saying. That hasn’t changed much at all in a couple thousand years.
What about us today? Do we come truly seeking Jesus? And, when we find him, what is our response? Will we turn away in frustration, be immobilized in confusion and doubt, or draw nearer in a mash-up of uncertainty, trust, and hope? Will we swim against the currents of culture and expectation in order to follow Jesus? Are we willing to die to self in order to have real life?
Jesus is drawing all people to himself in the most humble and countercultural way possible. There is no fanfare, no empty promises or shallow marketing ploys, and no shortcut around the reality of what it means to love God, serve Jesus, and love neighbor. We will die in the process, both physically in the end and in myriad little ways to our own selfish will along life’s journey. Only through death can we experience new life.
Do you want to see Jesus? If the answer is yes, and I hope and pray it is, then start opening your hands, your heart, and your eyes and letting go of all that stands between you and the Creator of the Cosmos. Then take one step and start following wherever Jesus leads. You’re in for the ride of your life, one that will have you dying to live.
What does it mean that God will write the law on our hearts? This week in worship consider all that you do a “matter of the heart.” Invite a few people to share a story of how they feel God has written on their hearts so that they are inspired to share their faith, their time, and their talents and resources with others in grateful response to God’s action.
How will your youth hear this week’s gospel? What thoughts and concerns might be running through their minds when they hear about grains of wheat and death and losing their life to gain it? Some of them may have participated in National School Walkout Day or the alternative Walk Up Day events. Some may be afraid of going to school. Others might not give it a second thought. Consider how you might use this week’s lesson to help students gain perspective and strength by knowing that Jesus walks with them not just on one particular day but every single day. Jesus is there grieving in the midst of tragedy and rejoicing when things go well. Above all, assure them that they are loved, are enough, and are valued in your faith community.
Let’s talk wheat today! Did you know that one grain of wheat can produce eight or more heads with 40 grains each? Jesus talked about a single grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying. In the process that grain is changed and gives birth to many more grains of wheat—much fruit, as Jesus says. The website Bread Comes to Life notes that the grains harvested from one acre – which is about the size of a football field – can provide a family of four with flour to make enough bread for ten years.
Because Jesus was willing to die, like a grain of wheat, we are all fruit of his death and resurrection. We are able to have real life, and this is a very good thing. If you are able, have the children plant some wheat grains in small pots. Use the instructions on this website, and invite them to see how much wheat can be sprouted from a few seeds. Finish with a simple prayer asking Jesus to help the children grow strong and tall and bountiful.
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
We are stewards of both death and life, called carefully to tend both processes in our own lives, in our communities of faith, and in our world. As we draw nearer to Holy Week and Good Friday, ponder what such stewardship might look like in your own life.
Stewardship at Home
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” said the Greeks to Philip as they went up to the Temple to worship. This week contemplate the many ways and places that you see signs of Jesus in the world. As you reflect on this week’s gospel passage, look for ways that death leads to new life, and explore how following Jesus can take you into unexpected places and encounters with God’s beloved people. At the end of the week share your reflections with others. What similarities do you find? What surprises do you encounter? What have you learned?
Photos: Charles Knowles, Bob M, and USDA, Creative Commons usage license. Thanks!
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