Lent 5

18 March 2018

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jer 31:31-34;  John 12:20-33

Heavenly Father, we thank you for all the great gifts you send us – the gift of your Word, the gift of your Son, the gift of your Holy Spirit and the gift of your Church pointing us always towards you in love and towards one another in service. Amen.

“…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Today marks the start of the season of Passiontide, the season of Jesus’ suffering, and the eagle eyed amongst you will have noted that the crosses and statues have been veiled so that the figures are hidden from view. Part of the reason the church covers the figures for the two weeks is very nearly found in the gospel reading for today. Our reading ended at verse 33 but had we gone to the end of verse 36, as I believe it did in days of old, we would have heard:

When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.”

So there is something here about the withdrawal of Jesus from those around him as he drew closer to the events of Good Friday. And the cross itself is veiled until Good Friday in part, no doubt, to increase its impact upon us when next we see it – on the day on which we see Christ upon it. Also, by seeking to cover the ornamentation in church at this time it is a physical representation of our own Lenten journey as we have sought to remove luxury in order to concentrate our minds on the narrative and events of the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Finally, of course, by gradually stripping away ornamentation, a process which is only completed on Maundy Thursday with the stripping of the altar, we also heighten the sense of joy and renewal on Easter Sunday as we greet the risen Christ into a fully restored and flower filled church. But no more spoilers because that is yet to come.

You may recall the reading from a few weeks ago when Jesus told his disciples that his earthly ministry was bound for death on the cross.   Peter tried to stop him speaking of such things and Jesus told Peter off for having in mind the things of men rather than the things of God. Today we see continue some of that eternal struggle between what we might perceive as success in the world – perhaps power or being served by others – with the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, in which God emptied himself of all power to be born into the world not to rule but to serve and to do so by suffering an ignominious death; an apparent failure in the eyes of the world.

When some Greeks asked to meet with Jesus his response is a cryptic: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” What does it mean to be glorified? If, to take a completely mad example, an English football or cricket team were ever to win something ever again I have no doubt that that team would be glorified. And to be glorified in earthly terms would mean to be lauded and praised and doubtless to have fame and wealth heaped upon them. Surely to be covered in glory is something magnificent, something to be both sought after and to be enjoyed?

Jesus seems to be talking about another type of glory altogether. He immediately continues:

“…unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it but the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

A grain of wheat may love being a grain of wheat. It may be the best grain of wheat in the world. But what happens to a grain of wheat if it is neither planted nor milled for flour? It just dries up and shrivels and achieves precisely none of its potential or purpose. But if it is planted in the ground then, yes, the grain will disappear but it will be transformed into something else entirely, a stalk bearing many grains. If the original grain had loved its life so much that it had resisted falling into the ground and dying to itself then it would have achieved nothing but by holding its current existence lightly it achieves its full potential – life and life in abundance.

And, of course, Jesus is talking here firstly about himself but also about all those who would seek to follow him – including also the Greeks who were seeking to meet him. Had Jesus resisted the will of God the Father and not gone to the cross, yes he may well have held onto his earthly life and he may well have died peaceably somewhere as an old man. But by being crucified, dying and going into the tomb Jesus made a whole new future possible, a future of life and abundant life. But again I am getting ahead of myself.

And then Jesus almost seems to play with the idea that he could resist giving up his life:

Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?”

And our minds may once again be cast forward here to Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives, in which he asked God to take this cup from him, but still subject himself to the will of God, and again here today Jesus’ immediate response to his own question is:

No, it is for the very reason that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

And a voice from heaven said that he had already glorified his name and would do so again. But this is a very different sort of glorification from that with which we may laud a successful sports team – this glorification involves dying to this earthly life and being lifted up, to draw all people to himself.

So according to the values of this world success brings glorification and failure brings…well, if a sports team or a politician is deeply unsuccessful then the press may often…crucify them.

So perhaps success and failure judged from the perspective of heaven are not quite the same thing as success or failure as the world judges those things.

And that raises a host of interesting questions about what success or failure even looks like within our own lives or even within the church.   For example we are constantly tempted to judge the success of the church in the same way as we might judge the success of a cinema – bums on seats and money in the till, and if either drop you change the film to keep the punters coming in. And, of course, it is always wonderful to see the church full but are we really using the right measures of success?   Is a church that has 500 people singing for an hour a week and then going back to their normal lives otherwise unchanged really more successful than one that may have ten people who are constantly deepening their walk with Christ and growing in love and service for God, one another and the world? Doubtless many would be blinded by numbers, in terms of both people and money, but how would God measure success in that context?

Did Jesus fulfil the expectations of all his followers or did he confound and transform those expectations? Whilst Jesus attracted large numbers of followers, as we know from events such as the feeding of the 5000, we also know from John 6 that Jesus did not measure success in numbers and that many followers abandoned him when the teaching he gave was too hard for them to accept and he was left once again with only the twelve. Was that success or failure? And of course we also know over the forthcoming weeks of Palm Sunday and Easter that Jesus will once again travel the route which took him from being lauded by the crowds of Jerusalem to being on a cross, dying the death of a criminal and abandoned by all except his closest few. Judged in human terms, in the terms of Peter and doubtless in our terms had we been there, the ministry of Jesus looked like an abject failure – expectations of a new Kingdom unfulfilled, hopes dashed and nailed to a cross to die.

And yet we know that God had other plans, that he does not measure success or failure in our terms. By resisting the temptation to pursue earthly success or to pander to what the crowds wanted him to do Jesus became the seed which fell into the ground and died to its own interests so that through Holy Germination something new and transformed would spring from the soil bearing fruit which changed the world, which created a church and which continues to transform us today.

In many ways we should be much more afraid of earthly success than we are of Godly failure. If we succeed in terms that the world measures success then how easy it becomes to fall into sin – the sin of pride and the sin of Lording it over others and, for the purposes of today’s Gospel, the sin of loving our life too much. If we are seeking to be followers of Jesus today then we need to learn to hold success in this life, and indeed our very lives, lightly so that we are free to die to ourselves and our own concerns and allow God to help us reach our full potential which is to bring life and abundant life.

“…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Amen.

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