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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will 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.
The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." (John 12:24-26, 34-36)
Today is the day I go to Grace Cathedral to renew my ordination vows. Although I was ordained eight years ago, I still feel my growing edges keenly. If I love the holiness of silence and woods and long weeks of monastic life, the communion of healing prayer and sitting at the bedsides of the dying, the wisdom of dreams and the wisdom of other people, I’ve still got a lot of the Berkeley kid in me, outspoken, outrageous, an Anglo cantadora with a bratty German shepherd dog who likes to finish my sentences. Living in the often uncomfortable reaches of imperfection, and faced with an all-wise, all-wonderful God in Christ, ordination made me both more and less than what I was, more, in that the Christian life compels each one of us to always grow and learn, but less, in that God asks me to give everything I am and everything I have completely and utterly away.
As we continue into holy week, Jesus explores the radical nature of self-giving. To a people terrified of death, he likens it to a seed that falls into the earth and dies, splitting apart and releasing something greater than individual life. A seed grows into a plant or a tree that gives nourishment, that is more than just life because it makes all life possible. Jesus says that God is to be found in this kind of giving. It is not turning away from the earth for some heavenly gambit, either. The gift is not ascent, but descent. The life and death of Jesus hallowed the earth. At the last supper, he held up bread, made from all those grains of wheat and said “This is my body.” It suggests to me that when I can at last be one with the earth, with all the earth’s changes and chances, I am also one with God.
I can say this, yes. It is easy to say. But can I really let myself die? What does it mean to die? Holy Week brings me face to face with my timidity.
Now the second part of today’s teaching is truly odd. What is all this about being lifted up? It evokes the ancient language of priesthood, of a people set apart for the sacred. Many people quite rightly object to the exclusive language of ordination, to this sense of bishops, priests, deacons and religious as a people set apart, as if we were a club. On the day I renew my ordination vows, I'll tell you that though some may feel exclusive, I don't. Never have I felt less set apart than during my years of ministry. Instead I have felt vulnerable and public, asked, in a very visible way, to give my own life as a reflection upon life itself, its stupidities as well as its strengths.
In this passage, Jesus speaks truths that his listeners are unable to hear or grasp. Of course the Law is correct, and the Messiah is with us forever, but she or he can often be hard to see. Can I see the Christ in that vastly overweight woman, or in the pest at the street corner who is always asking for money? Much of the life of faith is knowing where to look and how to listen. It reminds me that what I say is ultimately far less important than what others hear. This is one of the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith. The teacher is reflected in the student. My obedience to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church is not an act of servitude, but a commitment to working with these things long enough to enter into them with a depth of understanding and not some snap judgment based upon my peculiar traumas or experience of things. The obedience I swear to my bishop is a commitment to relationship and an antidote to my pride. I live in a world that favors the quick answer over the difficult one, the simple above the complex, the super-star and celebrity above the community. Jesus was able to be simple, but that is because he mastered a great deal of complexity. Andrew Lloyd Webber to the contrary, he was not a super-star, but one who hid out with the ordinary. He spent forty days in the wilderness with wild beasts and angels. I like to believe that he died there and came back, able to teach us about the mysteries of grain because he had practiced them.
Holy Week is a good time to think about these things. Holy Week is a whirlwind of paradox. Being saved may be different than we think. Once I thought that becoming a priest would save me. And then, on a November morning, eight years ago, I knelt before the bishop and he laid hands upon me. To my immense surprise I felt all the power rushing out. I remembered the story of Jesus healing the woman with the woman with the hemorrhage and the heart within me broke open.