“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
I find myself drawn to Philip in our gospel reading for the fifth Sunday in Lent. John tells us that some Greeks attending the Passover festival in Jerusalem wished to see Jesus. They came right to Philip, who together with Andrew facilitated the connection without delay. Philip must have been an approachable and inviting sort of fellow, and immediately recognizable as a friend and follower of Jesus. I am reminded of Philip’s actions early in Jesus’ ministry, recounted in the first chapter of John’s gospel. As a newly minted disciple, Philip identifies Jesus as the one from Nazareth foretold by Moses and the prophets. When a slightly incredulous Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip responds, “Come and see.”
I wonder, what is it that Jesus is inviting us to come and see as our Lenten fast begins to look toward Holy Week? Jesus is addressing the crowd at the festival, drawing on metaphor, parable, and heart-wrenching candor to discuss his death. Yes, ours is a resurrection faith, and Jesus is telling us that true life springs into being only after it has been fertilized with the ashes of the status quo. Like a grain of wheat, we have to fall, to let go, and die to self in order to “bear much fruit” as a new creation in Christ. Jesus seems to recognize the blueprint for flourishing encoded in a single grain seed mirrors the potential for a new genesis within us. If we can reject our attachment to the small, familiar, separate, life we love, we open ourselves to an eternal flowering of possibility in the life-giving Reign of God. The abundance of harvest, after all, takes us out of the loneliness of our false self and into the fruitfulness of Christ’s corporate body. Jesus’ metaphor of the grain of wheat resonates with me as a person in recovery from alcoholism. With the perspective of a few years of sobriety, I have eyes to see the fear and denial that trapped me in the relentless surface waters of a life thwarted by my addiction. How easy it is to tread water in the shallow end of existence, unless we can surrender to the wide embracing arms of the Christ who promises to “draw all people to [him]self!” This is when, sustained by our loving communities (in my case that’s family and friends, AA, and you, good people of St. Paul’s), we begin to send roots into leavening, harvest-generating soil.
Perhaps you have wrestled with the addictions and idolatries that continue to anesthetize all of us to our true identities in Christ. Maybe you’ve experienced a dark and disorienting season, or a painful loss, or a terrifying freefall, and you’ve come through it not unscathed, but more grounded in the spring that follows the storm. Maybe the light at the end of your tunnel still feels out of reach. While suffering isn’t a prerequisite to growth, the reality of Christ’s suffering draws us into his humanity with radical solidarity. Not only does Christ celebrate with us at the heights of our joy, but he is also right here with us in the depths of our pain.
How can our hearts not break when Jesus says with honest vulnerability, “Now my soul is troubled?” Or when Paul vividly tells us that Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears?” The epistle for today goes on to say that “the one who was able to save him from death” heard Jesus “because of his reverent submission.” Submission is a tricky concept to talk about, let alone apply to our own lives in a meaningful way. It has certainly been abused and misunderstood. And yet, to the extent that submission is a healthy discipline of self-denial, it opens within us all an expansive capacity for flourishing and genuine human connection.
Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice is an unrepeatable, self-emptying action that paves the way for our ongoing transformation and renewal. Of course it is impossible to unpack the full meaning of this without leaving room for mystery at the heart of it. We cannot perceive, no, we can’t even imagine the great harvest packed within a tiny grain of wheat. Not until we allow grace to crack us open do we begin to catch a glimpse of God’s dream for us.
What, I wonder, is God’s dream for St. Paul’s? We just passed the one year mark of a season of disruption and transition. Not only has the pandemic changed the way we gather and worship, but soon we will formalize the search for a new rector. Today we prayerfully commission the vestry, wardens, and profile committee who all serve as stewards of St. Paul’s ever unfolding story. The profile committee is tasked, with critical input from all of us, to give voice to the deep yearnings of this family of faith. And make no mistake, in this process we celebrate and preserve the gifts and rhythms and rituals that uniquely shape who we are. The grain of wheat doesn’t become a shoot of alfalfa, it becomes a fuller, more abundant expression of its authentic self.
What new, fruitful harvest are we called to as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church? What has the loamy soil of our becoming taught us about ourselves over the past year? What have the trials of this pandemic season revealed about what we should continue to reach for - and let go of? What is it about the familiar life we love that we might jettison for life more abundant? Where have we seen Christ with us, inviting us into more faithful expressions of our baptismal covenant, challenging us to dismantle the corrosive idols of inequality and white supremacy persisting in our world today?
We can only answer these questions by listening to each other, encouraging each other, holding each other to account, and praying with and for each other. And yes, we might need to take some risks in service of the Reign of God, trusting the wild and life-giving spirit to inspire our fruitfulness. May we continually learn what it means to be a friend and follower of Jesus, so that we, like Philip, can boldly say with faithful conviction, “Come and see.”