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Today is the 33nd day of Lent. The scripture today is John 12:20-33, where Jesus talks about what it really means to follow him.
Some Greek1The Greek word here is ελληνες, the hellenes, which might refer to people who were ethnically Greek, but more likely is referring to hellenized gentiles of some kind, people who were not only not Jewish, but were culturally hellenistic. folks were in Jerusalem for the Passover and they wanted to see Jesus. They had heard of him and wanted to meet him for themselves. Their approach gave Jesus an opportunity to talk about the reality of life as one of his followers.
What does Jesus say? First, he says a grain of wheat can never be more than a single grain of wheat unless it “falls into the earth and dies.” This is partly an explanation of the impact of Jesus’ upcoming death and resurrection. Jesus, as a single seed, can only do so much. His death, on the other hand, will bear much fruit, with an impact that spreads far beyond his reach as an individual. This has proven true. Even those who don’t believe there is anything beyond this life, or think Jesus was nothing more than an good ethical teacher, must agree that Jesus’ death has had an unmeasurable impact on humanity.
But these words were not just recorded by the gospel writer for posterity. The gospels were written to train early Christians in the way of Jesus. So, it’s not only Jesus who “falls into the earth and dies.” It’s also his followers.
That’s the context of the next handful of statements. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus invites his followers to prioritize their love. There is much in this life to love. Followers of Jesus can enjoy those things, but they cannot allow those things to become the guiding center of life. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Above all else, we are called to be where Jesus is.
Where is that? In terms of the crucifixion narrative, we are called to be with Jesus in carrying the cross for others. In Matthew 25, Jesus made this invitation even more explicit. He told us that when we serve those in need, we will find that we are, in fact, serving him. He is to be found among the poor, the hungry, the naked, the oppressed. Not in the places of power and influence, but in the margins. That is where he is, and if we follow him, that is where we will be too.
Getting there, though, requires a death. That takes us back to the statement about a seed dying in the earth. Our world and natural inclinations motivate us to seek a throne, to pursue comfort, to accomplish and accumulate. Why do we do this? To feel secure. To feel safe. To try, in ways big and small, to avoid dying. This is, of course, an illusion. If we strive to protect our life in these ways, we will lose it. All of us will. Dying is one of the things all humans have in common.
We have a choice. We can live our lives in a self-centered rush to avoid discomfort and hold off every kind of death and humiliation as long as possible, even at the expense of others. Or we can choose to follow Jesus into death. We can decide that the purpose of our life isn’t to protect our own comfort. Instead, we die with Jesus and rise to a life that is no longer about us. Freed from the oppressive drive to protect the self at all costs, we can now bear the fruit of love for others in practical acts of service and sacrifice. We can help bear their crosses. We can walk with them on their path of pain. We can make sure they are not alone because we are with them. In short, we love others as Jesus has first loved us.
Lent invites us to make peace with death. This way is life.
- 1The Greek word here is ελληνες, the hellenes, which might refer to people who were ethnically Greek, but more likely is referring to hellenized gentiles of some kind, people who were not only not Jewish, but were culturally hellenistic.