“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)
Gathering Storm Clouds
In today’s Gospel lesson from John, Jesus is nearing his date with destiny. Passover is coming. Within the disciples, there is turmoil. Judas has become alienated from Jesus and the other disciples, criticizing him for his willingness to allow a poor woman to wash his feet with her hair and anoint them with expensive lotion.
“Hosanna!” Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Earlier this week, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has prompted many Judeans to pour into the streets shouting acclamations for this man they are praying will be the Messiah, the warrior king who delivers them from the hated Romans. “Hosanna!” they shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, Blessed is the King of Israel!” They have an awful lot of high expectations for Jesus, expectations that left unmet will cause the crowds to turn on him overnight.
This exuberant crowd’s welcome of Jesus has also caught the attention of those who sense threats to their power and status in Roman occupied Palestine. The Romans are on high alert for uprisings during the weeks surrounding Passover. Jewish legend has it that if the Messiah is to come, it will most likely be during Passover. And their leaders, the ranking priests and Pharisees, rightly fear the predictable Roman response.
“Hosanna!” Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
As Caiaphas, the high priest would say, “The Romans will come and destroy our holy place and our nation.” Little wonder he would go on to say “Better to have one man die for the people and not have the whole nation wiped out.”
Jesus is hardly oblivious to the gathering storm clouds around his life. He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man….Now my soul is troubled. Should I say, Father save me from this hour?” It’s a very human question to ask oneself when death is close at hand. And Jesus knows this will not merely be the end of his life. What’s coming will be horrific. And it could easily be the end of his three year long movement to which he has devoted his life. Little wonder he agonizes over these possibilities.
But he is also clear that while his death may now be inevitable, it is more important than ever that his life stood for something. Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….[U]nless 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.”
Kingdom Values in Conflict
Jesus has spent the last three years of his life since his awakening at his baptism in the Jordan River teaching and modeling a new way of being human he calls the Kingdom of G-d. He has just laid out the values of that Kingdom in the Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount. These values epitomize human dignity beginning with the lowest members of his highly stratified society – Blessed are the poor; blessed are the meek…. His Way of Jesus values relationship while eschewing the use of coercive force – He who lives by the sword dies by sword. It is a way deeply marked by compassion for the suffering – Blessed are the merciful; blessed are those who mourn - a compassion which flows into the world in a wave of healing and feeding of the hungry including the multitudes which Jesus has just fed.
Mosaic, Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha
In short, the values of the Kingdom of G-d are the complete antithesis of the values of the exploitative Roman Empire occupying Judea and their client state vassals in Herod’s palace and the Temple towering over Jerusalem. And that message is hardly lost on them. Little wonder it is precisely the beneficiaries of those institutions who will play such large roles in the pending death of Jesus.
It’s important to note how Jesus sees himself in this drama. While later Christian theologies will cast Jesus in highly instrumental roles, making his death the required sacrifice for human sin, they really sell Jesus short. in today’s Gospel Jesus is clear that his death is both unavoidable and ultimately necessary if his Kingdom of G-d is to survive him. Note how he describes himself: “Unless the kernel of wheat falls to earth and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces a great harvest.” Jesus knows that his willingness to die for this Kingdom of G-d to which he has devoted his life is the very factor that will insure its survival.
Ironically, Jesus echoes Caiaphas here: “Better to have one man die for the people and not have the whole nation wiped out.”
Clearly there are some things more important than mere preservation of one’s own life. The question that Jesus is confronting here is one of the most profound ethical quandaries faced by human beings:
· If you truly stand for something, what is it worth to you?
· Is it worth a paycheck or even a job?
· Is it worth the loss of status and social respectability?
· Is it worth alienating family and friends?
· Is it worth your very life?
· What does it mean to stand for something and what is it ultimately worth to you?
An Awakening and A Calling in Central America
I experienced a modern version of these questions during my time as a seminarian. In 1992, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP is the Episcopal seminary member of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA) organized two mission trips to El Salvador coming right at the end of a decades long civil war there. It was a war in which my own country had played an incredibly destructive role in defending the interests of large corporate and agribusiness entities at the expense of some of the poorest people in the western hemisphere.
Martyrs of El Salvador, Jesuit professors and housekeepers killed at University of Central America, (1989)
We seminarians had come under the auspices of the World Council of Churches to serve as observers of the UN enforced cease fire the first visit and as international election observers the second visit. One of the first things we encountered right out of the airport were the posters that read, “Be a hero, kill a priest.”
It was in El Salvador that I came to know the legacy of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was a studious Jesuit who, along with the local Roman Catholic hierarchy, had supported the Salvadoreño government even as the atrocities against those identified as enemies from peasant farmers to reporters to Maryknoll nuns became increasingly impossible to ignore. Romero was chosen because he was seen as a safe bet for the government, for business interests and for the coopted church hierarchy.
A month into his bishopric, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and personal friend of Romero who had been creating self-reliance groups among the poor, was assassinated. Much like Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, this brutal murder served to awaken the soul of Oscar Romero. Thereafter he spoke out against the violence suffered by the poor. Like Jesus, Romero knew he was playing a dangerous game. But, like Jesus, he knew his calling was to articulate and model the Kingdom of G-d regardless of its costs. Romero would later say "When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'"
Romero’s calls to end the violence in his country would become increasingly pointed and began to be broadcast on national radio. The day before his death he would direct his comments to the military responsible for horrific atrocities against civilians, telling them that they must stop the repression even if it meant disobeying orders. He called on them to listen to the voice of G-d, no matter the cost.
Like Jesus in today’s Gospel, Romero was clear what the cost of such ministry would likely mean. In his final homily, Romero would say “One must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us…Those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives. Those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others will live like the grain of wheat.”
Days later, Oscar Romero would be shot down at the altar of the convent where he was celebrating the eucharist. As he elevated the host above his head, a sniper standing in the doorway would cut him down. That place at the altar is marked by a gold star in the terrazzo flooring today. I will never forget the chill that came over my own soul as I stood on that spot and looked to the open doorway with its view of the nearby mountains, knowing that was the last thing Oscar Romero saw before a bullet would shatter his compassionate heart. Like Jesus and Romero, that was a moment of awakening for me and my life would never be the same.
Questions for Those Who Would Follow Jesus
There are two important sets of questions that today’s Gospel raises for us. The first set contains fundamental questions about our very soul: What do I stand for? To what am I committed? And what is it worth to me? Is it worth a mere paycheck, the approval of the significant others I cherish, whatever privilege my life might command? Is it worth my very life? Who am I, what do I stand for and what is it worth to me?
The second set of questions are much longer term in nature: What seeds are being planted by my life? What legacy do I leave to others when I die? What difference will it make that I ever lived? And to whom?
These are tough questions. But our Gospel today suggests we do not have the luxury of just blowing them off if we are to be followers of Jesus. As Jesus tells us, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” How will we respond to that calling?
We now have two weeks remaining in our Lenten season of reflection and reconsideration of our lives. In this time in which we struggle with questions like those raised by today’s Gospel, it is my hope we may find comfort in a familiar prayer which provides voice for our wrestling with our souls. And so I close with it. Let us pray:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Harry Scott Coverston Orlando, Florida If the unexamined life is
not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or
political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in
sound bites. Those who believe
religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma
Gandhi For what does G-d require
of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your
G-d? - Micah
6:8, Hebrew Scriptures Do not be daunted by the
enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly
now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to
abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the
Jewish Sages (1993) © Harry
Coverston, 2021 +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2021