2 Tuesday Unless a grain falls…
Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 71, I Corinthians 1.18-31, John 12.20-36
Yesterday we said that the whole world is full of the glory of God. The glory of God is not visible everywhere. It is visible in what to us may seem the most utterly implausible way, the most counter-intuitive place. He has hid the truth of himself in one single person, and what’s more, he has hidden the truth of us in that same single person.
God has decided that man is his glory. And the way that glory can be accessed is through Christ. Christ is found through the prayers and worship which fill the Church. We said that the incarnation and passion of Christ, and so every day of Holy Week, is an unfurling of the resurrection, the truth that Jesus is the risen Son of God and the whole future of man with God.
Today, according to the Lectionary, our readings are from Isaiah 49 – ‘in the shadow of his hand he hid me’, and I Corinthians 1 ‘The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’, and John 12. ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.’
Let us hear this reading first.
‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. 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 honour. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ John 12.20-36
God has dropped a single seed, into the earth. Christ is this seed. Will he grow, will he survive, will he fruit? He lets go and gives himself away to us. The kingdom of God is like a farmer who sowed, and who does not know whether he will see any crop (Mark 4.). He hands himself over to us, entirely into our hands. The Lord God has taken a punt with us, has risked his own name on us. He does not want us unless we are ready to be wanted, and are ready to love. He intends freedom for us.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. This recklessness is our lot now. The Son of God is content to be the Son in the complete disguise – clothed in our creatureliness, our humanity and materiality. The whole passion of Christ is this concealment. Here is Isaiah again:
He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ Isaiah 49.1-7
The Lord both gives his servant to us and has to hide him from us. Christ must be raised from our clutches and be distinguished from us, so it can be clear that he is Lord. He is holy and only he is the source of our holiness. ‘When I am lifted up will draw all men to myself’ (John 12.32). He put himself in our hands. We seized him, ‘wicked men laid hands upon him’ and put him to death. But God raised him from the dead, says Peter in Acts. We seized him, but God reversed our act of man, taking Christ out of grasp. He is no longer in our grasp, but we are in his. And we remain in his grasp. He both takes us out of the hands of the over-powerful – and he puts us into one another’s hands.
Jesus Christ underwent the apprenticeship of all mankind and he treated it all as the apprenticeship of God. He was tested by us and he graduated from our rough, dismissive and despairing testing of him. He came through the process. So it turns out that there is one of us who holds all of us to be good, and he holds firm in this. We can continue to test him and we will see that he continues to hold good. He knows who we are, and is neither appalled, nor afraid, nor disengaged. Rather he is ready for us. He knows us and he regards us with faith and hope and love.
When Jesus is raised Jesus is shown to be free. But he does not decide to be free of us, he does not leave us behind. The incarnation is not over. The incarnation is established forever. The resurrection establishes that he has always been free, even when fully involved with us and grasped bound by us. He remained entirely free, always, even through all our binding of him. He remains with us solely because he intends to, for he has decided to be with us, to be our companion and our Lord. He exercises his freedom in deciding to be for us and with us.
To make sense of this line about this grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, we must say something about death and life. Usually we think of death as something that happens at the end of life – you live and then you die. But Scripture understands this differently. Life and death are two processes that take place in parallel. This conception is much closer to biology, which understands growth and decay as two processes that happen in parallel. Now, Scripture adds that one process is dependent on the other, death is entirely parasitical on life.
Jesus’ passion and death is created by our resistance to him. He wrestles with us, puts up with our resistance. He withstands it and overcomes it. Even by taking all dignity, materiality and life away from him, we do not break him. He remains resolutely decided for us. We cannot change his free resolution to be with us and for us. The passion is one with the whole course of life in which he gives himself into our hands. we push him away, but he goes not give up and go away. Having been through the whole apprenticeship he has survived and so he is the Son who ‘learned obedience’ (Hebrews 5.8). Now no part of humanity is strange to him and no violence of ours can throw him off.
By doing so he breaks open the mean, vicious and constrictive little world of our construction, and into another, the much larger world of his construction. He breaks open one constrictive definition of the world to show that the real world, behind it, is bigger and more generous.
Jesus Christ has not ceased to be a member of creation, a person amongst other persons. He is the whole creation, contained within the figure of this single man, the whole creation thus available in one person.
2. The Church that dies – and yet lives
Christ has given himself into our hands, and so we receive this body of his. It is our job to cherish it, as the body of Christ here, and to bend to it and serve it, to comfort it, and tell it that its identity is hidden with Christ in God. For it is the glory of God that is hidden in the Church and which peeks out in its worship and gladness. Yesterday I said that the Church has to pray and to speak up for the world.
It always looks grim for the Church. The Church always look sinful, divided, discredited and done for. The church is disregarded and despised. All this is as it should be, for in this way the Church is truly the suffering body of the Lord and we ‘make up in our body what is lacking’ and ‘Where I am, there will my servant be also’.
Of course it is also our own sins that divide the body, though our own sins are not nearly as interesting as we take them to be. To some we reek of everything old and redundant, some believe that religion is violent and murderous so ‘we smell of death’, as the apostle puts it (2 Corinthians 2.15-16).
To attempt to avoid this accusation we may be tempted to call for a more up-to-date, more secular and activist faith. But it is not our job to chide the Church, for not enough social involvement, or for not attending mid-week events. It is not for us to say that it is too full of the elderly, middle class, or that there are not enough men, or whatever.
The Church prays and speaks up for the world. We pray for all those who do not pray for themselves. Perhaps the world is foolish in relying on us to this for it. And certainly we fail to intercede for it, and fail to become the holy and intercessory people and the world rightly sees this. We take on the odium that attaches to this office. The Church is here to take the blame. This is part of the priestly office of the Church: we take the knocks, and we do so publicly, for our disciplining involves a public humbling. We boast, saint Paul says, in our hope of sharing the glory of God. We boast in our sufferings. The Church can take this because it lives in faith and hope that there is a good reason for this humbling. The world is afraid of being hurt. But perhaps when the world sees that the Church gets hurt and yet survive, they wonder. The Christians must always hear the rebuke of society, for there is always something for the Church to learn from the world.
3. Holiness hidden
The Church is made holy. It is made distinct from the world and in this dark way, it is a promise of the resurrection indeed, it is the sign that the resurrection is underway. Now we are all able to say that it does not look this way – but then we must learn to see the Church differently, in faith, hope and love. The Church is the hiddenness of the resurrection, which is the life that is not divided and does not leave anybody out. The holiness and therefore the exclusivity of the Church is the promise of this resurrection. The Church is only prophetically to warn society that it is not complete until it is inclusive, and it is not us but Christ who welcomes us into his inclusivity – the invitation is his not ours.
In Church we learn how to be with other people, and how not to regard them as restraints on us but to regard them as the source of life and our freedom. We learn how to hold freedom and fellowship together.
At Easter we turn up in Church. In the worship service you have to turn up and be physically there. We stand shoulder to shoulder. In Church we are in one place with a group of people with whom you do not normally associate, and who are not like ourselves. This Church is the living demonstration that the Spirit brings down barriers and allows us to overcome our limits. But more than that, we learn to receive the restraint and definition that these other people represent from us. We are content to be known as members of this body. In this body we are not defined by our demographic, socio-economic group or our income bracket. We are not banded by our taste, by style of worship or music. We are not simply placed amongst ‘people like us’. Christ brings opposites together and holds them together – in love and that means in mutual subordination.
So all I want to do in these lectures is point out what the whole Christian Church says. It is the Christians who offer this very high view of man and we do so publicly every time we meet. We do not just say these things, but we sing them. In the course of our worship they tell that we do not have to construct ourselves, and so do not have to be little gods, and this is a huge relief. We are able to wonder at man and keep the question of our future open. As long as our society is peppered with Christians, it has people to point out that we do not have to construct ourselves. Instead we may receive one another from God and thank him for the identity we receive through Christ, and which is demonstrated in the Church.
Man is created for life with God. Love and freedom are more fundamental than man and precede him. But the whole world is given to man, and every man in it is given to us, for us to discover and marvel at and enjoy. This sets out the highest view of man as the creature who can freely answer back and can do so on behalf on all creation.
4. The public service of the Church
God asks us to hear one another and to speak up for one another. God petitions us, to petition for other people. In all our worship and life together we practice being human together. And we so, because God petitions us and we learn from him how to hear other people, we also learn to speak to God, for them and with them. It is for the world that we are different. We are the pray-ers and intercessors, and witnesses of God for this society of ours. We gather here to receive the love and truth of the God. No room for sarcasm or resentment or any self-defensive postures is left open to us. We have to regard all as good, opponents as much as anyone else, and thank God for them.
Christ has committed himself to us, to this little people. The Church is given to the world so that the world can watch the Church hearing and being humbled by this voice that we hear in Scripture and worship. The Church is despised because of its own slowness and reluctance to love – but ultimately the Church is despised because Christ is despised. He suffers and puts up with our contempt still.
The worship and confession of God is our business. We do not know or comprehend or control Christ or his worship. Worship of God is not just our worship of God, by Christ’s, for it is simply an expression for us of the love of the Son for the Father.
In Christ we are being administered to one another in that cup. We are being mixed together, and all of us, water, are being mixed with the wine of his divinity and so we all becoming this wine, which is the communion of God. This cup springs to eternal life. The cup we drink is not all sweetness. Some of the bitterness comes when Christians attack other Christians. But the generosity of God to man is much greater than the hesitancy and meanness of man to man.
The whole Christ, the fullness of Christ is being administered to this body in this cup. What is being administrated in that cup is not merely material, but the spiritual and that means the whole resources of Christ. certainly these resources are material and personal. It includes the funding, the personnel or education or administrative skills or counselling. All this is necessary. But the material distribution of such material and therefore partial and temporary resources is just a small part of the whole spiritual (and therefore permanent and complete) resources of the whole Christ who gives himself to the Church, afresh in every generation. The Church always needs the immediate resources, but it is only the long-term (intellectual and spiritual) resources of the Church that tell us what the short-term resources are. Without the spiritual resource, we would just pass out the same resources as the world, with the result the Christian body would be indistinguishable from the world. This society is anointed with the Church. The Christian apprenticeship is the leaven without which this will not remain a functioning society in the long term.
The judgment of God is good. He will find and raise up all those who have lost and ignored, and he will give them the hearing that they have not received from anyone else. He will listen to those who have been left alone, without comfort, and particularly to those who have not received the teaching, comfort and protection that their Church owed them. For it is our job to pass on to them their identity – that of God’s people.
The resurrection is the event in which God comes to man in Christ has come to man and anointed himself with man and crowned man with God. The Church is anointed and equipped with the Holy Spirit, who frees us from all other ‘spirits’ and powers in order to worship God. The Church gathered to worship is ‘in the Spirit’, readied to receive the truth of man, which is that our reality is both hidden all around us. It is to be found in the resurrection, when the mystery of creation and with it of man, will be revealed.
God completes his act of creation by raising one of us to the full definition of humankind. In Christ the whole work of creation has been successful, and that success is opened to all of us. What is more, Christ has attached us to himself. he does not desire to be raised without us. The resurrection of the first is the beginning of the resurrection of all humanity. Easter is a preview of the consequences of this for us: Christ’s resurrection is a rehearsal for ours.
Each place and time where we confess God, when humbled we ask almighty God if we may approach him with our petitions, meekly on our knees. When on Sunday morning we are all gathered together in one congregation. Just as that eucharistic loaf is lifted up high, so we are lifted up by the Son and just so in our prayers we lift up the whole world to God.
We do this when the whole congregation is present – made up as it is of all the unlikely and most contrary elements, the young, old, this and that class and ethnicity, this and that Churchmanship, gathered and animated by the Spirit we pray and call on God and so become members of his Son. We are a Spirit-filled people, a catholic people when the whole congregation is present. Spirituality is not an add-on. It is our main, or even our only, business. The calendar of the Church year gives us an alternative identity. We are located by the Church year, and so by the Scripture that sets out the year for us. Each reading adds something so, by a process of triangulation, the sermon spells out to us the results of the readings of Scripture to tell us who we are, where we are and what is coming up.
In every Church service the Son stands at the head of the congregation, speaking to God, for us and leading us so we all speak with him. And he presents us to God and the Father receives us from him and affirms us. So when you look up the Church you are seeing Christ holding out to us all the elements of our future selves. We see the book of Scripture, and the bread and cup, the sacramental Word of God which is also the power of God to make us holy. All the good things that are coming to us are made visible and tangible to us here in these small tokens. And what we cannot cope with is taken away from us, so we are not left to choke on what we cannot get down. In this eucharist, this service of Christ to us all rage and frustration, all our unfinished business, sin and burdens are removed from us. The bread is our humanity as it is, tattered and ragged, made of the created earth as we find it, and the wine is humanity as it is with Christ, in complete relation with the Father and thereby fully human. But bread and wine are just the visible front end of the whole created order that brings us first into existence and then into the communion of God and makes us different from the world, for the world’s sake. The bread is to sustain us for the way we have to go through this life of preparation. It is our viaticum – the spiritual food that will take us through this Passover.
So far then we have said that the Church is made holy – and this is the first promise of the resurrection. God has the power to make one thing different from another, and so maintains the Church different from the world. And we have said that the Church is the companionship of God making itself tangible and corporal here. The communion of God has vastly more room than the self-defined present world of our contemporaries, and the Church is the puzzling form that this communion takes for us now. It is baffling – of course it is. But then it is the glory that is hidden, and the grain that must die, and die not just this week, but every day.
Thanks be to God.