Scripture Reading: John 12:20-33
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Not long after I arrived to study in the United States, I had an appointment at Princeton University. I had so far only been on the campus of the Theological Seminary, where I was studying, and I soon lost my way on the much larger University campus. So I asked a man for directions. It turned out he was a Lebanese, a researcher in physics, who had just been on holiday in Scotland, and recognised my accent. And so it was I that I got an invitation to dinner with him.
We had a very pleasant evening. The physicist and his wife were not religious people. I didn’t tell him that I had failed Higher Physics twice! One of the things I remember about the evening was that we talked about the origin of the universe. He took a minority view in the scientific community: he adhered to what is called the ‘steady state’ theory of the universe, the theory that the universe had no beginning- it has just always been. He didn’t think there had been a Big Bang, a point at which the universe come into being. He believed this, not for religious or philosophical reasons, but for purely scientific reasons- the data, in his opinion, did not indicate a ‘beginning’.
This week, a quarter of a century later, I’ve been reading obituaries for Professor Stephen Hawking. Among his many accomplishments, Hawking apparently convinced most of his colleagues that the universe did, indeed, have a beginning. Today the consensus in the world of physics is that the universe began with a Big Bang. I wonder if that kind Lebanese physicist who invited me to dinner at Princeton has changed his mind?
Hawking and his fellow physicists and astronomers have given us incredible new understandings of creation. Yet Hawking’s universe can be a very strange place indeed. The universe turns out to be a place where black holes can swallow light, and where time can move at different rates, where particles can be in two places at once, where gravity comes in waves, and where once all matter was created out of nothing. To read A Brief History of Time or other popular books on physics and astronomy is get to know, at least slightly, a universe unimaginably different from our usual experience. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was right when he said to his friend, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.
There is a much paradox in modern science. My dictionary defines a paradox as ‘something which is contrary to received conventional opinion; something which is apparently absurd but is or may be really true; a self-contradictory statement’. Since we never quite get to the bottom of everything, it’s not surprising that paradoxes exist in science, in life, and in faith.
Today’s passage from the Gospel of John is a strange text, and full of paradoxes. John likes opposites, paradoxes, mysteries- light in darkness, the Word made flesh. And from today’s reading I just want to ponder with you two statements of Jesus that seem paradoxical, contradictory, as strange, in their own ways, as anything in modern physics.
The first saying is this:
I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains.
Now, this might seem a bit of a commonplace observation. Jesus lived in a largely agricultural community. People mostly lived on the land, in a way most don’t any more. Back then, they didn’t have to teach children that milk comes from cows. Everyone knew that if you plant a grain of wheat in the ground, more wheat will sprout eventually, producing many more grains. If course it does. But grains kept in a store will never produce a harvest. The seeds are no good unless you plant them in the cold, dark earth. And so this commonplace observation becomes a saying about how the glory of Christ: that he will bring new life, but only by dying.
Often many more people attend Easter services than attend Good Friday services. But won’t ‘get’ Easter it you don’t ‘do’ Good Friday. There is no resurrection without the cross, no Easter without Good Friday. For most people in our country, Easter is just a celebration of spring- daffodils, bunnies, fluffy chicks and spring lambs. We love to celebrate spring, as our ancestors have done for centuries, because it’s so comforting. After the cold, dark days of winter, spring rolls around, as it has done every year, and we celebrate the longer days, and the new life of garden, farm and field.
We could easily understand this saying about grain and wheat in that way. Indeed, we will late sing a hymn that celebrates Easter just that way: ‘Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain’. But this is no myth of nature’s eternal renewal. The hymn is about a tragic historical event- the death of Jesus of Nazareth:
In the grave they laid him, Love whom men had slain,
thinking that never he would wake again.
Modern science has given us wonderful new knowledge about our universe. It has given us wonderful advances- we could, if organised the world a bit better, ensure that no-one in the world went hungry. And yet the same technology that can power our homes or send up satellite to give us weather forecasts could bring about nuclear holocaust. We can use our knowledge of biology to use nerve agents to kill each other. Knowledge and technology that should enhance our lives can bring terrible suffering and destruction.
It is into this paradoxical world that Christ comes, and speaks of his death and resurrection. One of the central paradoxes of our faith is that new life is to be found at the cross. As the dead grain needs to be buried to bring new life, so with Christ- no Easter without Good Friday, no resurrection without death.
A Christianity that was only an Easter Christianity might seem very attractive. We could try creating churches where everything was always upbeat, where happiness of believers was the main aim. We could banish the cross from our sanctuaries and perhaps just have flowers or Easter chicks. But the world is light and darkness- death is part of living. A merely Easter Christianity won’t do.
But some Christians seem to go to the opposite extreme. They have a Good Friday Christianity whose purpose seems to make people feel guilty and unhappy. They preach the cross- and that’s fine, but not if you only ever preach the cross, without the resurrection. For there is light, as well as darkness, in the world. Faith should be a celebration- there’s nothing wrong with worship being enjoyable.
Bring life and death together, bring Good Friday and Easter together, and you begin to have a rounded, realistic Christian faith. For Christianity is a paradoxical faith. When we celebrate our salvation, we recall it was done through the death of Jesus. And when we mourn, we celebrate that we are in the hands of a loving God who promises new life.
New life only comes when the grain is buried, says Jesus in John’s Gospel. In Mark’s Gospel, he put it differently, predicting to his disciples that he would ‘be put to death, but three days later he will rise to life’- no Easter without Good Friday. The apostle Peter is so shocked by this, he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. But this is the way Jesus chose- the way that would lead to his own death, which would bring life to the world. He has to walk through the darkness so that we can live in the light.
And in Mark’s Gospel, after Peter tells Jesus off for his seemingly morbid prediction of his own death, he goes out and preaches to his followers about what that might mean for them:
If you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it.
And that, of course, is virtually the saying we find in today’s reading from John’s Gospel, my second paradoxical saying:
Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal.
If it was shocking for his disciples to be told that Jesus was going to have to die, it must also have been shocking for his followers to be told that there were not to love their lives, but that they were to hate their lives. What reaction would we get if we put that up on a poster outside a church: ‘Don’t love your life; hate it!’? After all, the other advertising posters around our town usually exhort us to make the most of our lives. We can have happier, fuller, better lives if we use their perfume, drive their cars, buy their fashions. Shouldn’t the church be making people feel good about their lives? Who are we to encourage people to become martyrs?
Yet elsewhere in John’s Gospels, Jesus says, ‘I have come that you might have life- life in all its fullness’. For a full life for a follower of Jesus is, paradoxically, not a life which we live just for ourselves, for our own pleasure. A life is not full, not fulfilled, if it is lived at the fluffy stage of our advertisers. They may seem to offer full lives with their sexy perfume, fast cars and apparently healthy food; but they are liars. Full life, eternal life, is about more.
This time of Lent, as we come closer and closer to Good Friday, and the cross, is a time for us all to reconsider our lives. We often think of Lent as a time to give things up- but, paradoxically, it’s also a time for renewal. For within each of us there are things we have to give up- habits, attitudes, unhealthy ways of living- things we have to put to death in order that new life might sprout. It’s like giving up smoking, and discovering you are fitter and healthier. We need to kill some things off so that we can live better, fuller lives. You might want to thinks about that- what do I need to let die, in order that new life might come? It’s a question for society- what would be better off without, so that life might be better? It’s even a question for the church- what do we need to let die, so that new life might come?
It can be hard to live with paradox. Some people try to do it. To some extent the universe can be explained by science and maths, and yet the night sky and other wonders of nature can move us profoundly. It can be tempting to resolve that paradox by going to the extremes- by reducing it all to dead numbers, or by retreating into a vague, unscientific mumbo jumbo mysticism. In the history of Christianity, people have tried to resolve the mysteries of Christ by going to one extreme or the other. Some people treat Jesus as just a good man- a inspired teacher, but nothing more. Other people seem to imagine Jesus floated around Palestine three inches above the ground, a sort of demigod, not really human at all. John the Gospel writer, however, right at the start of his Gospel- reminds us of the central paradox of our faith- the Word became flesh and lived among us. The eternal Christ died in that we might have life.
We Christians live within the boundaries of those paradoxes. But if our faith is a paradox, well, human life, and even the universe itself, is a paradox which is only held together by the love of the Creator God. The seed has been buried in the ground, apparently dead. But it will rise and bear much fruit: ‘Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green’.
The fruit of Christ’s death are the full lives of those who hear his call to follow in his way. For only by following Christ through the valley of the shadow of death can we bear fruit- live of goodness and love and justice, lives lived for others, lives full of wonder and praise and thanksgiving.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584