“Wheat Seed” International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Creative Common (CC) licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.
John 12:20-36 Contemporary English Version
20 Some Greeks had gone to Jerusalem to worship during Passover. 21 Philip from Bethsaida in Galilee was there too. So, they went to him and said, “Sir, we would like to meet Jesus.” 22 Philip told Andrew. Then the two of them went to Jesus and told him.
23 Jesus said: “The time has come for the Son of Man to be given his glory. 24 I tell you for certain that a grain of wheat that falls on the ground will never be more than one grain unless it dies. But if it dies, it will produce lots of wheat. 25 If you love your life, you will lose it. If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life. 26 If you serve me, you must go with me. My servants will be with me wherever I am. If you serve me, my Father will honor you.”
27 “Now I am deeply troubled, and I don’t know what to say. But I must not ask my Father to keep me from this time of suffering. In fact, I came into the world to suffer. 28 So Father, bring glory to yourself.” A voice from heaven then said, “I have already brought glory to myself, and I will do it again!” 29 When the crowd heard the voice, some of them thought it was thunder. Others thought an angel had spoken to Jesus.
30 Then Jesus told the crowd, “That voice spoke to help you, not me. 31 This world’s people are now being judged, and the ruler of this world is already being thrown out! 32 If I am lifted up above the earth, I will make everyone want to come to me.” 33 Jesus was talking about the way he would be put to death.
34 The crowd said to Jesus, “The Scriptures teach that the Messiah will live forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus answered, “The light will be with you for only a little longer. Walk in the light while you can. Then you won’t be caught walking blindly in the dark. 36 Have faith in the light while it is with you, and you will be children of the light.” After Jesus had said these things, he left and went into hiding.
Around 17,000 years ago, much of the Northern Hemisphere was stuck in an Ice Age. Cooler weather and glaciation reduced the available game for our ancient hunter-gatherer human ancestors. In the fertile Crescent, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern-day Iraq, humans began to do something that would mark the beginnings of civilization – they took the grains they gathered and started to plant them. Around 17,000 years ago, the first grains of wheat were intentionally planted for agriculture.
A member of the grass family, these early wheat seeds would prove vital for the growth of humanity. One kernel contains very little nutrition. It takes about eight kernels to make one calorie and about 15,000 to make one loaf of whole wheat bread.
A single grain, standing on its own doesn’t do much. Yet, it has some pretty incredible yields when planted. Today, a single seed planted in the ground yields just over 100 kernels, and if we were to take the pound of wheat seed and plant them, we would have enough wheat to make 100 loaves of bread in just a few months. This was the early math our ancient ancestors thought through as they collected wheat kernels and saved the best for seed. They realized that growing their food was one way of providing stability in their lives and the hope for future generations.
Today’s gospel lesson is Jesus’ last public discourse in the gospel of John. He has just entered Jerusalem for Pentecost when some Greeks (Jews living in the diaspora – perhaps something like ex-patriots today) come to see Jesus. Maybe they wish to hear some words of comfort. Instead, Jesus’ words are difficult. His time is up. There was a plot to kill Jesus in chapter 11 after Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. Mary has anointed Jesus at the beginning of chapter 12. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Passover, coming as a king or perhaps offering a politically critical satire of kingship and empire. And now Greeks, representatives of the entire world in John’s gospel, come to see Jesus. This Jesus movement was not just a local phenomenon. It is not the story of a wandering backwater holy man that was killed one Passover in Jerusalem. No, this story has global, even cosmic elements to it.
So, what’s Jesus’ message to this audience that represents that entire world? “Do not love this life, but hate it. In hating it, serve me.” The language is difficult and problematic. But Jesus is not saying that his followers should hate themselves or give into the self-hate – a way that this passage has been read so destructively for centuries. Instead, Jesus wants his disciples to choose how they orient themselves in the world.
The world can promote injustice, lift the wealthy while crushing the poor, and can maintain power through violence and coercion. All of this strip away the inherent dignity and sacredness of all living things. This is the part of the world that Jesus wants his disciples to hate, to feel so profoundly unsettled by the awful parts that they are willing to instigate change. Jesus wants his disciples to be an unsettled people, choosing not to be complicit in a world that hurts those that God loves.
We can think back on our ancient ancestors. Some hated hunger so much that they made the difficult choice to hold back kernels that could have been eaten at that moment to ensure future abundance. And year after year it got a little better. And troubles came, but the practice was embedded in humanity and made lasting, positive change.
Jesus says that his followers will challenge those things in this world that kill and destroy. His followers will be more than a single kernel, ground, and used up. They will be seeds planted for the benefit of future generations.
What is God planting in us today? What places in this world make us unsettled enough to change?