Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Seed, Dying, Once Again

Our Lenten journey approaches Jerusalem, and once again we hear, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."  (John 12:24)  This is a recurring theme, and our culture does not like that message at all.

According to our currently dominant societal values, the purpose of life is to accumulate things.  These include material goods, income and, whenever possible, power and influence to ensure continued access to more things. 

This is hardly a new thing under the sun - people have pursued such goals for thousands of years, but we have elevated it to an art form.  In the process we have exalted greed, calling it "ambition"; we have erased common morality, calling it "realism"; we have applauded naked aggression, calling it "drive".  In pursuit of such goals we have been willing to look the other way when corners are cut; we have been willing to tolerate the demands of employers who require loyalty to job ahead of loyalty to family; we have put advancement and even self-gratification ahead of the people we love; and we have been willing to resign ourselves to the inevitability of the situation.

Into this climate the words of Jesus come, calling us to another set of priorities.  The words hit our numbed modern ears, and seem strange.  Or quaint.  Or naive.

And yet, if we open our ears, the words have a familiarity.  Sometimes we can't quite place it - a tune we heard once and were transported, a comment that spoke sanity in the midst of chaos, a principle of living that made sense of apparent absurdity.

The English novelist Charles Williams referred to this principle as "the Great Exchange - my life for your life."  He saw it as integral to the very structure of the universe - the vision of the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world, made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, visible in his life, ministry, death and resurrection, but also in the workings of nature and human nature.  In such novels as All Hallows Eve, War In Heaven, Many Dimensions and The Greater Trumps Williams restated for our time that which Jesus taught at every opportunity - that the visible, material universe, in which we believe ourselves to be so much at home, relies for its very existence on a spiritual framework, an infrastructure if you will, that gives it shape and form and substance.

Jesus looked at his world, and found there the same corrupting elements that are so troubling in our own. He saw the desperate desire of men and women to secure their material existence leading them into practices that destroyed their spirits, and in the end failed their material goals as well.  He saw them enslaved by false aspirations, and in desperate need of being released from their bondage.  He predicted that their failure to change this orientation would lead to their destruction, and his prediction was fulfilled within the lifetime of most of his hearers, as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and sent her people into exile.

And so he taught them with simple, earthy analogies.  The hoarded grain spoils and goes rotten.  The planted grain bears fruit.  Life spent on behalf of others has meaning that transcends the material circumstances of life.  People mean more than things.  Accomplishments are always replaced.  Acts of love leave a permanent mark.  These are not ideals, he said - they are the foundational realities by which the universe is run.

Lent and Easter provide us an opportunity to sense that framework, and to reflect upon what it means.  They give us a chance to think about the ultimate questions, and in the events remembered we can discern eternal answers to our questions.  Our world is in need of a massive reorientation of purpose, and the good news of the Gospel is that it is within reach.  The challenge of the Gospel is that you and I are called to be its messengers, in words yes, but more in the choices we make in our living. 

We are imperfect messengers, to be sure.  We all have a stake in the way things are, even as we see the alternative.  So none of us comes to the struggle with clean hands and pure minds.  All of us are part of the problem, even as we may truly desire to be part of the solution.  That’s why we need to come not as superior beings who have all the answers, but on our knees, confessing our need to be forgiven and reconciled along with everyone else.  It is our egos, our self-absorption that corresponds to the seed that has to die, and that’s a frightening thing to contemplate.  Letting go of our mindsets, our biases, our opinions, our ways of doing things, and asking God to sort it out may feel like death, but isn’t that the point?  It becomes an act of will, hung on whatever faith we can muster, that in the end Paul is right to say, So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.”  (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)

Jerusalem is on the horizon, the words of Jesus and his actions trouble us in our comfort, but they are ultimately the very words of life, and so we continue on the road.

Howard MacMullen
© March, 2012    

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