A matter of death and life

We’d kept them in the refrigerator for months, waiting for the right time to bury them deep in the soil. There were only a few, some quite small; we did what we could and hoped for the best. And eventually we were rewarded, first with bright green shoots, then with colorful blooms.

If tulip bulbs could talk, perhaps they’d object to their treatment at the hands of hopeful gardeners: You’re going to do what to me? Yeah, well why don’t you try sticking yourself in the cold, wet ground for a few months and see how you like it!

The world would be a lot less beautiful, though, without their sacrifice.

It’s an age-old metaphor that even the hearers of Jesus would have understood, at least to some extent:

I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me. (John 12:24-26, CEB)

The goal, of course, is not the preservation of the wheat kernel. The goal is fruitfulness, abundance. In a sense, the grain doesn’t really die. By being buried, it is transformed. What may seem like death from the perspective of the kernel becomes new life, that gives life to others in turn.

Just try telling that to the kernel.

Right: we don’t live in a cartoon world, and wheat kernels and tulip bulbs don’t talk. But Jesus intends for his hearers to apply the metaphor personally. You love life and fear death. But what you don’t understand is that the “life” you have now is not your destiny. Hang onto that too tightly, and you’ll be no more than a seed: a small kernel of wheat that will eventually shrivel and die if it’s not planted to grow and give life, a bulb that needs to be buried to bloom.

Jesus said this after a group of strangers sought an audience with him at the Passover festival. John doesn’t tell us why they wanted to talk with him, nor does he record any conversation between them.

But having just declared that “the hour has come” (vs. 23), and knowing what that entails, Jesus seems to want these visitors and his disciples to know what it means to follow him. The Twelve anticipate one kind of life, which they want very much: one in which Jesus triumphs and his followers take their rightful places in his kingdom.

They do not yet understand that very soon, they will be surrounded by death. Their master will be executed by the state; their companion Judas will commit suicide. Their very hopes and dreams will be buried in the tomb with Jesus.

But from death, life. Easter Sunday will be thrust upon them like a shockingly unexpected gift which they will only come to understand in time. And when at last they do understand, they’ll know what Jesus meant: what seemed like life wasn’t; what seemed like death was the doorway to the life they really wanted, even if they didn’t know.

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