Weekly Seeds: Single Grains

Sunday, March 17, 2024
Fifth Sunday in Lent | Year B

Focus Theme:
Single Grains

Focus Prayer:
Creator God, nourish the seeds we plant in the earth for new life.

Focus Reading:
John 12:20-33
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew, then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say: ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 31:31-34 • Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16 • Hebrews 5:5-10 • John 12:20-33

Focus Questions:
Where is there hunger in the world? What causes it?
Where is their excess in the world? What causes it?
What keeps excess from responding to hunger?
What seeds do you have to plant?
What keeps you from planting them?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

What is a grain? Grains are seeds, specifically they are the seeds of plants that grow in a manner like grass, such as corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice. They may have a protective covering, called a hull, or be bare. Grains are used for human consumption, and we often encounter them in their dried state. Yet, in most cases, in order to be suitable as nutrition, they must be reconstituted with water in cooking. In other words, there is a process that first preserves them for longevity and accessible use that is followed by a process that returns an element that has been temporarily removed until the proper time.

In much of his teaching ministry, Jesus used parables to point to the kindom and to explain complex concepts in accessible ways. The Gospel of John, however, is more noted for the seven signs that point to his identity and mission. Parables and signs both employ symbolism, which equate a known reality with a more mysterious one. The single grain is a metaphor that refers to Jesus and his passion at the same time that it challenges his followers to recognize themselves as part of a community that is being cultivated, nourished, and developed in order to be of service to the kindom at the appointed time.

The very fact that this saying is in the form of a parable immediately places it naturally within the ministry of the historical Jesus, who indisputably used the parabolic method as one of his major tools of instruction. Moreover, the fact that this is a parable with an agricultural setting binds it naturally with the many other similar parables attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.
Peter W. Ensor

The scene opens with an exchange between one of his disciples, Philip, and some Greeks. The events take place during the feast of the Passover. Adherents would have assembled from throughout the region to come to Jerusalem to observe the high, holy days. Because they are celebrating a Jewish feast, presumably the Greeks were not gentiles. John’s audience is not oriented towards outsiders. The synoptics have long been available by the time his account is written. John writes to a community facing both persecution and a form of apostasy. The divinity of Christ comes into question, and John intends to make his case clear. When the Greeks assert that, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” John invites his audience to view Jesus in his fullness, in his humanity as well as his divinity, in his presence as well as his purpose, and in his passion as well as his glory.

Philip is joined by Andrew before they convey the message to Jesus. Phillip seems to be the more significant character. In his representation in the gospel narrative, Phillip is associated with Peter and Andrew as they shared the same hometown. He is only mentioned in the gospel according to John and the Acts of the Apostles. That is not unusual. Jesus is the main character, and only a few of the disciples receive unique attention. John often mentions the beloved disciple as a representative character that may refer to a particular disciple, but more likely in my view is a generic term used to refer to any of the disciples when their particular identity is not as important as their assured belovedness.

Philip is the one who comes to Jesus for revelation. He’s instrumental in the feeding of the 5000. Philip asks to see the Father in John 14 when Jesus assures the disciples that they have seen the Divine Parent through Jesus, the Divine Offspring. In Acts, it is Philip who encounters the Ethiopian eunuch, proclaims the good news, and baptizes him on the spot. According to tradition, Philip will later be hung upside down as he is martyred for preaching the gospel. Philip is instrumental in this passage; at the same time, this passage also tells his story. He embodies the metaphor and represents all who accept the call to plant ourselves in service of the kindom on earth.

Judith L. Kovacs asks a central question: “Might the theme of cosmic conflict and the view that Jesus’ death is the decisive victory of God over the forces of evil be more important in John’s theology than is usually recognized?”

Despite nearly obsessive preoccupation with opening the keys to heaven over the last few centuries, the early church generally, and John especially, were particularly concerned with life on earth. Even the prevailing belief and hope that the return of Jesus was imminent was not understood as a way of escaping earth but redeeming and restoring it as the kindom of God. For John, the death of the single grain, like the death of Jesus, is instrumental for new life and glory.

When we consider the three “lifting up sayings” of 3:14, 8:28, and 12:32 in this context it becomes clear that they primarily concern the historical event of the crucifixion. In the Johannine context, however, the crucifixion is also symbolic and thus multi-layered and multifaceted. On the one hand, the cross refers to the historical, redemptive death of Jesus Christ, who is the Good Shepherd laying down his life for his sheep (Jn 10:11-18} and the grain of wheat dying in order to bear much fruit (12:24). On the other, his death can only be understood insofar as the crucifixion is at the same time the exaltation and glorification of the Son of Man; it is the moment in which Jesus as the Son of God most clearly reveals the Father, pours out the Spirit, and returns whence he came. As such it expresses the broader Johannine theme of the descent-ascent of the Son of Man. This moment of glory exists within a greater, integral reality in which the crucifixion, as well as the resurrection and ascension, constitute for John one movement, one “hour,” in which the Son returns to the Father and they glorify one another. Eternal life is to know and accept in faith the fullness of revelation expressed in Jesus’ “hour”; judgment is to reject it.
John W. Romanowsky

The gospel according to John devotes nearly half of its content to the events and teaching that takes place during what has become known as Holy Week, including the Last Supper, priestly prayer for unity, and the trial. The recounting of the crucifixion itself merits only one chapter and is fairly sanitized in terms of the brutality of the execution. John intentionally deemphasizes the suffering because his attention is on the glory. The crucifixion was the “falling to the ground,’ which was necessary for the seed leading to new life to be planted.

The immediate context for 12:32 follows what some have called “the Johannine Gethsemane” (12:27-29), which ends with Jesus asking the Father to glorify his name and a voice from heaven saying he has and will do so again. Here there is no question that Jesus’ reference to his “hour” points directly to his death. Beasely-Murray points out that the verb used for the phrase, “now is my soul troubled” signifies “agitation, horror, convulsion, and shock of spirit,” reminiscent of Mark l4:34-41. Thus, when Jesus asks the Father to glorify his name, he is referring primarily to how his name will be glorified in his death. What is characteristic about this Johannine “Gethsemane” is not so much the lack of emphasis on Jesus’ anguish about the cross as the strong emphasis on Jesus’ interior attitude towards his death. His serenity and acceptance come across clearly in his tone and decision not even to pray that he might be spared, as in the Synoptics. John communicates that Jesus freely and deliberately accepts death as his purpose for coming down from heaven out of loving obedience and for the glory of the Father’s name.
John W. Romanowsky

What would it mean for Christians to embrace “falling to the ground” as a practice of discipleship? This is the call to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. We may determine that our privilege needs to die for equity to live. We may question our complicity and compliance in corrupt systems for our comfort in favor of disrupting barriers to human and creation flourishing. Do we pray to be absolved from responsibility, stewardship, and solidarity with the conditions of our siblings in Gaza, Ukraine, and Somalia? Or, do we remind ourselves, like Jesus, that our privilege, power, and prestige may be used for this hour?

Jesus did not come to be a single grain. Even though his heart is troubled, Jesus declares that he has come for the moment that will imminently present itself to him. He comes to confront the powers of this world. His purpose, like ourselves, does not end at being a single grain. A single grain has not fulfilled its purpose. A single grain may be comforted within its protective shell. We enjoy the comfort, familiarity, and ease of our sanctuaries and helping ministries that do a little good but stop short of any controversy or disruptive impulses that could actually eliminate suffering, inequities, and despair.

By the way, a single grain that does not complete its proper life cycle will eventually wither and die having lived a life that attempted to serve only itself. Self-protection does not prevent death; it only detracts from life’s meaning and purpose.

Our attempts to preserve the single grain leave the world hungry and starving. But, if we allow that single grain to die and be reconstituted with Living Water, we can grow with abundant life to nourish the world.

Say no to single grains.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘‘all men are created equal’’ and ‘‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and dis- ability rights.
Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.
The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man who himself was not free. Crispus Attucks was a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave his life for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration for another century. In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.
My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘‘founding fathers.’’ And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.
–Nicole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story

For Further Reflection
“Suffering without understanding in this life is a heap worse than suffering when you have at least the grain of an idea what it’s all for.” – Mary Ellen Chase
“The wise ones fashioned speech with their thought, sifting it as grain is sifted through a sieve.” – Buddha
“I can never be safe; I always try and go against the grain. As soon as I accomplish one thing, I just set a higher goal. That’s how I’ve gotten to where I am.” – Beyonce Knowles

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.