‘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.’
I grew up on a wheat farm. The year was organised around ploughing, sowing and harvesting. I watched as my father worked the soil to get it prepared for the seed, ploughing back and forth in a way that maximised the quality of the soil. The meticulous attention to the sowing of both the wheat and the clover and then the wait for the crop to begin to grow, the beseeching of the rain to come at the right time and the joy of the harvesting. The journey of the seed through death, germination and life was vital to the existence of the farmer, the vitality of the soil and the continuation of an ancient ritual.
Those listening to Jesus under stood this image. They knew about farming and harvesting. They had watched as the farmers in the communities worked to produce a living. Yet they struggled to understand it in the context Jesus retold the story. John and his fellow Gospel writers understood it. Hindsight allows us to see what those involved in the story were unable to.
We know it’s about Jesus, the crucifixion, the tomb and the resurrection. We know it means that without Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection there would not be the possibility of new life. It is all about Jesus. Or is it?
The 12th chapter of John is a bridge between what has become before (The signs Jesus performed) and what is to come, his farewell and the speeches he gives to usher in the end. John is setting the scene here and uses the image of the seed as a signpost for what is about to occur.
Kenneth Carder suggests there is much more to this passage than what a simple literal reading will give us. Yes the death and resurrection of Jesus is primary to our faith, but that is not where it stops. Carder says: “As Jesus gives his life in faithful participation in God’s creation of a new community, disciples give their life and become part of the ‘much fruit’ produced from the ‘single grain’ (12:24-26).”
Jesus participates as the cornerstone in the birthing of a new way of living, of a new community God ushers into a world. This is to be a community of compassion in action, interested only in being life-giving, not in what it produces. A farmer can not dictate what the outcome of his efforts will be. One year he will be rewarded with a bountiful crop, other years when he has done exactly the same thing, the crop may fail to produce as expected.
I remembered watching as the fence was cut to allow the tractor and harvester into the paddock where a wonderful crop stood, only to see the black storm clouds rumble in and the subsequent hailstorm decimating the crop. Not one head of wheat remained. What was a wonderful reward was ploughed back into the ground.
We often sit and look around us and wonder where the reward for all our work of the years is. We remember the days when the church, the youth group, the children’s work was vibrant and active. We remember the study groups, the women’s and men’s groups and the choir were great in number and full of energy and life. Where has that all gone? There is a sense of failure, of regret, of what if?
Yet, perhaps we miss something. Something very important. Just like the religious Jews missed the new thing being done by God through Jesus, we miss the new thing being done by the Spirit. Carder hints at it when he says that ‘disciples give their life and become part of the ‘much fruit’ produced from the single grain’.
We give our life in the church not to reproduce ourselves in the place where we are sown, but to produce much fruit that goes out into the world imbued with the faith, values and Spirit experienced through our example and engagement with them. People who have been here, in our sphere of influence, take what we have shown them into the world. And while they may not replicate our practice, our understanding, our commitment, they live out of the one seed.
Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest and writer, has said that the student, the disciple only learns what he or she has been taught when those who teach them are no longer with them. That is the fruit we seek. A life lived out of the nurturing experienced with us in this place.
Many of us grew up in the church, in the family church. We have lived in one place for a long time. We have not moved around, shifted jobs and cultures, experienced the rapid change that our children and their children have. They no longer grow up in a small community in which the church is at the centre. They live in one place, work in another and socialise somewhere else. They are not committed to one small homogenous community. My mother and father lived within 50 miles of their birth homes and worshipped at the churches they were baptised in. That will be rare today and in the future.
Why are we surprised how they understand and practise their faith is less church and community centred? Why is it hard to accept that their faith is more democratic, fluid and imbued with shades and shapes ours never was, and less place and space centred? Their faith and practice reflects their work and the world.
Carder suggests that we have given our lives and we have produced the fruit of the new creation Jesus came to give birth to, but that that fruit looks very different to how we wanted it to look and where we wanted it to be seen. We wanted it to be like us, here!
So what are we challenged to do:
- We are challenged not to be discouraged by what we see, but to be encouraged. The young people we nurtured and feed in this place have grown into people who have given life and hope to others. They have done good things for the right reasons. What would our world have looked like if the people we shared our faith had not had the opportunity to experience that? As Nouwen suggests, when we look at those we have seen come through this place for example, we can be confident that they have indeed learnt a new way of living and lived that out, out there. Rejoice, do not despair.
- We are challenged to reimagine how our church and our faith looks like in this post-modern era. We are living in a time when people have the opportunity to use their capacity for critical thinking and decision making to reshape both faith and how faith is practiced. And that is thanks to those of us who have gone before and encouraged them to question and decide for themselves.
- We are to rejoice in the Spirit who leads us into new places and new times, even though those places may be foreign and just a little bit unsettling. We rejoice for it was the same Spirit who brought us through our faith journey to this place. Now we are being asked to open the way for the future to be as alive and vibrant as the past.
- We are, as those who listened to Jesus and his dying seed story, on the cusp of a new faith, a new church, a new creation built on the seeds we planted in those who have shared this place, our homes, our schools, our workplaces with us over the years.
The future is exciting and we are not told to ignore the past, but to build on what we have sown and watch something completely new arise. The Spirit helped Peter and the disciples did. There is no reason we can’t do the same.