SERMON FOR 22nd MARCH- ‘5th Sunday in Lent’ (John 12:20-33)
In 1984, Ron Sider, the Anabaptist theologian and activist, addressed the Mennonite Church World Conference. He said this:
‘We must be prepared to die by the thousands. Those who believed in peace by the sword have never hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives…they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time… Unless we… are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic, vigorous new exploits for peace and justice…Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce conflict, we should confess that we never really meant that the cross was an alternative to the sword.’ *(1)
This fifth Sunday in Lent is when the Church officially enters into what is called ‘Passiontide’. It marks the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross and his ‘passion’ or suffering. In the reading for today, Jesus speaks fervently and poetically about his imminent death and the fruits that will come from it. In words which are hard for us to understand, he says that ‘If you love your life in this world, you’ll lose it; if you hate your life… you’ll keep it for eternal life’ (John 12:25). He speaks of how a grain remains only a single grain, alone in the world, unless it dies, in which case it then ‘yields a rich harvest’ (John 12:24).
Passiontide in Lent is a good time for us to reflect not only on Jesus’ death and what that means, but also on our own mortality. In Buddhism there is a philosophy of ‘detatchment’, which has nothing to do with being apathetic and uncaring to others, but rather means that we shouldn’t ‘cling’ to our pleasures, desires and opinions, because these are all to do with building up the ego, whereas the route to ‘enlightenment’ or what we Christians might call ‘union with God’ is a giving up of self, a surrendering to God and becoming one with God. This ‘clinging’ of which Buddhists might speak is very similar to the ‘love’ of our own lives of which Jesus speaks. In the Greek, the word translated as ‘love’ can also be translated as being ‘fond of’. Jesus says that those who are too ‘fond of’ their own lives, who ‘cling’ to their own lives too much, will lose them in the end- they will not bear fruit in death. If we are not prepared to risk our lives for the Gospel and for others, our death will not produce fruit in the way that a life lived in self-sacrifice and service to others would do. We will make no change, leave no imprint in the world, we may even be forgotten quickly.
All this is not to say that human life is not precious- of course it is, as there is the likeness of God in every person. We should protect life and help ourselves and other people to live their lives fully, but sometimes there is a call to lay down our own egos and sometimes our very lives for something greater. Why are we so afraid of death? Almost all of us are- there is fear in the unknown. We know that it will come to all of us, but we would do anything to delay the inevitable. Again, this is not to say that it is not a noble thing to want to make people’s lives better and longer, and doctors and people who research into cancer and other diseases are admirable for doing so. It is just that we must not cling to our own lives where it is not appopriate to do so. If there is a greater cause for which we must be prepared to suffer and even die, we must carry our own cross alongside Jesus. And when the time comes for us to accept death, we mustn’t be afraid of it, for death is a part of life and, in losing our lives, we are, in the words of Jesus, ‘lifted up’ (John 12:32)- both into the life of God and into the life-cycle of the world.
The famous atheist Stephen Fry said recently and understandably that he didn’t believe in God because there is too much evil and too much suffering in the world. If God existed, said Fry, God would be ‘utterly monstrous’ to allow all these terrible things to happen. He was being honest in a way that many of us would like to be. The problem of suffering and evil has been an issue for believers since forever! How can we believe in a God of love who ‘allows’ these things? But what if our understanding of God is wrong? What if our understanding of life itself is completely skewed? What if that kind of thinking only views God as a ‘demiurge’ (creator god, pulling the strings) rather than that in which we all (meaning the whole of existence) ‘live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28)?
Recently I heard a pagan leader speak to my inter-faith studies class at Queen’s Theological Foundation in Birmingham, and I remember being struck by her answer to the problem of evil and suffering- especially that which cannot be explained away by an idea of human ‘free will’ (which does of course account for a lot of suffering in the world). She said that we are too ‘human-centric’ in our vision of the world and what evil and suffering is. Natural disasters are terrible for the people who live through them and who lose relatives because of them, but what if God gave freedom and creativity to all of creation, not just humans? What if the tragedy of a tsunami is just wind and water living its own life? We can’t tame the natural world, and when we try to it doesn’t tend to work out very well, but we can learn to understand it, and therefore avoid where possible human loss. It is not a coincidence, by the way, that the most lives are lost through natural disasters in poorer countries where the money doesn’t exist to make people safer.
We are part of a great life-cycle, and even on a very basic level, our deaths bring new life, as our bodies are given back to the earth. This is why we are reminded on Ash Wednesday in the liturgy that we are ‘dust’ and to dust we will return. We are ‘lifted up’ and taken into God when we die, and our bodies are also given back to the life-cycle of the earth. But there are other ways in which we can produce fruit after our death, and one of those is by letting our life and death have an impact on other people’s lives and the way of the world, as Jesus did.
This is why the work of groups like the Christian Peacemaker Teams is so important*(3). CPT came into being following the call of Ron Sider to Christians to risk their lives in order to change the world passionately, through nonviolent action. CPTers work alongside persecuted groups throughout the world trying to change situations of conflict using nonviolent methods. Sometimes, this can lead them into very dangerous, life-threatening situations, as in the case of one CPTer who was kidnapped and killed in Iraq a while back.
Giving our lives in the service of others and to bring in God’s kingdom of peace and justice is what is called the way of the cross. This is what Jesus did and this is what Jesus calls us all to do. Let’s be not only ‘the salt of the earth’ (Matt 5:13) but also the grain which, when it dies, ‘yields a rich harvest’.