Tuesday: Dying to Feed the World

“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.”

In a gospel reading so rich with meaning and import, it can be easy to skip over this one sentence.

But this short piece of the text sums up in many ways the entirety of Jesus’ life on earth, and how we are called to join him in Holy Week.

The grain of wheat falling into the earth is a simple agricultural image, easily accessible to the people hearing it in Jesus’ time.

But the meaning is so much deeper than it first appears, when we think about it in terms of how and why Jesus gives us his life.

What is Jesus talking about? What does it mean to be a grain of wheat?

Well, first, it means smallness.

You’ve seen grains of wheat—you know you can hold hundreds in a handful. And yet it creates a large plant that then becomes bread for the world.

We could not sum up Jesus’ life on earth more clearly or simply than that.

And the original smallness matters.

Jesus came to earth as one person, born into a poor family in an obscure location.

There may have been angels and Wise Men at his birth, but aside from drawing threats to his life from a fearful king, these early accolades earned him little.

He lived a normal childhood in an ordinary town. Just like most of us.

A grain of wheat does not stand out among its fellows.

You can’t pick it out from others and say, “That’s the one. That’s the one who will change the world.” To be a grain of wheat is to be small and hidden, unappreciated, unrecognized, then to burst forth with growth.

So far we follow the metaphor. Great work for the Kingdom of God can come from one seemingly ordinary person, a person who is radically open to God’s grace flowing through them.

That’s encouraging. That’s hopeful. That’s something we can get on board with for ourselves in terms of following Jesus.

We all like to hear about how we’re full of wonderful things just about to happen if we say yes to God.

But then the image takes a turn.

It’s not enough to just be a grain of wheat, Jesus says.

“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.”

And now we’re a little concerned, because Jesus has brought death into the picture. Now we’re not so eager to see ourselves as a grain of wheat.

To be a grain of wheat as Jesus was is to be full of unrealized potential, and then be called to die to bring forth fruit.

Stop for a moment to think about how young Jesus died.

He was just 33 years old.

Think of everything he would have been able to do had he lived another year, another five years, another twenty years.

Think of the amazing teachings he could have left for us.

Imagine the justice and peace he could have inspired.

Think of the people he could have healed.

But he was “cut off out of the land of the living,” as Isaiah says.

His life was cut short before he could fully blossom.

And this was a call and a purpose he walked into with eyes open.

That’s pretty scary when we think of following him there.

When we take this text to ourselves, the death we are called to die does not come at the end of all things, when our life and ministry is neatly tied up in a bow.

It comes out of nowhere, robbing us of our future and the future of us.

Jesus somehow believed and trusted it was better that way, that he could do more good by dying than he could by living. That’s the whole point of this verse.

So if we are called to die with Jesus, called to “die to self” as we sometimes say in Christian circles, what’s the purpose or benefit of that? Why does Jesus ask it of us?

Jesus points out that if the grain does not die, it remains but a single grain.

When we’re walking around in our self-contained bubble of self-satisfaction, we think we’re doing great.

We think we’re in control, and possibly even doing good work.

But this is an illusion. Richard Rohr calls it “the myth of separateness.”

Not only are we not as effective in our singleness and separateness, we aren’t even actually single and separate.

We’re all a part of the Incarnation. We’re only one cell in the great Body of Christ.

And for that to get through to us in all its liberating power, there is a lot within us that needs to die.

We want to remain single and separate because we think it keeps us safe, and because it allows our egos to have free reign.

We get to take single, individual credit for everything we do, and pat ourselves on the back for our nobility, virtue, and effectiveness.

We get to count ourselves different from all of “those people,” whoever “those people” are to us—liberals, conservatives, the unchurched, atheists, passive consumers or arrogant law-breaking activists—whomever we dislike and look down on.

But death removes our singleness and separateness.

Death is the great destroyer of delusions.

We’re all alike when the great abyss approaches—afraid, alone, and terrifyingly vulnerable as our bodies finally give out.

All of our favorite ideas about ourselves and the world mean nothing when our hearts stop beating and our brains stop transmitting signals.

The great illusion of the separate self evaporates in the radical communion of human vulnerability to death.

And Jesus leads us straight into it—but not for the purpose of annihilation.

Death is the great crucible that transforms us and enables us to give ourselves fully to the world.

Jesus says of the grain of wheat, “If it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The darkness of the earth, the water of baptism, the gentle sun of resurrection all call us forth into new life, life that is no longer lived for ourselves alone.

That is the joyful death of the grain of wheat, the death that Jesus models for us during Holy Week and calls us to follow him into with courage and trust.

On our better days, we want to feed the world. We want to give of ourselves and see people around us nourished by it.

But we can’t do it as little grains of wheat, separate, alone, confined, and ignorant of both smothering earth and nurturing water.

As full of potential as we are as single grains, the real growth doesn’t begin until we surrender.

Growth cannot be unlocked except by freely entering darkness and death, being buried in the ground of being.

This is true even at the biological level—when our bodies return to dust, they will one day nourish new growth.

So death beckons as the doorway to new life, frightening and exhilarating all at once.

We’re all single grains of wheat, and we get to choose whether or not we say yes to the painful but liberating process that will turn us into bread for the world.

Going to the Cross is an act of profound trust and innocence. It is walking into death with no guarantee that life is on the other side.

No guarantee except for the promise of Jesus.

His words, his hope, his example, his life, his very heart—all cry out to us to join him at the Cross so that we may join him breaking free from the tomb.

And so we follow him.

We follow him into the earth, allowing ourselves to be buried with terrified trust.

We die, we break apart, we rest in our bed of soil until the thin, bright spring light coaxes us forth to bud in green and joyful resurrection.

A hungry world awaits the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

Will we answer the call?



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