Note: I preached a version of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Sunday, March 18
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I
am, there will my servant be also.
You can learn a lot about people from what they fear. From what we fear. Our fears are eloquent about us in ways that our loves are not. Our loves often have to be worked at. We pick and choose the things we focus our attention and our affection on. I love baseball. I coach little league, I practice with Soren, I watch games and go to the park whenever I can. The more time and attention I give to it, the more I love it. I think about it, I care about it, but I don’t know if all of that is much more than skin deep. Keep me too busy to watch or go to games for a few years and I might not love it so much any more.
Our fears don’t need that kind of attention. They grow where we flee from them. We can definitely nurture them: if you watch cable news or consume lots of social media, you have probably noticed how people seem to enjoy pondering their fears. But fears are, generally, instinctive. They hit us in a split second, before we can think them through. They mock everything we cling to. They claw at every comfort. Our fears serve as our mirror. Fear of failure. Fear of pain. Fear of rejection. Fear of death.
Death is a big one, obviously, but maybe not even the biggest. Under the right circumstances, people can be very brave in risking or giving up their lives, even for strangers. Sometimes I wonder if the defining fear, for most of us anyway, is fear of standing out or being exposed. When we know something is wrong but won’t stand up and say so. I think of the people in that horrible story about the dog in the airplane overhead compartment, who knewthe situation was bad but didn’t want to disobey. Or the people in the Indiana town whose beloved restaurant owner was suddenly deported after living in America since he was a child, whose citizen wife and citizen children had to leave their only home to be with him. People were confused and angry at first, but then the town just…moved on, as if nothing had happened. Or when powerful, prominent people—including in religious communities—get away with abuse or fraud in broad daylight, because people are afraid to take the risk of saying that something is wrong.
We have a powerful desire to conform and we are easily intimidated by authority. It is terrifying to imagine being the one person who stands up with no one to follow, getting taken off the plane in cuffs, or drummed out of the small-town coffee clatch, or kicked out of your church or your political party for saying that a powerful person is doing wrong. That’s fear.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus takes all of these fears head on. It is a climactic moment in John’s Gospel. Jesus has been anointed by Mary of Bethany. Anointing suggests kingship and priesthood, but Jesus says that he has been anointed for his burial. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph. Now even some gentiles—Greeks—are looking for Jesus. The Pharisees observe that the whole world has gone after him, and so it is.
Jesus is standing out. Jesus is exposed. In a short while, Jesus will be standing alone before Pilate, and Herod, and the religious leaders, while all his friends have scattered. Jesus is steering himself straight into the heart of that great fear that lurks in the human heart: not just of death, but of humiliation; not just of pain, but of abandonment and rejection; not just the fear of failure, but the fear of breaking the solemn silent code among humans: you stay seated, and you stay seated, and you stay seated, and you stay seated, and I stay seated, and all of us will stare at the floor together. And whatever happens, happens.
That’s exactly the fear the Romans tried to exploit by using crucifixion. The point wasn’t just to take someone’s life, but to take their humanity. This is why it could not be used on Roman citizens, but only on slaves and occupied peoples. It was meant to humiliate, to single out, to make an example of people don’t stay seated and stare at the floor.
Jesus stands in the heart of that great mass of fear and says that it is all a lie. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, he says, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves her life will lose it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternity. Because now is the judgment of the world, and now the ruler of this world—note that, the ruler of this world—is being cast out. And this judgment will be revealed when the world has lifted Jesus up on the cross. When we do this, when we lift him up in that way, we only ensure that he will draw all the world to himself.
Jesus faces our most powerful fears—of death, humiliation, rejection, and failure. And Jesus overcomes these fears in himself. Because it is these things that will glorify him. He will let his life fall like a lonely seed, only to rise up drawing the world toward himself. He will see his followers scatter, only to come back bringing more with them. He will see his triumphant parade turned into a solitary crucifixion, but this will exalt him more highly than any cheering crowd can do. He will sit under the judgment of Pilate, Herod, and the chief priests, but it is their world that is being judged. He will seem to fail, but his failure will cast out the world’s ruler and bring life to many who are dead. He takes our fears into himself. He makes them captive. He takes away their power.
We have had some hard losses in our church lately. We just laid F.M. to rest. We prayed for J. S., J. C., and B. N. until they departed, as well. We grieve with D., as we do with C. and V. and I. In some cases Pastor Dawn or I had the chance to accompany these brothers for a part of their journey through this last, hard moment in life’s way. It can be a hard thing, as a pastor, to be present in these moments. But it can be very moving, too—sitting with someone who is in life’s last antechamber.
What I want for our brothers and sisters in this moment is to be set free from their fears. For those who have fought the good fight and kept the faith, this is just their falling into the earth to come forth bearing fruit, in a new form, lifted up with Jesus and by Jesus. It is the moment we see what we have only known by faith: that the fears that kept us small or leered at us in the darkness were all false. That Christ alone was and is true.
Our fears are a mirror for us, but they are Christ’s mirror now. They show us the one who overcome it all in himself. Who conquered all in us and through us. Who was left alone and forsaken, rejected and humiliated, but who is all the same the divine gravity around which all the world revolves.