"Dying and Rising"
Scripture - John 12:20-33
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, March 22, 2015

A few years ago when Camilla and I were in Scotland, a Scottish friend encouraged us to drive to a mysterious place called the electric brae. If you know Robert Burns, you know that a brae is a hill. The electric brae is a spot in the road where you can stop, peer out across the hood of your car and see that the road is heading uphill. However, if you put your car in neutral and take your foot off the brake, your car will start rolling, not backward, but forward. The ton of steel you are sitting in is defying gravity and magically being pulled up the hill. What mysterious force makes this happen?

When it was first discovered, scientists were dispatched to this hill in Ayrshire, on the west coast of Scotland, to explain this amazing phenomenon. Initially, some thought it was a remarkable magnetic pull. Others speculated that it was a previously undiscovered force. However, after numerous measurements and tests were performed, it turned out that there was actually no mysterious power. The electric brae is an optical illusion. Sitting in your car or standing in the middle of the road, you will swear that the pavement before you is rising, but it is not - it is actually descending.

In a similar way, we can be fooled by the direction of our lives. We can believe we are ascending, taking the high road, while in fact, we are heading down, away from the direction God calls us to take. How can we be certain about the direction of our lives?

In the time of Jesus, Jews from miles away would stream into Jerusalem each year at Passover. Today's text informs us that in addition to Jewish pilgrims, there were Greeks - that is, Gentiles - who had come to Jerusalem. They made contact with Philip, one of the twelve, and told him that they wanted to see Jesus. How did they know about Jesus?

Had they witnessed the procession when Jesus rode the donkey into the holy city and people were waving palm branches and shouting "Hosanna!"? Or, had they heard that Jesus had healed scores of people and wanted to see his miraculous hand in action? Had someone told them that Jesus displayed extraordinary wisdom and they were starved for truth? The text never tells us why they were eager to meet Jesus. We are simply told that they were seeking him.

The passage also omits Philip's response to their request. He does not say, "Come with me, I'll introduce you to my master." He must have said something on the order of "Wait here a moment," or "Let me think about it and I'll get back with you" because there is no indication he took them to Jesus. In fact, he does not immediately walk to Jesus and inform him of these Gentiles who wish to meet him. Instead, the passage says, "Philip went and told Andrew; then, Andrew and Philip went together to tell Jesus."

Was Philip hesitant to go to Jesus alone and felt the need for some backup? Again, there are no clues. This passage raises questions it never answers. Perhaps John wanted to arouse our curiosity. Or perhaps he hoped to coax us into placing ourselves in the scene so that we would ponder how we would act.

Philip and Andrew tell Jesus that there are some Gentiles who would like to see him. Did Jesus say, "Sure, bring them by; I would love to meet them," or did he say, "No, there are more pressing matters at hand." Did he grant the Gentiles an audience or not? More unanswered questions.

In what is typical of the way the Gospel of John portrays Jesus, he does not engage in a conversation. Instead, he speaks as if he is delivering a pronouncement to a large audience. He says, "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."

What is the meaning of his metaphor? He will die and be buried in a tomb, but his death will not be the end of his movement. It will have the opposite effect, producing many more followers.

Yet, there is more to his response because it is a double entendre. The seed analogy serves as a veiled reference to the fact that he will literally die and then rise to something greater. Yet, it also represents a dynamic process of the universe: what is must die so that something new can be born.

Dying and rising is the way of Jesus and it is the way of the universe. We die to an old way of being and rise to become something new. Dying and rising can be a dramatic transformation like the alcoholic who for years denies he has a problem. He drinks himself into stupors and says things he will later regret. He has bursts of anger at his loved ones and after he sobers up he pleads for forgiveness. But it is not a one-time event; it is a recurring nightmare. He goes through his paycheck and savings putting his family at risk, all the while saying, "I'm not an alcoholic! I can quit whenever I want."

Then, one day - finally - his drinking sparks a crisis. On the verge of losing it all, he turns to God for the strength to quit. He stops drinking and gradually morphs into a loving husband, a gentle father, and a contributing member of the community. Those who know him well say, "He's not the same person he used to be. He is a new man."

Dying and rising can be a dramatic transformation like the addict who becomes a new person, or the tight-fisted scrooge who suddenly realizes he is heading down, not up, and becomes generous; or the hot-headed woman who stops hurling invectives at her children every time they make a mistake, and becomes patient with them.

However, it also happens in less dramatic ways. Dying and rising is constantly occurring in each of us. Unless we are in the grave, we are going through continuous changes. New knowledge alters our way of thinking, new experiences shift our way of viewing others and new commitments transform our way of living.

All of us are continually dying to our old selves and becoming new selves. The question is: What kind of new self? Jesus shows us the pattern of one who gives himself away for the benefit of others. That is what he means when he says in verse 25: "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

The words of Jesus are jarring when he says, "Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." Literalists might think that Jesus calls on us to hate our lives because he sees us as wretched sinners who can do nothing right. That is hardly the case. Jesus knows that each of us is a beloved child of God. Do you remember what he says when he establishes a new commandment? He says we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Then why, in this passage, does Jesus call on us to hate ourselves? He employs hyperbole to drive home his point. On another occasion, he said, "If you put a stumbling block before a child, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." People who are sleep-walking through life need wildly exaggerated language to awaken them.

But if the word "hate" is still too off-putting, perhaps The Message translation of this verse works better for you. It reads: "Anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you will have it forever."

For there to be life - deep and spirited life - there must first be death. The seed is fruitless until it is buried in the ground. In the same way, it is only when we bury the self-focused ego that we can truly live the bold adventure God has in mind for us. The old self-serving way must die so that the new Christ-serving life can burst into being. Jesus understood the virtue of self-sacrifice. He was certain that there are some things worth dying for.

"In December of 2006, Private First Class Ross McGinnis from Knox, Pennsylvania, was driving a Humvee in Iraq when his unit came under fire. A live grenade came through the gunner hatch and landed inside the vehicle where Ross and four of his buddies were sitting. The door of the Humvee was to his left and all he had to do was pull the handle, bail out, and save himself. Instead, this young man threw himself on the grenade. Taking the full impact of the explosion killed him, but it saved the lives of his four friends."

"For his extraordinary sacrifice, the family was invited to the White House where they received the Medal of Honor for their son, posthumously."

"A colleague who heard about it called the young man's mother to ask her permission to tell her son's story. She was very pleased and agreed. He told her that he was very grateful for her son and his heroism, and at some point in the conversation he inquired if they were people of faith. €˜Yes,' she said, €˜we are members of St. Paul Lutheran Church, where Ross was baptized and confirmed.' She added, €˜I'm afraid he wasn't much of a churchgoer,' to which the pastor replied, €˜He got the message.'"1

I suspect none of us will make such an extreme sacrifice for others, but I am certain of this: If you hoard your life, you will become smaller and smaller until you finally disgust yourself. However, if you follow the way of Jesus, giving yourself away for others, your life will be packed with purpose.


  1. John M. Buchanan, "Astonished," June 1, 2008

Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

Gracious and Giving God, you have forgiven more than we will ever do; you have shattered the cold stones encasing our hearts so you could write your name on them; you plant the seed of grace and hope deep within us, watering them with your love; you call us to follow, so we may join you in serving the broken of our world; you journey with us, leading us closer to the cross. This day we praise you. As we lift our hearts in praise, we also lift up to you our lives, the lives of those we love, and the lives that no one loves. Where there is hunger, bring food. Where there is hatred, bring reconciliation. Where there is division, bring understanding. Where there is pain, bring comfort. Where there is devastation from natural disaster, bring healing and hope. Where there is joy and celebration today, set your spirit loose to deepen that pleasure.

In light of the historic decision this week made by our denomination to refine our description of marriage in a way that many among us see as a faithful expression of your love and call, we give you thanks for the ability of our denomination to continue along the journey of reformation. We also recognize that while many celebrate the new openness of our denomination, there are some who feel no joy in this change. And so, O God, where there is little joy in this decision bring new understanding. Help us all to remember that together we are your body, and that you are Lord of us all.

As we look toward tomorrow, we ask that you help make us a faithful community of faith, one that speaks an authentic word in the world around us. Let us embrace your call in this new day; help us to understand what from our past is needed today; give us enough trust in you to be willing to let go of parts of our past that might keep us from responding faithfully in this moment of our life together. We pray for the work of the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee. Guide them in their deliberations and lead them along your path.

Death and loss are parts of the fabric of many lives these days. O God, we ask for your comforting presence to fill grieving souls this day.

Moving ever closer to Holy Week, we ask that we might discern you calling, know of your presence, and be surrounded by your Hope as we remember the prayer Jesus taught saying, "Our father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not, into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever." Amen (Portions of the prayer adapted from: http://lectionaryliturgies.blogspot.com)