“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.” John 12: 24
These 30 words are, for me, as close as one can get to a one-sentence summary of the mystery of Christian faith — and a perfect way into the end of Lent and the approaching mystery of Easter.
Like so many of my favorite biblical passages, this one is rooted in references to the Earth and nature. Any of us who garden (or have children!) are well aware of the mystery of planting seeds in the ground and bearing witness to the miracle of new life springing up from these seeds that have “died.” Of course, the seeds haven’t really died, it is just that particular form — the seed form — that has died. The seed itself may be gone but the life-force that springs from the seed is beginning to grow and flourish. Whatever grows from this seed — whether it is another stalk of wheat or a bird or fungus that has digested the grain — will in due course form its own new seeds that will, in turn, “die.”
This eternal cycle of death leading to life leading to death is among the greatest and most beautiful mysteries of all existence. Is it any wonder that people have marveled at it since time immemorial? Yet the farther away from nature we live, the less aware we are of this deep truth at the center of all existence: Death is not just the end but a transformation. The divine life-force never ends but — always — takes on a new form. In nature, for example, some of the body and life-energy of an oak tree becomes acorns that can form new trees, but most of the body of the tree decays and becomes part of entirely different forms of life.
This eternal and unchangeable mystery is the root of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body — that death is not the end but a transformation into a different form. What that form is, we cannot say, but precisely because the mystery that we witness around us in nature — and in the life of Jesus — is so profound and pervasive, we know that we must be part of it, too. Everything, when it dies, takes on a new form, a new “body.”
When Jesus tells his followers the parable of the grain of wheat, he is allying himself to this great mystery. He is alerting them that he will die — and that his death is necessary. In the resurrection to come and the descent of the holy spirit at Pentecost, we get glimpses of how that new life may take shape in a transformed world.
He is warning his followers that they, too, are part of this mystery — that they must follow him even into death. The next two verses are stark: “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…”
When we die and our physical bodies take on new form, we are part of the new and ever-emerging life of the world. We are not separate from other forms of life but are one with all life and all matter. We are one particular manifestation of an eternal and universe-wide flow of form and energy — the cosmic Christ.
But this is not only about physical death and transformation, it is also about spiritual death and transformation — about becoming “a new person” in Christ. What Jesus is really trying to teach — indeed, what the entire Bible is working toward — is this transformation in consciousness that allows us to understand that we are not separate beings. We are not separate from each other, we are not separate from nature, we are not separate from the Earth, we are not separate from God. This awareness of being One — and learning what behaviors and actions that requires of us — is what Jesus elsewhere calls the Kingdom.
In the end, we all die physically — that part, we can’t avoid. The transformation of consciousness that the Christian tradition calls metanoia (usually and very misleadingly translated as “repent”), is what we are called to strive for in life — a transformation of heart, mind, and action that allows us to live as Jesus lived, in love and service to all. For this, too, we must undergo a death — and a rebirth.
My blessings for these last days of Lent and the coming resurrection of Easter.
Rev. Steve Blackmer