Unless a grain of wheat (John 12:20-33)

Faith is what makes us who we are. And who we are results in what we do.

Unless a grain of wheat (John 12:20-33)
Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

Preached at St. Paul's UCC, Oshkosh, joined online by First Congregational UCC, Redgranite. They're both very small congregations facing questions of sustainability. The sermon picks up on themes from last Friday's "Is the Church Good for Anything?" post. It was perfect, couldn't resist.

John 12:20-33

I want to start this morning by naming a reality for us, which is that churches, generally speaking, do not want to die. In that sense, they are like any other kind of community.

Nor should they want to die. Churches have played a vital role in providing mutual support to their members. In years past, local congregations provided a vital social core for their communities. That was especially the case in rural or immigrant communities. Church was where you found your friends, where you met your spouse. It was where you hung out on Friday night, where you formed clubs and groups for mutual economic support.

Sometimes it was where you got your education. Our church in rural Washington County had a Sunday Schoolhouse next to the sanctuary building. Members told me that in the early years of the church, that schoolhouse was the only one in the town, and instruction was in German. They found a need and they filled it, in other words.

Closer to our own time, I'm sure many of you can remember growing up, getting married, raising your own children, burying your parents, and giving and receiving support through various struggles, sicknesses and loss, all within the loving embrace of your church.

I don't blame anyone for not wanting to lose that kind of community. You'd have to be crazy to want to let it die!

The Unnecessary Church

The point is that the church and churches have done really good things to meet social needs. People have found other ways to get many of those needs met in recent years. That is a big part of why churches are struggling these days. Church doesn't feel like a necessary thing to people. In fact, it feels like an irrational thing to a lot of people.

And you know what? They're not wrong.

You might not think much of the replacements people have found for meeting their social needs. I don't always. But those alternatives do exist and they do get used. Churchgoers might think church is necessary, but the majority of our society doesn't. At least not so much that they would turn out for worship every Sunday.

Neither, strictly speaking, is doing church rational. I talked with the folks at Redgranite last Sunday about how Christians don't do good works to earn themselves salvation. Or they shouldn't with that expectation.

In fact, I suggested, Christians don't do good works because they expect any kind of reward. Or they shouldn't. Instead, what motivates Christians to do what they do is their identity, their character. Christians do good things because that's who they are, that's what they do.

Who We Are

Furthermore, that is why we are called together to be the church. Or, better, it is who we are called together to be as the church. God brings us together as the people of God to be the people of God. From that, good works should result. But those works aren't the reason we come together.

As good and as powerful as the church is, it can't promise to provide the necessary solutions to social problems.

After all, it isn't as though our small churches can solve world hunger. They can't create world peace, or give homes to everyone who needs one. They can contribute to the solution, but they can't do it on their own. I am very proud of the work I did promoting COVID vaccination at the Wisconsin Council of Churches, for example. But in two-and-a-half years, we were responsible for something like 3500 vaccinations, in a state of 5.8 million residents. What we did wasn't nothing. It was good work, and like I say, I'm proud to have done it. But at the same time, it was a drop in the bucket.

As good and as powerful as the church is, it can't promise to provide the necessary solutions to social problems. Even on a global scale, we don't have the people, we don't have the resources. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do ministry, however. Nor am I trying to put down the very real ministry churches do. It's just that we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish. Given the size of the congregations I'm speaking to, I'm guessing that you all have had those conversations.

In any case, Christians don't do what they do out of expectation of a reward. And they don't do what they do because they think they're going to change the world. So why do they do what they do?


Faith is what makes us who we are. And who we are results in what we do.

Here, at long last, I come to our scripture lesson for the day, from the Gospel of John. Honestly, it's not a lot of help in answering our questions, at least not at first.

Some men come asking to speak to Jesus. The text says they're "Greeks," but that probably means "Greek-speaking Jews," of whom there were many in those days. The disciples pass the request up the chain to Jesus, who doesn't bother to answer. Instead, he goes off on a little speech about his coming death and resurrection.

But near the start of that speech, he says something important:

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.

As a passage of comfort to grieving people, this is beautiful. As a motivational statement, it leaves something to be desired. You can't do good things expecting a reward. You can't do them expecting to change the world. And now, Jesus tells us, you can't do them expecting to gain eternal life. In fact, if you have a good life, you're going to lose it. It's only the people who hate their lives who will live forever.

The leap of faith

I hope that you can see how irrational this is. It doesn't make a lot of sense in worldly terms. It requires a real "leap of faith." Now, when we use that phrase today, it means acting in trust that things are going to work out somehow. It's jumping off the diving board with the expectation that there will be water in the pool. So you might expect that the faith required is trust in God. That's not wrong, but there is a deeper level to it.

It is faith to jump off the diving board, knowing full well that you're going to bounce off the concrete pool bottom

What it originally meant to take a "leap of faith" was to believe even as you know that what you believe doesn't make sense. To put it another way, if what you believe makes complete sense, it can't be faith. Because faith requires us to reject conventional ways of seeing the world. And faith requires risk. It's not faith to jump off the diving board and expect there to be water in the pool. It is faith to jump off the diving board, knowing full well that you're going to bounce off the concrete pool bottom — and somehow, that's going to be okay.

In this morning's lesson, Jesus asks his followers to believe that if they die, they will find life. Not only that: he wants them to understand that there is no way to get to eternal life except to go through the gates of death. Even Jesus sounds like he's struggling with the idea:

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.

He sounds confident enough that he will be raised up. At the same time, he's willing to admit that the idea disturbs him. As he will do in the Garden of Gethsemane, he recognizes the temptation to ask God to exempt him from suffering and death.

Jesus does trust God the Father. Yet he knows that at the end of the day, there are no guarantees. He could go to the cross and die, and that could be the end of it. There is no precedent for the resurrection. Nobody really knows if it's going to work or not. Except God, and he's not telling.

Any reasonable person would look at this setup and say "This is a bad deal." Jesus himself surely knows that to ask him to submit to the cross and be returned to life after three days is an unreasonable request. But he also knows that some things are more important than reason.

Neither death or life

Chief among those things is faithfulness. Jesus is faithful to God and to God's purposes. If his Father in heaven tells him he will have to die and be raised after three days, that is what he will do. Out of love, he will stick by God no matter what.

At the same time, Jesus is faithful to humanity. So is God the Father. Humans must go through death before they find eternal life. Therefore Jesus — and along with him God — will go through death as well. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, "neither death nor life...nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."

Allow me to illustrate the kind of faithfulness I'm talking about. I don't know if any of you have seen, or remember from art classes, Michelangelo's Pietà.1 That's the statue of the seated Mary cradling the lifeless body of Jesus in her lap. Mary, in her grief, has nowhere to turn but to the son and God who is now absent. Jesus, God in the flesh, is so reduced in helplessness that he can only collapse into a mother's arms. He has become that seed that fell into the ground and died, and there is not a thing he can do about it.

It's that faith that motivates Christians, that makes Christians, and it makes no sense at all.

And yet, somehow, the two sides keep faith with one another. Jesus has promised that he will return after his death, and he keeps that promise. Mary never stops believing in or loving her son, and is one of the first to accept the reality of his resurrection.

It's that faith that motivates Christians, that makes Christians, and it makes no sense at all. Then again, love never was a rational thing.

What I am working toward is more than a call to love our neighbors, as important as that is. It is a call to stick with our neighbors, to be faithful to one another and to God, as he leads us through inevitable death to the promise of new life. Why do Christians do what we do? Because we have faith. What kind of faith do we have? Faith in a God who will never abandon us in life or in death. That faith has changed who we are, into people who will not, or should not, abandon one another.

Why do churches not want to die? Because they don't want to give up on one another. Because they love one another, and their neighbors. Because they are too darn stubborn to give in to the inevitable.

I don't know when that inevitable will come for our churches. I'm certainly not going to advocate for any particular timeline. You will know the inevitable has arrived when you can no longer stand by one another or the world around you. I only pray that God will fill you with all irrational faithfulness and love until that moment comes, and that when it does, you will bear much fruit.


1No, that's not it in the feature image. That one's in Aarschot, Belgium.