5th Sunday in Lent B
Jer 31:31-34; 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33
March 21, 2021
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.” Jn 12:24-26
When I first visited Mexico one thing that really caught my attention in the Catholic churches were the crucifixes. So many of them so blatantly depicted the agony of Jesus on the cross. Hanging there with contorted limbs and anguish on His face. Most of them had something that looked like real hair all matted with blood and skull flesh bleeding and torn. It was difficult to get too comfortable in one of those churches. Perhaps appropriately so.
I suspect many of you have seen The Passion of the Christ directed by Mel Gibson back in 2004. It was difficult to watch, so vivid were the scenes of the scourging at the pillar, Jesus being nailed to the cross and then slowly dying on the cross. That was part of Gibson’s intent, to re-remind us that the crucifixion was really a human being tortured and beaten to death. It’s an image and a reality that’s hard to stay with.
Perhaps we have had the occasion of viewing a particularly artistic crucifix and hear someone say, “Oh my, what a beautiful crucifix.” I may have made such a comment myself, especially when receiving a gift. What an unfortunate choice of words to describe an excruciatingly tortured death.
By extension, I think it’s all too easy to let our whole religious practice get sanitized. We can too easily reduce Catholicism to being nice or even a ‘good person’ which is defined by oneself, using whichever criteria seems most to our liking at any given time. The gospel today lays it out to us rather specifically, much like a Mexican crucifix or the Passion of the Christ. Living in the Resurrection first requires a real death.
Anytime Jesus starts by saying, “Amen, Amen” He’s saying, “Listen up and listen carefully.” And then He follows by saying, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and DIES, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it DIES it produces much fruit.” ……. Read text above.
The application to our daily lives as faithful disciples of Christ is that there is a very definitive transition from ‘the way I used to be, to the way I am now.’ The result should be fruitfulness and new life. Our new life and the lives of others. Today in Psalm 51 the psalmist, King David, declares that “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners shall return to you.” Recall that this psalm is written after David’s adulterous episode with Basheba. He’s recognized his sin, his failings, and has repented. At this point he’s a nice person and a good person, but that is not enough. He is now called to teach transgressors and this is the fruitfulness born out of his new life. He’s specifically teaching transgressors out of his own humility coming from his own ‘awakening’. He’s not the same ‘grain of wheat’ that he was before his repentance.
This definitive death is prerequisite, a necessary part, of what Jesus says must happen in order to follow Him. To follow Him means to imitate Him. Remember that Jesus was always a good guy. He was a hard and honest worker in the carpenter shop. He was a serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures and a regular at the synagogue and the temple. But that wasn’t enough. The Father called Him and sent Him out of Nazareth and Galilee, out of his familiarity and comfort level, to teach and preach. He would also work the type of miracles that would help people believe that the Father in Heaven really loved them and was attentive to all their needs. Then He was called to confront the religious and civil authorities about their hypocrisy, selfishness and cruelty.
So this too is our role and our mission, as individuals and as a community of believers. We are not here by accident. We have all been called here to evangelize and be witnesses that bear fruit.
All of us are here because we believe in something that is rather implausible to most people in human history. Most people who have ever existed don’t believe that Jesus is God, that He personally established the Catholic Church or that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. Yet we are here giving witness to our belief. The next step of course is to be able to share why we do this at all. Why would anyone really care as long as we don’t impose our beliefs on others? Imagine yourself bringing up the Real Presence as a subject of conversation at Thanksgiving among a gathering of extended biological relatives. It would probably be unhelpful to say the least. But if the topic was about someone struggling with an addiction or someone trying to heal after a contentious divorce, the conversation could be much different. If the Catholic could share how the Eucharist helped them through their addiction or divorce and how they came through it with a whole new life and world view, the fruitfulness might be different.
All of us have a story of conversion; of dying and the new life that followed. These are not just little adjustments where we used to get a little impatient with our families or perhaps a little annoyed in traffic. This is DEATH and RESURECTION. This is wheat that is only fruitful if it DIES. If we are not ready with these stories, with these witnesses, we should be asking if it really happened at all. Did we really die to self?
I know this is a sobering generation for priests as well as the laity as we watch our Church hemorrhaging young people. That’s the opposite of new life. Have we really died to the ways of ministry and child rearing that don’t work? This will be the ongoing topic for the rest of Lent and especially as we approach Passion Sunday next week and then Holy Week.
In the meantime, let’s spend some time reflecting seriously on our moments of conversion, of dying and rising. Think of how we might share this with others, especially in their moments of suffering and doubt. As we enter more deeply into this celebration this morning we ask God for His strength to let go of OUR lives so as to live fully in HIS.