One theologian that I respect writes that one of the verses in today’s gospel lesson from John is the key to understanding Jesus’ message. It’s the key to understanding how God acts in us and what God wants for us. I want to talk about that key today, and I’m going to do that by talking about the church, and then I want to talk about us as the church, and then I want to talk about you and me.
One church historian and theologian says that about every 500 years the church has a period of significant change. The first of these happened as the Roman empire ended about 500 years after Jesus’ time; 500 years later was the great schism of East and West in 1054; then the reformation in the 1500s; and, of course, today: the period we entered a few decades ago when the fusion of Christianity and the dominant culture began to fray. These are obviously vast simplifications, but what I like about it and why I’m mentioning it today is that it reminds us that we are followers of Jesus in a period of change and turbulence. Not all Christians followed Jesus in times of turbulence and change, but we do.
And there are some great things about these changes and some drawbacks. You chose to be here today – maybe 50 years ago you would have gone to church because everyone else you knew went to church, but today you chose to be here because you’re seeking something more in your life. Thanks be to God, that lets us be the church in ways that 50 years ago we couldn’t be. But of course it comes with a price – we have less cultural and institutional support than we did in the past. Much more than before, if we intend to do something, we have to do it on our own.
And in times of change, we have a temptation to draw the boundaries of our group more tightly, to draw the boundary markers around our identity more definitively so that we can mark who is in and who is out. And how it is that you can get in and what happens to those who are not in. It’s a possible response from us as a group to the anxiety and uncertainty of change – we can circle the wagons and draw identity markers high and tall, and if you’re not in, you’re bad, you’re wrong.
And we have a similar choice on a personal level too. In times of change and turbulence for us personally, in times of loss and difficulty, we can choose to withdraw – and I’m indebted to author Rob Bell for this –in times of difficulty you can withdraw or you can take your brokenness and shape it into a stronger life that reengages the people around you from a place where the ground under your feet is somehow more solid and not less solid.
Times of turbulence and change have a way of breaking us, they break open the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. And we can choose to re-engage others from a place where our brokenness makes us more compassionate, and forgiving, more open, more tolerant. More able to experience the kind of life that includes both joy and pain. And I’m not talking about something that’s grand and public – it could be – but I’m really talking about being able to re-engage with the things that matter to us and doing that from a place where we’re more able to love and to connect with others. This is a long arc – in my own life, I’ve measured this arc in years, not months. For me it hasn’t been linear; there are plenty of times I’ve taken steps forward and then steps backwards. And I bet you have faced times like these in your own life.
All of this fits with what the spiritual journey looks like for us. We start life thinking that we’re the center of existence, and hopefully we’re encouraged in building a strong, secure sense of self and self-worth. And then we come to see ourselves as connected to a group, whether that’s a family, a school, a church, a country – we learn how to act and what’s important, what we value, by learning from those groups we’re part of. But hopefully we don’t stop there, and we come see ourselves connected to people outside of just our groups, connected to humanity whether on the surface they’re part of our groups or not.
At each one of these transitions, Bell reminds us that we transcend and include: we don’t lose our sense of self when we realize that we’re part of a family or a church, we keep the best of what it means to have a sense of self and self-worth. And we don’t lose our family or our church or our country when we understand ourselves as part of a common humanity, we keep the best of our family, our church, our country – we transcend and include – even when we come to see ourselves as connected to everyone. Our smaller understanding gives way for a bigger understanding to be born, a bigger life to be born, a life more capable of compassion, of forgiveness, a life more capable of love. That’s the path of bigger life for us.
And it’s the path that the Gospel of John describes to us today: “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….” It fits with those times when Jesus tells us that we have to leave or even hate our families; those times in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, when to follow their call, the characters have to leave what they know – think of Abram and Sarai. Think of Moses and the journey in the wilderness. Think of all of the ways that Jesus operated both inside and outside of his ethnic group, his religious group – he transcended and included so that he was connected to everyone he encountered, even as he maintained his own identity as a person and as a Jew.
This doesn’t translate into a simple moral lesson. It’s a question for us of discernment and self-reflection.
We all have times that are disruptive and difficult one way or another – maybe it’s when important relationships end, or when our economic picture looks bleak, or when we lose people that we love – and it seems that our world is contracting. But the pattern shown to us by Jesus is that these times when we’re broken open, they can reveal for us the very places where God will shine forth in our lives and in the world. At the heart of our faith is that these are the very places where the seeds fall into the ground and die so that they can grow again into something bigger and sturdier.
And the same is true of us as a church. When we’re faced with uncertainty and change, when old ways of doing things are changing and it can seem like they’re breaking, Jesus calls us to see in these breaks the new light of God, the seeds that are dying so that they can bring new life.
This involves a choice on our part, a choice we get to make again and again. When these things happen, we can withdraw – and there’s certainly a time for regrouping, for introspection, for rest – but then we have a choice about how we understand the Divine. And it’s a choice that calls us to trust that our lives are expanding; that God calls us from places that are shallow to places that are deep; that we’re called to join a dance that is bigger and more universal than we can imagine; and that the God of new life, the God of new birth, the God in whose image we’re made, that God has made us more resilient than we know; more able to experience new life than we know; more able that we know to bring that new life to the world. That’s that seed that falls to the ground and dies so that it can take all that’s come before and be reborn into something more compassionate, more forgiving, more able to show forth God’s love. That’s the journey that we’re on; it’s the call to the church; it’s the path of Jesus.