This last week one of those life milestone things happened to me. I came home, picked up the mail, and there was an acceptance letter for my daughter to College.
I stood for quite a while in the entry, my coat and boots still on. Looking at that envelope in my hand.
Wait a minute, I thought. Isn’t this the little girl for whom, not so long ago, I made up a white name tag, and decorated it with pretty rainbows, and put her name on it, so she wouldn’t get lost on the playground of the school she’s now going to graduate from? I remember so clearly the look on her face as she marched in behind all those other little bodies, ready to take on kindergarten and the world. That was yesterday, wasn’t it? At most the week before. Isn’t this the same child who sang songs in her car seat when we were stuck in traffic on the way to school, the imaginative child with whom I pretended there was a dragon castle on the island by the bridge? Isn’t this the child whose little fingers I can still feel on the back of my head as I knelt on the asphalt to help her do up her shoes?
Somewhere, somehow, a whole pile of summers and winters and falls and springs have slipped through the hands that now held that letter, and here I still was, and there she was, and there was a letter for her. From a college.
Very truly I tell you, says Jesus, 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.
It’s a shame that this verse generally gets read only at funerals. Because what Jesus says is so clearly true not just of death, but of LIFE. Unless something dies – that is, something changes – nothing new will have any space to come.
It’s a kind of death, every graduation, or every leaving of home, or every new job, or every time someone loses a husband or wife, or sells a house, or whatever it is. Something changes so drastically that we know, we just know, life will never be the same again. And we’re right. Life never WILL be the same again.
There’s so much here from Jesus, we could spend a lifetime just learning from this saying. Renunciation is, oddly enough, the path to growth. It is by changing – by giving up one thing and embracing another – that we become new. In other words, Jesus is saying that despite our airs, we human beings are not so different from the winter that is, oh-so-very-slowly here in Montreal, beginning to turn to spring, or the maple trees that will soon start running sap, or the crocuses that will someday soon, we hope, start to push up. We are part of the same world as them. They die in the fall. And then they come back. But they come back different. We need, sometimes, to have these life-changes, these markers, to be renewed. One door closes, and another opens.
In a movie, if you know something that the main characters in the movie don’t know, and some little hint of what is about to happen takes place, that’s called “dramatic foreshadowing”. It’s like watching the butler come in and pour a cup of innocent tea if you know that later, that same teapot will be used for the murder. That’s usually when the music swells up.
Well, the music should have been swelling for one little part of the reading from John. Because there IS some dramatic foreshadowing in this incident about the Greeks. It says that Jesus was at a religious festival.
At first glance the story seems a bit convoluted: some Greeks come to see Philip, then Philip goes to see Andrew, then Andrew and Philip go to see Jesus. Why so indirect? The Gospel never ever says this, but it does say that Philip was from Bethsaida in Galilee, an area close to the Greek cities. So I think there’s a good chance the reason these people never went to see Jesus directly is this: they couldn’t speak his language. The people who came were not Jews. They were OUR ancestors.
And that’s dramatic foreshadowing. Because the Gospel doesn’t even tell us if they actually ever got to SEE Jesus. It doesn’t matter. What was important for the Bible was that this particular group came and asked. When all around him, his own people, including the disciples, were getting ready to deny Jesus, here’s this group of foreigners who go out of their way to meet him.
And of course, that’s how Christianity became Christianity. The outsiders – our ancestors, the non-Jews – became by far the majority of the new sect that eventually became a religion. So many Gentiles came in that eventually it wasn’t a Jewish sect anymore. Something changed.
Those Greeks who came to meet Jesus meant the death of the old. Peter – a Jew, and John – a Jew, and Andrew and Philip and Bartholemew and all the rest – if they’d known what was about to happen – would have been forgiven if they looked at these Greeks and shed a tear or two. Because those Greeks meant a death of one kind of expectation and the birth of another.
And so it still is. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit.
In your life and mine there are almost certainly things that need to end in order for other things to begin. And as churches, far too often we hold on to that might be keeping us from new life. Jesus died partly because he dared to challenge the old ways, and it’s one of the more ironic parts of history that the church named after him is so reactionary. After all, Jesus was killed precisely by institutions trying to protect themselves. Seeds that didn’t want to go into the ground.
At the root of all of these questions is faith. On what is our faith based? If it’s based on ourselves and what we’ve built, then we’ll not willingly let anything die. We can’t. But – if our faith is based on the promise we’re given and the realization that all things – people and institutions – die anyway, then our faith will help us go through those changes – those deaths – to life.
It’s not easy for someone as sentimental as me to see a letter like the one that arrived this week. But the truth is, my daughter can’t go to College unless she graduates and moves away from the school I remember so fondly. You can’t take the memories away, but they are memories, not a future. A child cannot grow up unless they grow up!
Our faith doesn’t deny death. And it doesn’t deny the thousand endings that come in the course of a life either…just the opposite. Faith tells us we have to go through those changes, in trust. It’s like we spend our whole lives practicing what it is to give something up, in trust that we can embrace something new.
There is a miracle in that envelope that came. And thankfulness. And a miracle in our lives, too.
May God grant us the grace to see faith, not in what we hold onto, but what we are willing to let go. And may we be blessed in that letting go – so that ALL things might become new, and hopeful, and truly alive.