Jesus and Dirt
Yesterday marked the beginning of spring. And for those of us here in Arkansas, having experienced that bizarre blizzard a few weeks ago, the transition has been fast and furious. The change from winter to spring is particularly dramatic anyway–it’s a full-body experience. Not only do we see the trees burst into color almost overnight, and feel the stick of humidity begin to thicken the air, some of us can also notice spring by the unmistakable effect it has on our sinuses. Another curious sign that spring has sprung, at least for my family this year, has been the proliferation of earthworms in our driveway. Immediately following the storms we had this week there were literally hundreds of worms wriggling across the rain-soaked concrete. It was a surreal sight, and, unfortunately for the worms, a dangerous position to be in. My kids and I all cringed when we backed out the car.
Worms are a sign of spring, of course, because they are attracted to the changes taking place in the soil during this time. In fact, they’re a part of the changes. Those of you whose livelihoods depend on the land out here in the Delta are all too familiar with this, I’m sure. The dead leaf and grass particles that have decayed over the winter are a feast for these worms, and, in turn, they convert this yard waste into nutrients, giving seedlings of all sorts the nudge they need to burst from the ground and make us sneeze. In today’s gospel, Jesus has something to say about this process of transformation. But before we get to the interesting relationship between Christianity and dirt, why don’t we backup a bit–just a couple of verses before today’s passage–so we can set the scene.
At this point in John, Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the Pharisees are dismayed by all of the attention Jesus is garnering–the crowds cheering, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the lord.” In verse 19 the Pharisees remark to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.” This is the lead-in to where we pick up with the Greeks who “wish to see Jesus.” The Greeks are not Jews. They are gentiles, and in this narrative they represent the “world” that the Pharisees speak of. The Greeks first approach Philip with their request to see Jesus, the same disciple who once bid Nathanael to “come and see.” It’s easy to draw the parallel. Jesus’ first disciples came from Jesus’ own culture–from the inside–and now a new group of potential disciples from the world beyond are interested. Jesus’ response is nothing less than a foundational, and beautiful, piece of Christian theology. And he begins with an analogy about dirt.
“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.” Jesus makes use of this very familiar, natural process to describe how his local ministry will blossom into a global movement. Jesus, the first century man, converted the twelve, and energized the crowds, but, to reach the Greeks and beyond, Jesus’ ministry would need to take on a new form. Because of his love for us, he would face even death–the worst the Romans and religious elite could throw at him–and emerge on the other side, resurrected, to bear fruit in the hearts of those who believed in him–those who put their trust in him–a new body of Christ. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” says Jesus, “will draw all people to myself.”
In the history of Christian thought, this process that John describes is atonement theology, which gets at trying to answer the sticky question of why Jesus had to die the way he did. Always a question that we stumble upon this liturgical season. If you take the word “atonement” and break it down into syllables a more nuanced meaning emerges: Atonement. At-one-ment. Jesus death on the cross and ensuing resurrection is a process of reconnection–of unification–between God and humanity. Indeed, the Book of Common prayer describes the mission of the church, this resurrected body of Christ made up of you and me and all others who believe, is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” At-one-ment. Atonement. Death for one grain of wheat leads to fields and fields of plenty.
I don’t know about you, but for me this year, the concept of transformation, of death and resurrection seems particularly relevant. We’ve now endured a year of the COVID pandemic and witnessed our own lives, and those of our friends, turned upside down and inside out. A year ago we were forced away from one another into a period of isolation. For many it has been a dark and lonely time, even suffocating, as if we were buried under the dirt. But today, as the numbers of active cases, hospitalizations, and deaths decrease, and available vaccines proliferate, a new hope is on the rise. And those trees, bursting forth outside, could well be physical representations of what is going on in our hearts.
The key to this agrarian analogy, though, is to recognize that something important happens in the dirt, right? Although the darkness may be difficult to endure, it’s not wasted time. Soil is a very active place. As the worms sift through the detritus, something new and rich is created in the process. Jesus’ death on the cross is not something we just skip over to get to the resurrection. There is no Easter without Good Friday. This body of Christ, our Christian community, exists because Jesus died, because a grain of wheat fell to the earth. As we have been in the dirt this past year, what changes have taken place within us? What have we been forced to let go of, and what form will we take when we begin to rise from the earth? How will we bear fruit, and, in fact, be more than we were a year ago?
The other day my wife, Kate, texted me a cartoon she had come across on social media, and said, “there may be a sermon in this.” It was simple. Three images of a flower pot. In the first image a frightened looking seed was being placed into the dirt. In the second image the seed is in the depths of despair, with a thought bubble above his little seed head that reads, “Everything is over.” In the third image a fresh, green seedling has emerged from the pot, and the seed, now smiling, has become a well-rooted foundation. The caption on the cartoon reads, “Sometimes, when you’re in a dark place, you think you have been buried, but you have actually been planted.”
“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.” Happy spring.
Lent 5, Year B