“Fifth Sunday in Lent”: John 12:20-26

Rev. Dr. Jan Gregory-Charpentier
Kingston Congregational Church
March 21, 2021
Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-26

Necessary Losses

When I was in seminary, I enrolled in a pastoral care course called
“Recovery from Bereavement.” I expected we would be learning and talking
about loss of life and the elements of grieving the death of a loved one. And
that was true. But our professor, Prof. Thompson, wanted us to start at the other
end of the life cycle, not just its finale. Through our reading and class discussions
we came to see that all of life, every stage of it, involves loss, because every
stage of life involves change. There is no change without loss. Even the changes
we look forward to and joyously anticipate (such as getting married or having
and/or adopting children) come with losses, admittedly losses we are usually
more than willing to endure for a greater joy, like the loss of some freedoms and,
in the case of babies, some sleep. Even changes we work hard for, like
graduating from school, getting a better job, moving into our own home,
retirement, come with their attendant losses. Simply growing up, maturing,
becoming an adult means losing some of our childlike qualities and letting go of
old identities that no longer fit or serve us. Professor Thompson wanted us to see
that long before we will need to grapple with the loss of life and bereavement,
we will have experienced, learned from, been shaped by all kinds of losses.
Learning to live with, grow through and recover from loss, begins the moment
we leave the womb. There is no life without change, and there is no change,
even for the better, without loss. It is really important, then, to learn how to die.
Jesus said much the same thing. “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.” In
faith, as in life, our growth depends on being willing to die, to let go of what no
longer serves us, to find a bigger life or faith by losing the smaller one. It sounds
counterintuitive on the surface, so Jesus points to the natural world to help us
understand this spiritual truth. Like a seed bursting its husk, we have to die to live,
lose to find, be buried to rise again. It was of utmost importance to Jesus that his
disciples understand this essential truth. He was about to live it in the most
dramatic fashion. His death and resurrection would be seed and harvest on a
cosmic level. But even on the small stage of their individual lives and their life
together as a community of disciples, they needed to understand the lesson of
the wheat. Jesus is clear: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am,
there will my servant be also.” In other words, this pattern of life and death, losing
to find, giving away in order to keep was one they would need, learn by heart
and be shaped by, again and again. The Body of Christ lives by losing its life, by
laying down what was to become what will be. Just like a grain of wheat grows
by yielding its singular form to become so much more. Scientists and theologians
tell us there is no life without change, there is no change without loss. Those who
try to hold on to their lives, keep the golden kernel intact, preserve all their
potential by never letting it crack the husk that holds it, that’s a sure road to
evolutionary and spiritual death. Jesus says it starkly: Those who love their life lose
it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. But it is the
same dynamic just spoken differently. If all our love, work and effort is focused
on preserving what we have, who we are right now, the way it has always been,
the sad truth is we will have already lost. Because unless we are willing to grow,
to risk change, to let go of our lives to become something bigger, we won’t ever
taste the life that really is life, what John calls “eternal life,” akin to what the
other gospel writers call the kingdom of God and heaven, life rooted in divine

This topic is a lot more relevant to us than it may at first seem. It sounds
rather esoteric and metaphorical, but it’s happening to us right now. It’s
happening in our nation. It’s happening in our churches. We are being cracked
open so that we can grow into a bigger life. Nationally, our illusions of being a
purely noble country, founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all, are
breaking down, breaking open, as we are being asked to take another look at
the systemic racism of our society, account for our glossed over origin stories
that leave out native and enslaved peoples, that forget our harsh histories and
paint over our present prejudices. These truths are painful. They break our hearts,
wound our egos and shatter our illusions. That is, if we have had the privilege of
living inside the golden kernel of denial, missing the bigger picture that
neighbors of color and differing ethnicities know all too well. But it is this very
cracking open that will save us. We will die to what we were—thank God—and
become something so much richer. But it’s not easy. And it costs us. And this loss
is necessary.

And as with our nation, the same can be said of our churches. We are
being cracked open—and it feels like death sometimes. It feels like loss and
decline and diminishment. There’s a real part of me that yearns for the way it
used to be. When I was in seminary thirty years ago, there was not one course in
the catalogue specifically focused on organizational change, or
transformational leadership, or shifting paradigms. I don’t think I even used the
word paradigm till about 20 years ago when the I learned the one I’d been
trained for was already becoming obsolete. Now? Every ministry-related
best-seller has in its title or epigraph at least one of these words or their variants:
“change,” “evolution,” “reframe,” “shift,” “transformation., “adaptation.”
Scholars and thinkers tell us we are in the midst of a new reformation. God is
reshaping us. Breaking us open and letting us die to what no longer serves us.
And because we’re in the middle of it, it feels like chaos, it feels like dying, it feels
like losing our lives. And the promised gain, the “much fruit” that Jesus
referenced, the greater harvest is still too far out to see clearly. The temptation is
to resist the change, bemoan our losses, preserve the golden kernel. But Jesus is
clear. Those who want to follow him need to do what he does: lay down our
lives, let go our claim of ownership, fall to the earth and die, that we might rise

That would be horrifically scary and painful if we believed that our future is
all up to us. Luckily, Jeremiah tells us a different story. When the people of Israel
suffered what felt like an ultimate defeat―loss of country, king and Temple―they
had essentially died to everything that told them who they were: their location,
their tradition, their sovereignty. What was their faith without the very things that
had helped preserve it? They probably felt they’d also lost God. But Jeremiah,
not known for his happy outlook and positive thinking, reassures the people that
their birthright connection to God―the covenant of love, justice and freedom at
the bedrock of their identity (that they had formerly believed was vested in king,
country and Temple) would be right there with them in their painful exile and
beyond. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord…” when the indelible tattoo
of God’s covenant love would be written in their hearts, permanent ink, buried
within them. Their world came crashing down around them; the story they had
been telling no longer could bear the weight of their experience. But God had a
new story, a new covenant, to plant in the dark earth of their history and in their
hearts. The husk had shattered but a tendril was emerging, destined to bear fruit
born of heartache and hope.

There is no life without change, and there is no change without loss. It is
really important, then, to learn how to die. To learn that in giving over we are
held up. In laying down we are lifted. In losing our bearings we are returned to
ourselves. In other words, in following Jesus to the grave and beyond, we
discover real life. It is not easy letting ourselves be planted, broken open and
having God’s deeper, eternal name etched on our hearts in a new way for a
new day. It hurts. It’s scary. And it the only thing that really saves us. Amen.

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