A sermon for Passion Sunday :-
Around 32,000 years ago, a squirrel in what is now Siberia buried some seeds but never came back to get them. Instead, the seeds were found by a team of scientists examining the permafrost. The scientists took the seeds back to the laboratory, and managed to prepare some of them for germination: they grew several specimens of a little white flowered plant of the pink or campion family, with the Latin name of Silene stenophylla. Those plants grew and flowered and produced their own seed, so the scientists produced viable plants from seeds 32,000 years old, to beat the previous record for the oldest seed to grow, held by a two thousand year old date palm, by an amazing thirty thousand years.
The technique of freezing seeds to keep them viable is used by several groups of scientists around the world, as one way of preserving stocks of vulnerable or rare species and varieties of plants that might otherwise die out. But 32,000 years is a lot longer than anyone might have imagined keeping seed for.
Some seeds naturally remain viable longer than others, even at normal temperatures: like the poppy seeds that germinated in the trenches of the First World War, or that suddenly grow on any disturbed ground, maybe when a new road’s being built. Expect to see poppies along the new Newtown bypass, even if it’s been years since there were any in the surrounding fields.
But for the most part, seeds more than a few seasons old aren’t going to germinate. They may well look exactly the same as a fresh and perfectly viable seed, but looks aren’t everything. The life inside is no more. I’ve got an oil palm seed I’ve had since university days, when I studied tropical crops. It looks just the same now as when I first had it, and it’s really quite a handsome seed, a bit like a tiny coconut. But it will never grow.
Keep the seed, and you lose the crop. Lose the seed, by letting it fall into the ground and hide there, and you release the life within it. Or, as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain . . .”
So the wheat grain becomes a potent symbol of sacrifice, since it must surrender itself, its own identity, in order to be fruitful. But that’s what the seed, the grain, exists to do; so if the grain of wheat doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it’s been - in a sense - untrue to its calling. Jesus says: “It was for this that I came to this hour,” as he looks ahead to the cross.
We call today Passion Sunday, and the fortnight from today through to Easter Eve, Saturday week, is Passiontide. Holy Week itself begins on Palm Sunday, next Sunday, and in that week I just want to follow the events through, and to share as much as I can the agony and fear and confusion the disciples felt, as they saw Jesus taken from them, as they saw his mission come to nothing, and as their own dreams were all shattered.
But today and through the first part of Passiontide, we reflect more on the meaning of the cross than the event itself. Jesus spoke openly to his disciples about what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. Then they couldn’t take what he was saying, but he was telling them that his death at Calvary wouldn’t be God’s plans betrayed and brought down, but God’s plans fulfilled: plans that needed the grain of wheat to fall into the ground and die.
The trigger for these words about the grain of wheat interests me. Some Greeks, some Gentiles, people who weren’t Jews, had asked to see Jesus. They came to Philip, who’d have been a Greek speaker, coming as he did from Bethsaida. And somehow the fact that these Greeks want to see him prompts Jesus to begin speaking about his death. Why should this be?
The disciples expected Jesus to be their Messiah, come to set their people, the Jewish people free, by restoring the Kingdom founded by David. So Jesus tried to tell them that he’d do greater things than that in Jerusalem. The victory he would win would free everyone from the burden of sin; from the cross he would proclaim the love of God once and for all: he was there not just to win freedom for one nation but for every nation.
In the Communion Prayer we say that Jesus died once and for all: Jesus himself said, “When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people to myself.” What was it those Greeks wanted from Jesus? We don’t even know from the reading whether they actually got to see Jesus; only that Philip and Andrew told Jesus about them. But if they did get to see him, and hear his words about a seed falling into the ground and dying, what did they make of it, I wonder?
St Paul wrote that the cross was a scandal to the Jews, and foolishness to Greeks. A scandal to the Jews, because surely no genuine Messiah could meet such a wretched and shameful death; and foolishness to Greeks, who were obsessed with the ideal of human physical perfection. Think of the Olympic Games and the others like them; look at the statues of the various Greek gods and goddesses: each of them as near to human physical perfection as any sculptor could manage. A broken and physically wrecked man dying on a cross couldn’t possibly be divine.
21st Century western culture isn’t all that different, I feel. We’re hooked on preserving our life, our youth, our looks. Just spend an evening watching the adverts instead of the programmes. And where people are interested in spirituality, it’s still more for their own sake than for the sake of the world: so they’re spiritually toned up as well as physically, and feeling better about themselves. Maybe that’s what those Greeks wanted too - something to reassure them and boost their egos.
Only Jesus could do what he did on the cross: once and for all, the one perfect priest made the one perfect sacrifice of himself. But Jesus calls us to follow him, and that means being like him, doing what he does, changing the direction of our lives so that we’re thinking and living sacrificially. For “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.” In those words Jesus spoke of his own mission, but he was also telling his disciples what they should be, how they - and we - should live. That we should take to heart the message of the seed.
What does it mean, to live sacrificially? What do we give up, what do we give away, and why? Plenty of people go to gyms and health spas to be rigorous and disciplined, and to get into shape; plenty of people follow diet plans or go to weight watcher clubs too. But isn’t that just about looking after our own physical selves, within the world of here and now?
I’m not knocking that, of course we should look after ourselves; but the sacrifice of Jesus is very different. What Jesus did he did entirely for others: his sacrifice is complete, it’s an act of love that holds nothing back. Lifted up on the cross, he draws the whole world to him, to the wonder of self-giving love. And his disciples are called to be as like him as we can be, living in a way that reaches out to others, living in a way that involves the death of our own selves. Doing the job that seeds are supposed to do: being fruitful.
Seeds are amazing things; they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Many years ago, I bought a necklace in a market in Peru on which every bead was a seed, lots of different sorts, all strung together. It looked beautiful, but of course each of those seeds was completely dead, and none could ever grow. Seeds that look good, but don’t do what seeds are supposed to do: looking good, but doing nothing - in the end, what use is that?
If my life is centred on me, or maybe on me and my mates, surely my life is a wasted life, however good I may look, however well-known or popular I may be. For I was surely made for more than that, because I’m made in the image of God, and so are you. In other words, we’re made to love like God, to care like God, to give of ourselves like God in Jesus Christ our crucified King. That’s the point and purpose of us, that’s what we should aim to live out and live up to, and if we do we help make the world a better place. If as disciples we take to heart the message of the seed, then the God whose love has won freedom for all in the cross of Jesus will be known and served and praised and shared.