WHEAT TEACHES US
BY BISHOP STEVE BREEDLOVE
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Eastertide is a time of sustained joy. The Resurrection has reinterpreted the world in light of things that were never imagined possible before.
I am grateful it is Eastertide. Nevertheless, my mind keeps returning to the text that I preached on Palm Sunday, John 12:24: “Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This passage speaks of death and life; it forms a bridge between Lent and Easter. It is a guiding text for Christian discipleship, powerful and helpful 365 days a year. But the most obvious application, especially as a text for Palm Sunday, is to Jesus. More than instructing his disciples, Jesus is describing his own embrace of the Cross. He is THE grain of wheat that fell into the ground and died, and as a result, continues to produce much fruit.
If “like produces like” in the natural world, the same is true of the life that the Holy Spirit births in us. We who are the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection are called to follow his path of death to self. That’s not just a matter of our becoming disciples (which does, of course, call us to “die to the flesh” – Galatians 5: 13-25 – or to “consider ourselves dead to sin / alive to God” – Romans 6:1-14). It’s also essential for bearing fruit in the sense of reproduction. If we are to be agents of the Gospel and partners in the work of salvation, we must “die to self.” For 21st century American Christians, that will require “deaths” we never imagined a decade ago.
The setting for our life and ministry has shifted epically. Any place of privilege that Christianity had in the West for the past 1700 years is gone. The prevailing winds of culture are against us. (Tod Bolsinger comments in his excellent new book, Canoeing the Mountains, that in 1963, the Los Angeles Times included a weekly list of Bible readings in each edition. Enough said.) Public respect for Christian faith and biblical morality has eroded at a dizzying pace. We are rapidly returning to an atmosphere more akin to A.D. 90 than 1990. The cultural tide has turned, and those who reject the Gospel believe they have the upper hand.
None of this is news to many: this is where you’ve been living for years. Even more emphatically, this does not threaten the truth of the Gospel. This does not negate the power of the Cross to subvert the wisdom of the world. This does not change the core strategy of witness carried out in simple acts of persevering love and compassion. Nevertheless, the cultural setting calls all of us to work from a different angle, with different strategies than we may have ever conceived. It will require new levels of death-to-self personally and institutionally.
First, agents of Gospel mission will have to think better. We must work harder than ever to engage the questions, principles, and truths at the heart of the cultural conversation. We must search God’s word with new eyes and ears. We have to listen better than ever to the assumptions and longings of people in our community. Eventually, we will have to develop the capacity to engage the conversation more honestly, more directly, in starker terms, than we have in the past. What has to die in us? Easy answers and presumptions, simple moralisms, and especially our own refusal to engage the conversation in depth. Our desire to put blinders on.
This is not just an urban, millennials conversation. This past weekend I preached in rural New England. I spoke briefly about the radical difference of defining human identity and fulfillment according to our world versus according to Jesus. The world says identity and fulfillment require the freedom to define oneself without reference to objective truth or to relational obligations. One’s essential identity is no longer tied to objective givens or truths, even the form our body is given at birth. Our freedom to name our own identity without restriction or obligation is essential to human flourishing. According to Supreme Court Justice Kennedy (Obergefell vs the State of Ohio), freedom of self-definition is a basic human right.
Contrast that to the Christian view of human identity and freedom: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply . . .” And Jesus said to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The gulf between these two definitions of human identity and freedom could not be wider.
The person who lit up to these comments was a 70+-year-old man. He came to me after the service, wanting more conversation. Why? Because he wants to stand for Christ among the retirees he hangs out with. Why? They, too, have fully bought the definition of human identity and freedom that millennial urbanites and Justice Kennedy now assume.
Second, we must strengthen the ground of our personal confidence. God’s covenantal love and truth in Christ Jesus are not shaken by rejection and disdain. (Read Psalm 52, as David clings to God’s steadfast love as the anchor of his soul, vv. 1 and 8.) Pray and seek the confidence and understanding of our life with Christ that nurtures a non-anxious presence and a genuine smile on our face as we talk with people who oppose our faith. What has to die? Defensiveness and fear.
Third, we will have to accept the fact that we are the minority, the exiles, out of the seat of power. We have no ground of assumptive priority on even the most basic questions of human identity and human purpose. This is old news, but we keep having to learn it: in the eyes of the world, we are weak. We have to accept that with humility and grace. What must die? Our pride of place. Our presumption of power. All efforts to use power or position to control the conversation.
Fourth, we must learn from the early church and its path of godly subversion. Critical to the spread of the Gospel in the Roman Empire were Christians who persevered in loving the weak and disenfranchised (widows, slaves, orphans, children), whose sexual morality was relentlessly different than the culture’s, who were faithful and utterly honest in the workplace, who ministered to the needy in times of crisis, and who practiced radical hospitality. We must consider each of these elements of effective long-term witness in our own lives and local churches. What has to die? The assumption that being a Christian is primarily about my own comfort and blessing. The assumption that there will be a quick turnaround in our culture.
Fifth, we must begin a conversation about the New Testament community, the OIKOS (household). More and more people are considering the unusual nature of the nuclear family in the last 75 years, wondering if it may have become an idol of the Church. Have we baptized our desire for a fortress of protection and privacy? Have we lost our capacity to embody the extended household of God in our living patterns? Have we relegated single people to unbearable loneliness, without the basic comfort of human affection, instead of joining with God, “who sets the widows in households?”
Finally, if there is one call to action I would bring to our Diocese, it is this: we must disciple children, youth, and adults in the truths of the Gospel for the questions of our age. In age-appropriate ways, we must communicate what it means to be made in the image of God, male and female. We must wrestle through and name aloud the dividing place between a life lived in submission to objective, revealed truth and a life defined by subjective personal desire. We must debunk our culture’s baptism of personal desire – beginning with ourselves and our children. We must teach our children to groan with compassion for their friends who struggle with never-before-imagined questions about identity, and simultaneously teach them to never lose their grip on the truth about true human identity and freedom. What must die? Believing that we can disciple our children and youth by osmosis. Our own failure to fiercely seek to embody what we are trying to inculcate in the souls of the next generation.
Solomon tells us that there’s nothing new under the sun. “Death to self” as essential Christian discipleship was taught and embodied by our Lord: Luke 9:23-24, 51. St Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that his ministry requires him to die daily. The difference I am seeing this Eastertide, and the difference that I hope you’ll ponder, is that death to self is also essential to fruitfulness in mission. Consider not “just a little extra effort” to being effective agents of the Gospel: consider radical “death to self” – to self-protection, idols, fears and defensiveness, laziness, presumptions and pride, unwillingness to think in new ways about the mission of your local church.
Lest I seem to hammer the issue into hopelessness, let me return to the point: this multiphase death-to-self is unavoidable if we truly follow Christ in Gospel mission. It is also the beginning of a harvest of fruitfulness in the lives of people we love.
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” “I determined to know nothing among but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” “When Christ, who is your life, appears, you will also appear with him in glory.”