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MARCH 25, 2012: FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:7-9
John 12:20-33

It's important to note that John has arranged his gospel in such a way that today's pericope comes immediately before Jesus' last supper. These are his final words before his passion/resurrection. This seems to be why the evangelist puts this well-known statement on his lips: "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." John's original readers understood that Jesus wasn't teaching agriculture 101; he was teaching Christianity 101.

As a child I'm afraid I wasn't very focused on dying and rising. Though Lent was a time of "giving stuff up," somehow I never looked at that practice as a dying/rising experience. By sacrificing things I liked for 40 days, I simply was preparing a higher place in heaven for myself. Jesus simply wanted us to carry out lots of penances so that we would be happy with him forever. Though I heard today's dying seed saying, I only applied it to Jesus. I never understood how it mirrored my own life of faith. The stuff I gave up during Lent had little to do with this life; it only helped me zero in on the next life. Probably John's Jesus would never have categorized my Lenten penances as the dying and rising about which he spoke.

It's important we hear Jesus' dead seed comment against the background of the "Greeks" who came to see him. John's original readers would have been very conscious of the death the Christian community had recently experienced by accepting non-Jews (Greeks) into their faith without first demanding they convert to Judaism. We know from Paul's letters that this decision had not only split the church's members, it also brought them a life they'd never anticipated. A movement which started as a Jewish reform sect in the early 30s was now in the mid-90s a world-wide faith. But to achieve that stature, followers of Jesus had to die to their old frame of mind.

It's no accident that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews brings up Jesus' obedience. As a good Jew, we presume Jesus had a preconceived notion of what Yahweh expected of him. Like his fellow Pharisees, he kept the 613 laws of Moses and fulfilled his liturgical obligations. Yet, as we hear in the gospels, he eventually began to understand that God was calling him to go further: to put people before laws and his relationship with God before institutions. I take for granted that lots of "prayers, supplications, loud cries and tears" accompanied that insight. It was a real death for Jesus to accept Yahweh's plan, and discard his own.

Six hundred years before Jesus' birth, Jeremiah courageously talks about a similar process. At this point in his prophetic ministry he's basically given up on reforming the Judaism of his day and age. He's willing to let the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and its temple in the hope that a faith born in exile will actually be the faith Yahweh demands.

One dimension of this new faith revolves around recognizing that God is present, working in each person who professes this faith. "I will place my law within them," Yahweh promises, "and write it upon their hearts . . . No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know Yahweh." The prophet presumes everyone has God's plan written deep within themselves.

Jesus agrees. Had he just followed the laws and did what the institution demanded, he would never have talked about dying. Perhaps that's also where he wants us to be on the second last Sunday of Lent. He expects us to give up what he gave up. There's no other way to experience the life he wants to share with us.