March 22, 2015, Lent 5 – The God Who Gets His Hands Dirty
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It is very easy and pleasant to be a gardener in the wintertime. You get to sit by the stove with a cup of tea and look through garden catalogs, and draw garden maps, and fill in order forms for seeds and plants. And the bonus is that you get extra mail – I love it when all those packages start arriving in late winter. That’s all really fun. But it doesn’t really make you a gardener, and it doesn’t really produce anything real.
To be a real gardener and to have an actual garden you have to carry through with all that planning and do the real work of gardening. And that means sweat and blisters and sore muscles and probably a sore back. That means you have to literally get your hands dirty. Because unless you dig up the earth and spread the manure and pick out the rocks and lay those tiny little seeds along the furrows and tamp the dirt over them, it will all come to exactly nothing.
Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” It is a verse we’ve heard many times, but I think often when we read it we jump right ahead to applying it to ourselves – because it is so easy to fall into a pattern of reading the Bible as if it were an instruction manual or code book, all about me and what I’m supposed to do to be a good person – instead of what it is, a letter from our Father, who wants us to know who he is and how much he loves us.
So when we read this passage that John wrote, about the grain of wheat falling to the ground, and that the one who loves his life will lose it and the one who gives up his life in this world getting eternal life, we are apt to hear Jesus telling us that we have to be willing to suffer: to give up our rights or our comfort or our stuff – whatever we might be called to give up in the course of our discipleship – so that we can bear spiritual fruit and live with God forever. And actually, we aren’t wrong, as far as that goes: all that is quite true. Jesus said at another time, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”
But here in the passage we read today, it will be a good thing to stop ourselves and read more closely and carefully, because here Jesus is not first and foremost talking about our sacrifice and our fruitfulness. He isn’t primarily talking here about the dying-to-self that makes up our Christian walk. He isn’t being metaphorical or symbolic or ‘spiritual’ here at all, in fact. He is talking here about his own very real, literal, physical death. This passage shows us a Jesus who is God, prepared to go through with all that he had planned: God, ready to sweat and suffer pain; God, ready to do the work; God, ready to get his hands dirty; God ready to die – so that he doesn’t remain alone, just one, single, glorious eternal being – but so that by his death he can produce an abundance of life. And that abundance of life is US. Because he says, if we serve him, then where he goes, we go.
Through John, in the passage we read today Jesus is revealing his heart to us as he wrestled with the immense task that was before him. It was perhaps the most terrible and earth-shattering choice that anyone has ever faced. He said to his disciples, “My soul is deeply troubled. What can I even say? Can I cry out to the Father, ‘Save me from this hour?’ But no – this is the very reason I came; this is exactly what I am here for; this is what everything – all the plans, all the prophecies, all the signs and wonders – this is what it was all FOR.”
And what would have happened if Jesus had decided no to go ahead with the plan? What would have happened if our Lord decided to be an armchair gardener? What if he was not willing to fall to the earth and let death overtake him? What if he had come to the conclusion that we were not worth getting his hands dirty for, that mankind was not worth the pain and the suffering and the dishonor of the crucifixion? It’s unthinkable, I know, but just imagine: Jesus is the Son of the Living God, the Word who was with the Father from before the dawn of time, who will live and reign in joy and glory and power with the Father and the Spirit, for all eternity, no matter what happens. If Jesus had chosen not to go to the cross, he would still be eternal, still glorious, still good and perfect, still righteous, still all-wise and all-powerful.
But he, the Son of Man, God robed in human flesh, would be just one single being. There would be only Jesus in all of creation whose flesh was taken up into the Presence of God, only that one physical body in the history of the universe that broke the bonds of death. And we would have been left as we are, as we have been since the fall of Adam, without hope, in bondage to sin and death.
But that was not the plan. “This hour,” Jesus said. “This catastrophic, agonizing hour that is going to cheat death of his prey forever and throw the doors of heaven open to the whole family of mankind – that is the very reason I am here. Because when they have lifted my broken body up onto the cross, when I have been laid lifeless in the tomb, then comes the glorious moment when I will draw all people to myself forever. That’s the plan.”
Jesus came among us as a man for the very purpose of sowing himself, in blood and sweat and shame and death, so that he could reap an abundance of life for us, a harvest so great and glorious that it is beyond our wildest imagination, really, to comprehend. Jesus sowed his own body to become the first fruits of indestructable, imperishable life the kind of life that we long for with all our mind and all our strength and with all our hearts, with every fiber of our being, because it was what we were created for – for life, not for death; for joy, not desolation and destruction and despair. And he died, not because it was his only, last, desperate option, but because he loved us so much that he chose the hard way; he chose to get his hands dirty; he chose death, because that was the way to life for us.
The cross is at the heart of everything we hope for; everything we believe; everything we put our trust in. Sometimes Christianity seems like a complicated thing; Christians debate and defend all these different theologies and liturgical styles and ways of interpreting the Bible. But without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ there is no Church; there are no Christians; there is no hope; there is only us, plain old people, muddling along as best we can until death overtakes us forever. Twenty years after the Crucifixion the apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, where some people were doubtful about this thing called the resurrection:
“Listen, if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless and you are still in your sins. Then all those believers you know who have fallen asleep in Christ are gone forever. If our hope in Christ is just for this lifetime, we are the most pathetic losers of all time. But in fact, he went on, Christ has been raised from the dead, and we will follow him.”
There are well-meaning Christians who would make the Resurrection from the dead into a metaphor, a kind of spiritual reality that exists only in our hearts and minds. They would say, they do say, that the bones of the historical Jesus are still lying lifeless in a tomb in Palestine, and that the Jesus that we are going to celebrate on Easter Sunday is no more than a spiritual presence in our hearts. I believe that these people are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I believe that they will be with us in the kingdom of heaven, but I also believe that they are dead wrong in their teachings about the Resurrection.
Because they deny the essential truth: that our Lord was not an armchair gardener watching over his creation from a distance, but that he chose to get his hands dirty with the messy, painful, physical work of salvation; willingly enduring the shame and suffering of the cross, willingly laying down his life because of his great love for his people, for us. And in his death, as horrible as it surely was, Jesus was not a tragic victim of the forces of evil; he was the victorious redeemer and healer of all creation. Because the life of the Son of God was sown in death, he is reaping a real and abundant harvest of imperishable life. And in rising to new life, he is drawing all people to himself so that where he is, there we will be also.