When Jesus says “you have to lose your life to save it,” he might sound like a real killjoy. Defenders of Jesus will point to the resurrection as proof of what he was saying, but for us for whom the experience of this life is all we know, the promise of a life beyond our experience can be a tough sell. Why give something good away if you don’t know for sure that it will be replaced?
Yet we all have some experience with seeds, the grains of wheat of Jesus’ metaphor. I think that Jesus is offering more than a metaphor. It’s more like an imaginative prototype. It’s a way of knowing the nature of life in a way that is broadly transferrable.
Maybe you have an elementary school memory of watching seeds grow. In my memory, they were bean seeds placed under glass onto a soaking piece of paper towel and then into a sunny classroom window. Over the coming days, we marked the progress as the sprout emerged and then the root and finally, as the nutrients of the seed were all but exhausted, the first leaves unfolded to take in the energy of the sun. Understanding photosynthesis would come later.
To my way of thinking, the seed or Jesus’ grain of wheat didn’t actually die. Instead, it was transformed into something much more dynamic, much more alive. As a dry seed, there was only potential life. But, in another way of thinking, the seed does die. It dies to the closed off identity of being a seed. If it doesn’t, and if by some mysterious force of self-will it refuses to leave its seediness behind, it will never actually live. I see this as sort of a prototype for the way all of the rest of life works.
We think of ourselves as beings with a continual and continuing identity, when in fact something else is going on. Take our skin, for example. The largest organ of our bodies is in a constant state of dying and rising. The outer layer, that we touch and by which we know the world around us, is destined for replacement.
Augustine, in a breakthrough insight into the nature of time, asserted that there is only now. The past, he said, exists only in our present memories. The future, only in today’s anticipations and expressions of desire. Our lives are lived in the constant renunciation of the now that is quickly passing in favor of a future yet to be realized.
Yet, frequently it seems, we get stuck. Believing that we need a greater sense of stability or certainty, we try to take hold of our lives and stop the perpetual change. Sometimes we even choose familiar damaging or self-destructive conditions over less certain but potentially life-giving changes. Following Jesus’ warning, we try to save our lives as we think we know them and, in doing so, we lose.
It seems to me that this risk is especially present among us now. We have lost so much this last year. The desire to return, to recover the past, to go back to a remembered normal is so palpable, it’s easy to forget that our lives are not what they once were. We are who we are now and will be tomorrow.
The final and ultimate expression of this is the resurrection of Jesus, promised and pioneered. It is a gift that he offers all people, the stuck, and the courageous, and everyone in between. This promise, with which we have no intimate experience, can only be taken up by faith.
In the meantime, as the weather warms and the seeds in the ground give themselves over to new growth, it’s worth asking ourselves what are we hanging onto that’s getting in the way of really living?
In the name of Jesus.
March 24, 2021
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as University Pastor at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions.