Following Jesus to Life through Death, John 12:20-26, 5/26/13

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May 272013

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church


Before we read our passage today, let me set the context.  In the previous passage we learn that Jesus has been ushered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the shouts and praises of adoring crowds.  People are starting to believe that he might just be the one who has come to deliver them.  This, of course, is not sitting well with the religious leaders who are seeing their authority and influence quickly slip away.  Tensions are high, fueled by the fact that the city is packed for the upcoming Passover celebration.  Something is going to have to give and everybody knows it.


In the midst of all the excitement, some Greek pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for the festivities are exposed, maybe for the first time, to this explosive rabbi from Nazareth.  The things that Jesus is saying and doing intrigue them and they want to know more and their curiosity, as you’ll see in a moment, opens an opportunity for Jesus to clarify exactly how all this is going to end up.


Let’s listen now to God’s Word.


20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:20-26, NRSV)


Though he was Jewish, Philip had a Greek name.  This was likely because he was from Galilee, a heavily Gentile area of Palestine.  That made him the natural person for these Greeks to approach in their effort to gain an audience with Jesus.


Their hunch was right.  Philip is receptive, receptive enough at least to go get Andrew and then, together, go and get Jesus.  It’s speculation, but I imagine that Philip was not only receptive but enthusiastic.  As one Jesus’ disciples, he was well aware of the building momentum and tension around his master and the inevitable impending showdown.  Why then wouldn’t he be excited about the possibility of new converts to strengthen their numbers.  And not only converts, but Gentile converts!  Just think about the possibilities if this movement spread to the Gentiles.  There would be no stopping it!


How confused Philip must have then been when he learned that Jesus did not share his enthusiasm.  Instead of agreeing to sit down and talk religion with these prospective converts, Jesus launches into a mini sermon about seeds, and death, and losing your life.  He begins with these peculiar words, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”


What is Jesus saying?  He is simply saying what he has been saying all along.  He’s pointing his disciples to the cross and to his impending death upon it.  In doing so he is not rejecting these Greeks who are seeking after God but is actually trying to help us see that the cross is the only way these Greeks, or anybody else for that matter, will ever be able to come to God.  Later on in this chapter in verse 32 Jesus declares, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will then draw all people to myself.”[1]


You see, Jesus actually does share Philip’s desire to see these Greeks added to this movement of God’s kingdom.  Jesus knows, however, that all the talk in the world is never going to get that accomplished.  That is not the way forward.  There was a time for talk, a time for teaching, a time for miraculous signs.  That time is now over, however.  The hour has come.  Now it is time for the cross.  Now is the time for glory.  That is the way forward, the only way forward for these Greek seekers and for the whole world.


It’s interesting that Jesus speaks about his death on the cross as an occasion for him, the Son of Man, to be glorified.  Bleeding and suffering on a cross while a crowd cheers your imminent death is a strange definition of glory, don’t you think?   But think for a moment about what glory means.  In a literal sense, the word “glory” is used to describe that moment when we see the best that something, or someone, has to offer and we, in response, offer praise and honor.


Think about a bride on her wedding day.  No expense or effort has been spared in making this young woman the most beautiful she can possibly be in that moment.  In fact, in all her life she has never before been as beautiful as she is when she walks down the aisle to the front of the church.  In that moment she is in her glory and the whole crowd knows it and, appropriately, lavishes her with praise.


Think now about Jesus, the Son of God.  What is the best of Jesus?  What would be Jesus in his glory?  Well, there are certainly many attributes and qualities of Christ we can praise.  Jesus is a powerful miracle worker.  Jesus is a brilliant teacher.  Jesus is commanding in his authority and unrivaled in his influence.  Jesus is righteous and holy in every aspect of life.  And yet, none of these qualities point to the best of Jesus, the best of God.  So what then is the best of Jesus?  The best of Jesus is, of course, love.  Right?  If there is one thing that defines Christ at his most praiseworthy, one attribute that shows him at his best, it is love.


When Jesus goes willingly to the cross to suffer and die for the sins of the world we see Jesus in all his glory because we see Jesus’ love, God’s love, displayed as brilliantly as it ever has been or ever will again be displayed.  Think for a moment about the love of God we see displayed on the cross.  Not only does Jesus love the world enough to die for the world but Jesus loves the world enough to die for the world which is, in fact, putting him to death.  When Jesus dies on the cross we see the best of Jesus, a love which seeks the good of even his enemies.  That is the hour when the Son of Man is glorified and this hour, Jesus makes clear, has arrived.


At this point Jesus wants to make sure he has our attention.  “Very truly,” he says in verse 24.  These are words a teacher in those days would speak when he wanted his students to, “Listen up.  Pay attention.  Get out your highlighter.  I’m about to say something that is very, very important.”


Are you ready to pay attention?  If so, I believe Jesus has something extraordinarily significant to tell you this morning.


“Very truly, I tell you,” he goes on, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  All at once, with the simplest of images, Jesus makes clear why the way of the cross is the way forward and the only way forward, both for him and for those who would come after him.


British theologian and author N.T. Wright tells about a time when he was a boy growing up in England and he and his friends would collect horse chestnuts when they fell off the tree every autumn.  The prickly, green outer shell of these seeds would often split.  If not, Wright and his friends would slice them open to get inside at the dark brown chestnut which was chunky and shiny and often over an inch in diameter.


In those days kids called these chestnuts ‘conkers’ and because they were smooth to hold and good to look at they would collect them, almost as treasures.  The bigger the conker the better because the boys’ favorite use for them was to pierce a hole in the middle of the seed, thread through a piece of knotted string, and go to battle with one another, using them as miniature weapons as they swung them around and tried to conk each other on the head.  Now you see why the bigger the conker the better the conker.  It seems like a crazy idea to me now but I have to admit that 35 years ago I would have thought it was brilliant.


Wright explains that there was only one time in his entire childhood when he actually took a conker and did what nature had intended it for.  One day he took one of his best ones, a large, shiny, splendid horse chestnut, and instead of taking it to school and into battle where because of its size it certainly would have been a formidable weapon, he planted it.  As he tells it, it seemed to him a shame at the time, to waste such a fine opportunity.  His disappointment was lessened the next spring, however, when sure enough, a tiny shoot appeared above the ground where he had buried his treasure months before.  The year after there was the beginning of a small sapling.  And though he hasn’t been back in years, Wright imagines that unless somebody dug it up, there ought to be by now a substantial horse chestnut tree in that spot producing hundreds of beautiful conkers for a whole new generation of neighborhood boys to collect and wield in battle.[2]


I trust you see the point.  A seed that is held on to and never released will never produce anything of lasting value.  Eventually, in fact, that seed will deteriorate and turn to dust.  It is only when you bury a seed in the ground, never to see it again, that it can then produce something of lasting value.  It’s counterintuitive really, because we tend to always think of death as defeat, as the end of life.  In the natural world, however, there are instances where death is actually the necessary precondition for life.  Jesus is simply trying to teach us here that what is, at times, true naturally is also, at times, true supernaturally.


If these Greeks, or anybody for that matter, are ever going to taste the fruit of God’s kingdom, ever to know God’s eternal blessing and favor, Jesus is the seed that is going to have to first die and be buried into the ground.  It is, in fact, only through His death that life, lasting and abundant life, will spring forth.  There is no resurrection without the crucifixion, no way to life for Jesus that does not lead first through death.


To take this a step further, the way of life through death is not only for Jesus.  As he makes clear in the next verse, and at many places elsewhere in his teaching[3], this is the way that all who follow Jesus must also go.  “Those of you who love your life will lose it,” he says, “and those of you who hate your life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Not only do we need to accept that the way to life for Jesus is through death, we also need to accept that the same is true for us.


Think about it this way.  Your life on this earth is like a seed.  That’s what Jesus is saying.  All aspects of your earthly life are this seed.  Your body and your health.  Your mind and your knowledge.  Your worldly standing and status.  Your family and your friends.  Your work and your energy.  Your material possessions and your money.  All of these things which capture so much of your attention and energy are simply a seed that you hold in your hand.  Granted, it’s not a perfect seed but, in many ways it’s a good seed, a beautiful seed, maybe even a big, bright shiny conker.  If you hold on to it, however, and never let it go, your life will never amount to anything.  Instead of realizing the potential within it, your life never released will eventually deteriorate and turn to dust.


Said another way, there is no value in the seed of your life in and of itself.  That’s what Jesus is teaching us here and this is something that is very hard for us to accept because our earthly lives, and all that they encompass, are what we have right in front of us and so we easily come to believe them to be our ultimate sources of joy, and security, and purpose.  The problem is, of course, that nothing of this earthly life will ultimately last.  My days of good health are numbered.  So are yours.  The human mind will eventually dim.  Our status in this world is fickle – today’s hero is tomorrow’s goat.  Our loved ones die and leave us, or we die and leave them.  Material wealth only provides false security for those foolish enough to think it lasts.


Hear Jesus again.  He says that if you hold on to your life in this world you will, in the end, lose your life.  It is only the person who lets go of his or her life in this world who, in the end, receives it back and receives it back many times over.  In essence, this is a call from Jesus to follow him, to hold lightly to the things of this world and cling desperately, instead, to the things of God.  It is a call to recklessly go after Jesus, dying to any hope that any of these things of this world provide any lasting security and joy.  It is a call to bet your whole life on Christ, to make him your only source for hope, joy and security.


Now, when Jesus puts it this way the choice ought to be easy.  Do you want one seed in your hand which will eventually turn to dust or do you want a mighty tree which produces, season after season, fruit and seeds which, in turn, produce more trees and more fruit and more seeds and more trees and on and on?  Which do you want?  The choice should be easy and Jesus is trying to show us that the real bargain in life is not living for yourself but is actually denying yourself, surrendering your will, releasing your dreams, in favor of a life committed to following after Christ and his cause in this world.  As has been said before, if you think the cost of following Jesus is too high maybe you have never yet considered the cost of not following Jesus.[4]


I’m reminded of the story of Esau in the Old Testament.  Remember Esau, son of Isaac and brother to Jacob.  Though they were twins, Esau was the older of the two and so he was the one who was to inherit the birthright from his father.  In the ancient world, this meant something very significant.  For one thing, it meant that Esau as the oldest son would receive twice the inheritance from his father.  It also entitled him to his father’s blessing, which was a sign of material abundance, status among family and nations, and divine protection.  The birthright was a thing of great and lasting value.


In Genesis 25 we read how Esau came in from the fields one day after a long hard day of work.  His brother Jacob was in the kitchen cooking up a stew.  Famished, Esau says to Jacob, “Let me have some of your stew because I’m starving to death.”  Jacob, ever the schemer, sees an opportunity and so he says in return, “Okay, I’ll give you a bowl of my stew as long as in exchange you give me your birthright.”  Esau, believe it or not, agrees to the deal.  His momentary hunger so captivated him that he exchanges a lifetime of blessing for a momentarily full belly.[5]


What makes the story of Esau most tragic is that his choice is repeated time and time again in human history right up to today.  God, in Christ, has extended to us a genuine birthright to become his sons and daughters, heirs of goodness, and sufficiency, and power, and life for all eternity, and we are tempted to trade it all for the hot bowl of soup in front of us which can bring us only momentary satisfaction.  When Jesus calls us to die to ourselves in this world he is not seeking to deny us personal fulfillment but instead showing us the only true way to find it.  When he tells us to let go of the seed it’s only because he wants it to grow into a tree.


You’d think such a choice would be easy.  Sadly, it’s not.  Most people, in fact, choose to cling to the seed of their life instead of letting it die with Christ so that it can be raised with Christ.  I John 2:16 speaks about “the lust of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of riches” which lure countless men and women away from the true treasure Christ has to offer.  Jesus affirmed this tendency human tendency when he declared in the Sermon on the Mount that “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  But the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are only a few who find it.”[6]


George Müller was a Christian evangelist and missionary who lived in England in the 19th century.  His faith in Christ led him to give his life away to serving the children who were the poorest of the poor, mostly orphans.  He established the Ashley Down orphanage in Bristol where, by the end of his life, he had cared for over 10,000 orphans.  He was particularly committed to the education of these children, so much so that some people actually accused him of raising the poor too far above their natural station in life.


Towards the end of his life, George Müller was asked about the secret of his effective service and about the impact God had had through his life.  This is how he responded: “There was a day when I died – died to George Müller, his opinions, preferences, tastes and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame of my brethren or friends; and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.”[7]


Before I finish I dare not miss the opportunity to ask you the obvious question.  Have you come to that point?  Don’t be fooled, just because we’re all sitting in a church on a Sunday morning doesn’t necessarily mean that we all have.  After all, Jesus isn’t calling us to give our Sunday mornings away.  He’s calling us to give our whole lives away.  This is what is involved in the Christian life, nothing less, dying to this life that in the end we will gain it back again.


To choose this way means that you will have to die to your own dreams in favor of a whole new set of dreams that God has for you.  To choose this way means that you may have to stand with Jesus in ways which often leave you on the unpopular side of culture and public opinion.  To choose this way means that you may have to make career choices which lead you towards fulfillment of God’s purposes for your life and away from the fulfillment of the American dream.  To choose this way means that you may have to accept difficult ethical boundaries God puts on your life but you do so because you trust God enough to believe that true freedom lies within, and not beyond, his boundaries.  To choose this way means that you will have to stop pretending that you have any chance whatsoever of ever making yourself a good enough person to merit God’s favor and instead rest in the good news that it is only by the grace of Jesus Christ that you are found favored in God’s sight.  For some Christians, choosing this way even means putting their very lives in danger because they live in parts of our world where a public declaration of faith in Christ opens them up to violent persecution and even death.


If you are honest, some of you here know that to this point in your life you have clung too tightly to the seed of your earthly life and have refused to waste it on Jesus.  The question for you – and this is always the question – is a question of trust.  Do you trust Jesus?  Do you take him at his word?  He says to you today, “Trust me.  Do not love your life.  Lose your life.  Lose it for my sake.  Waste it on me.  Let it die.  Let it die and see what I will do with it.”


“Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus says in verse 26.  “And where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  This is the way forward after Jesus and it is the only way worth going.  It is way to life and to the honor and favor of our Father in Heaven, but it is a way of life that goes first through death.


Let me close by citing a prayer from our Book of Common Worship which we often use at funerals.  If you’ve been to memorial service here in this church, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this prayer.  It is, I think, particularly relevant to this message today.  It goes like this: “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.”






The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application



Read John 12:20-26.  What stands out to you here?


Jesus says suggests here that his death on the cross was his moment of glory.  What does he mean by this?


What do you think Jesus is trying to teach us with his illustration of the seed of wheat?


Jesus says that we must “lose our life.”  What does that mean to you?


To what area of your life today is God calling you to die?  What makes it so hard to give up this area of your life?


Dallas Willard once wrote, “Those who are not genuinely convinced that the only real bargain in life is surrendering ourselves to Jesus and his cause, abandoning all that we love to him, cannot learn the other lessons Jesus has to teach us.”  What is he saying?  Do you agree?


Consider the response by George Müller when asked how God had been able to have such an impact through is life: “There was a day when I died – died to George Müller, his opinions, preferences, tastes and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame of my brethren or friends; and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.”  Has there been a day when you died in this way?



Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.

Monday:                               Psalm 121 ~ Acts 8:1-8

Tuesday:                               Psalm 122 ~ Acts 9:1-6, 17-19

Wednesday:                         Psalm 123 ~ Acts 10:9-16

Thursday:                             Psalm 124 ~ Acts 10:19-24, 34-35, 44-46

Friday:                                   Psalm 125 ~ Acts 15:1-2, 6-11

Saturday:                              Psalm 126 ~ Acts 17:16-17, 22-31

Sunday:                                 Psalm 127 ~ Romans 1:16-23

[1] Emphasis mine.

[2] N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part II, (Louisville: Westminster, 2002), p. 28.

[3] See for instance Mark 8:35, Matthew 16:25, Luke 9:24, Matthew 10:39, Luke 17:3.

[4] Paraphrased from Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), p. 67.

[5] Genesis 25:29-34.

[6] Matthew 7:13-14.

[7] Cited in Willard, p. 73.