The word was out about a fellow over around Galilee who was giving demonstrations on how to live. It was an adult education course on how to make a fresh start on life. Everyone was gossiping about the teacher, Jesus. He had become quite an attraction.
Some in the Greek world were showing up for the meetings, too. Greeks are not easily impressed. If you get Greek attention, you are really cooking. Those Greeks represented the intellectual world.
You can sense the excitement of Andrew and Philip when they introduced the two Greek fellows to Jesus. Maybe this time He would make a good impression. The movement could use some people of means. But Jesus was not into making good impressions. He took a stalk of wheat and said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can bear no fruit.”
To make a fresh start with our lives, we must first imitate the wheat. Here John brings us to the central core of the Gospel and the central reason for the Lenten season: One must die if one would live. We must lose our lives if we are to find them. Only through death will life come.
Do you find that humiliating?
Why must life always be on the other side of death? One time I searched the Gospels to see if I might find one verse that didn’t say it that way, or maybe worded it differently. Matthew 10:39, Mark 2:35, and Luke 9:24 all tell us that the ones who would find life must first of all lose it. Paul makes matters worse. He speaks of our dying daily. We must imitate the wheat. That is the order of life, the new life that Jesus brings.
Unless something is dying, nothing is getting born. All good things grow out of life-and-death struggles and nothing that is new or truly good will come easy. Sometimes it is in the midst of terrible humiliation that we discover the fresh start.
Sometimes I try — in an amateur way — to do wood sculpture. This all began some years ago when a farmer gave me a walnut log. It was winter and to combat cabin fever I decided to be a sculptor. I knew nothing of tools, and certainly nothing of wood, but I thought I saw something in that walnut log, so I began to flail away, much like a lunatic in a lumber yard. I worked at it for a month or two and things were going well. I began to imagine that I had created a perfect form. I began to feel like I would be another Henry Moore.
One morning I looked at the wood and discovered a hair-line crack running from the base around the top. Each day the crack widened. No one had told me what happens to green walnut when it is cut. In a week or two the piece was terribly scarred with an ugly flaw. My perfect form had experienced humiliation.
I pitched it onto the woodpile. Later in the spring I looked at the wood again and wondered what would happen if I would follow the grain around the crack. By this time the crack was a half-inch wide. A most wondrous thing happened. The crack seemed to belong in the wood. I polished it, crack and all, and placed it in my office to remind myself not to cut into the wood when it is green.
That winter a young woman came to the church to tell me that her life was over. Her husband had left her — found someone else — and she wanted to die. To be twenty-five and wish to die is a terrible thing. Over the next several months our church surrounded her with love. Through counseling she discovered the will to live again. Over and over she would speak of how perfect it had been and how completely humiliated she felt, as if someone had utterly violated her life, split her open, a great wound that simply would not heal.
Yet at age twenty-five we do learn to live again if we are surrounded by people who love and care for us. The scar is there. The humiliation remains. But new growth emerges around the scar and beauty returns despite the loss.
This woman was an artist. Part of getting well was to begin working again. One day after her return to health she stopped by to talk. She said, “All last winter, I looked at the sculpture on your table.” (When she called it sculpture, I perked up.) “Did you do that?”
For a moment I didn’t know how to answer. I responded, “Well, it’s not really sculpture. It’s a humiliated piece of wood that I ruined. I cut the wood when it was green!”
“Why don’t you enter it in the art show?” “I couldn’t do that. That’s not art. And with real artists, I would be terrified.”
She said, “Well, you are always telling people to get over being afraid and to try again. Why don’t you practice what you preach? Enter it. I will help you.”
What can you say to that kind of pastoral advice? So I entered the humiliated wood in the show. Now I need to tell you that I kept a safe distance from the display, too. The judges came. They talked. They gave it “Best in the Show.” They wanted it for their collection.
“Look, it’s not art,” I said. “It’s a scarred and humiliated piece of wood. I cut the walnut when it was green.” They said the humiliation, the scars, are what make it interesting. That’s what gives it integrity. That’s what makes it art.
I knew then why glorification comes through humiliation. Out of weakness and frailty come greatness and strength. Those who open their lives to the painful business of change, discover that scars are growth signs — stretch marks with life welding up around them.
I am always bothered when I am around people who have that porcelain, finished look. Where is the struggle? They have just done Kirk Douglas’ face again, and he supposedly looks younger than his son. Yet a new face to hide the scars does not give new life.
Fresh starts come from letting go of the old life, of wearing the scars proudly, of being the wheat that risks falling into the ground to die, so that the beautiful new field of grain can prosper.
A bit later in the text Christ will say, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all persons unto me.” The One lifted up is to be put on the cross of suffering and pain. And through that, He will draw all who suffer unto Him.
Life is always a risk. Someone is always cutting into the wood when it is green. We have what we give away. We keep what is freely given. To be truly alive is to be always dying. At its core, life is paradox. But only those who are willing to imitate the wheat will understand the miracle of new life.