This is a complex passage, with a lot going on. Greeks want to see Jesus. But instead they go and talk to one of his disciples, who then finds another disciple, and then go to Jesus (with the Greeks?) Jesus then, instead of saying yes or no, makes the declaration that his hour has now come. This would probably have made sense to the disciples, in that he has just entered Jerusalem at the beginning of the festival season, to great acclaim, and his fame has spread even to the “Greeks.” Of course his hour has now come – the time when he is to redeem Israel by great and mighty signs and deeds of power.
In the Hollywood version of this, this is what we would be expecting, yes? The hero arrives, and, though the great peril is drawing closer and hardship awaits, we know that, in the end, the good guys will be victorious. It will be tough, but they will win through in the end.
It’s hard to for us to get a handle on how unexpected Jesus’ attitude to the whole “being the Messiah” thing was. We are so very, very familiar with the story that we very easily see it through the lens of a “hero’s quest” movie. Of course Jesus will triumph! And, indeed, the resurrection is the great triumph of God. However, we can easily lose track of the strange, paradoxical way in which it comes to pass.
In this passage, Jesus undercuts the expectations of everyone. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”, yes, the disciples hoped and even expected, given the great signs and deeds of power that Jesus has been doing. But He immediately undercuts this with a mysterious saying.
Very 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.
With this, we come to the central paradox of the Christian faith. He goes on:
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
Jesus is saying something deeply profound here, both about what it means to be a disciple, and about what it means to be a human. Every adult worldview, every adult stance towards life needs to take into account the tragic dimension of life. The first noble truth of Buddhism can be rendered: life is suffering. Of all the many counter-cultural, and increasingly unpopular, things Christianity has to say is this: whoever follows Jesus will be where Jesus is. And where Jesus is, is at the crux of life – crucified.
To love is to open oneself up to suffering. That suggests one possible stance in the face of suffering, which is to close myself off from love. The more people I care about, the greater the chances that one of them will have something horrible happen to them. So the temptation is to close in on ourselves, to present a small target to the world. If I close the circle of my concern to the smallest possible size, if I dedicate myself to wellness, if I work very hard at my career, if I am really, really careful, then I will be able to get through this life without suffering.
Of course I am not saying that we ought to seek out suffering. There is such a thing as unnecessary suffering. If you have a headache, take a tablet. If you have back pain, go to the doctor. The central Christian fact is joy. As it says in Scripture:
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
But this is not the joy of suffering avoided, but one which exists beyond suffering.
We live in a culture of denial of suffering and death. This goes beyond rational avoidance of unnecessary suffering. Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan spirituality writer says this:
Carl Jung said that so much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the “legitimate suffering” that comes from being human. In fact, he said neurotic behaviour is usually the result of refusing that legitimate suffering! Ironically, this refusal of the necessary pain of being human brings to the person ten times more suffering in the long run.
This is one of the paradoxical truths that Jesus is pointing to – not just in what he says, but in who he is, how he spends his life. The full human life, the life of the “Son of Man” is the one open to life, that lives a life fully defined by love, and bears the necessary cost of that love. It is this sort of life that shows us what full human flourishing is – a life not lived purely for myself, but for others.
I did a really interesting unit on Pastoral Theology as part of my studies a couple of years ago. And as part of it, I sought to think deeply about suffering. In my researches, I discovered that there is an active area of research into what is known as “posttraumatic growth.”
Imagine that you met someone who had been through a very traumatic experience – say a terrible natural disaster which left them physically injured. Our cultural assumption about that person would be that they would be shattered by the experience. That they would never be the same again.
But, surprisingly, the research suggests that this is not always, or even usually, the case. Although “exposure to major life crises does indeed increase the risk of developing psychiatric problems…. we have been finding that reports of growth experiences in the aftermath of traumatic events far outnumber reports of psychiatric disorders.”
It feels so unlikely that suffering could be the gateway to spiritual growth. Surely it comes mainly through detox diets, doing yoga, voting for compassionate political parties? Surely growth can only come from becoming more full, not from becoming empty? From joy, not from sadness?
Perhaps joy can lead to spiritual growth. Perhaps some familiarity with the primordial joy of God is a precondition for growth through suffering. Because, make no doubt about it, suffering doesn’t necessarily have to lead to growth. It can lead to disintegration. As the research shows, it can, but it doesn’t have to.
C.S. Lewis wrote this:
Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
The thing about good experiences is that, as a general thing, they don’t challenge the way I am living now. The thing about suffering is that it doesn’t leave you under any illusions about your own adequacy. To count as suffering in this sense, it needs to break you down, to radically challenge you. If life is going well, it is all too easy to live on the surface of life. Suffering drives you inwards, and downwards. Growth paradoxically can come through emptiness and loss. In order to be born again, something needs to die first. To get to Easter morning, you need the pain of Good Friday and the bleak emptiness of Holy Saturday.
This is all very well, but, at the risk of an awkward segue, what does this all mean in practical terms? This is a sermon, not a seminar on pastoral responses to suffering. But I would like to offer three things.
Jesus is with you in suffering.
Firstly, from the perspective of the one suffering: there is something profound in knowing that Jesus is with you in the experience. As Jesus said in this reading: “where I am, there will my servant be also.” Practices that help bring this to mind are invaluable. Prayer. Retreat. Journaling. A trusted person to talk with – a friend or family member, or a counsellor.
Sit with someone in the belly of the fish
Secondly, what can one do as an individual? My favourite image for suffering is that of Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the giant fish. The belly of a giant fish is a horrible place to be. But it is a place large enough for two. By which I mean: one of the most helpful things one can do for someone in the midst of suffering and grief, is simply to sit with them. Obviously if there is something practical you can do to help, do that thing. But our death-denying culture means that there is a real dearth of people who are able to just sit with someone else’s suffering. To acknowledge that we are in the belly of the fish together, and it completely sucks. But here we are together. I’m not OK and you’re not OK either, but that’s OK.
Be a community able to sit with suffering
Thirdly, corporately. What can we do as a church? Again, sometimes there are practical things. But fundamentally I think it’s important to be the sort of place that is able to sit with suffering, which doesn’t try to deny its reality and power. Or, worse, to blame the person for their lack of faith. I could give you a hundred examples of that being done badly. That’s really the purpose of this sermon, to help us to be the sort of place where it is OK to be in grief and suffering. Church should be good at that – after all, we follow the one who was crucified before he was raised. We know that Good Friday comes before Easter Day.
The life of the disciple means being where Jesus is. It means following him into suffering. But there is really no alternative – life will bring you suffering. The more we try to deny legitimate suffering, the more suffering we endure. The attempt to avoid life is always doomed. The choice lies before us, and up to us. As we approach Easter, this is the fundamental question: Do we follow Jesus into death and rebirth – do we allow him to draw “all people to himself”? Jesus summons us, not to prosperity and wealth, but into suffering and death, because only then is the possibility of new life, of resurrection open to us.
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.
This is a sermon preached 18/3/2018 at Glen Iris Road UCA. If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy a post I wrote entitled Existential Doubt and Suffering
 Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (p. 73). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
 Tedeschi and Calhoun, “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence.” 2.