The Glory of Death
by Phillip Maxwell
Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there will My servant be also. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.
"That's not really who she was," my brother Andrew said to me. "I wanted to remember her the way she was, the way we always knew her."
One year ago, my brother Andrew decided not to come with the rest of the family to view the body of "Oma," our grandmother, in a funeral home in north Atlanta, GA. Instead, he would meet us afterward as we left for her graveside service at the cemetery. Finally, a few weeks ago, he gave me his reason for deciding to forgo this opportunity to grieve.
How do we make sense of Jesus' words here in John 12 to Andrew and Philip? How could it possibly be that a grain of wheat, a seed, only after falling into the earth and dying, would bear much fruit? You don't need to be a farmer to perceive that the agricultural metaphor wouldn't apply when transferred to a person's life. Don't you think that as these men stood here and listened to their great teacher they wondered if He were really wise at all? Andrew: "Maybe He's finally lost it." Philip: "Perhaps the pressure has gotten to Him."
To make matters worse, their doubts are only corroborated after this. Jesus has doubts and inner conflicts of His own. He falls under arrest, then is crucified, raised from the dead, and ascends to heaven. He departs from them. At this point our perspective and theirs are equalized in that we are both left to wonder what to do now.
No doubt that once Jesus departed, His disciples wanted to remember Him as they knew Him. The Man they traveled with and lived with for years. The Man who had mercy on widows, orphans, lepers, and sinners. The Man who healed many, who had compassion on the downtrodden and disenfranchised. The Man who spoke truth to power in the halls of Jerusalem's highest local civil authority, Pontius Pilate, who had the power to change history in an instant. They did not want the lingering, sour memory of a forgotten Jew suffering on some bald patch of earth outside the city. "Let's remember Him as He really was!" The thought no doubt occurred to them.
Jesus is no longer here. But we are here. What do we do? Is our best recourse to do as my brother did? To remember Him as He was when He walked among us? Remember the incarnation? To wonder, "what would Jesus do?"
But doing so would be to ignore Jesus' teaching.
Looking back on Holy Week, the Passion of Christ, and Easter, and looking forward to the year ahead, it can feel like we are left to remember Jesus and hope for His sure return. But here on the eve of His crucifixion Jesus is saying that our call is not merely to remember, nor is it to simply emulate Him as an example. He says that for anyone to serve Him, he must follow Him in His death. His followers must enter the darkness that He entered with the confidence of Heaven itself.
And what is to be gained? What does Jesus promise to those who would be so bold, so faithful? Fruitfulness. More specifically, fruitfulness that carries on into life forever with God.
So what does that mean for you? For all those who would follow Christ? It means that first, you must resist merely remembering Christ and instead become like Him in His death. Sometimes we crave a hero, a role model, so voraciously that we get confused into thinking Jesus was just a man to be mimicked, rather than God incarnate with whom His followers have been mystically united. It means that walking forward from Easter is following Jesus in His death, that resurrection life might be yours forever.
It also means that you must begin to think seriously about what it would look like to live as though death is the path to fruitfulness—about becoming like Jesus in His death in order that you might bear fruit that glorifies God. In other words, serving Jesus, bearing witness to the Gospel of God, is living confidently that Jesus has gone before you to empty disgraceful moments of their power, times of great loss of the finality of their pain, and humiliating defeat of its belittling sting. It is living in security and peace. The challenge, then, will not be the difficulty in an ascent to greatness, but in a descent to obscurity.
Two thousand years later, as another Andrew and Phillip far from Galilee process the death of our beloved grandmother, our task is clearly defined. Jesus calls us not to merely remember Him in His life and ministry, but to boldly follow Him in His death and resurrection. But be of good courage, for there our Savior has already gone.