John 12:20-33 – What It Means to Follow Christ

dying to self

“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.  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 honor.” (NRSV)

The fifth Sunday in Lent is now here.  We are quickly approaching Jerusalem.  Holy Week will be here before you know it.  Why is this all significant?  Because Jesus is important.  When we take advantage of Lent with its focus on spiritual discipline, prayer, and repentance, we come face-to-face with the shadowy parts of our selves.  We discover that within us there is the pull to hold-on to unhealthy rhythms and habits of life, as well as a push to arrange our lives with the fragmentation of disordered love.

Perhaps our reflexive response to things we do not like about ourselves is to either use sheer willpower to change or try to somehow manage our brokenness, as if we could boss our way out of darkness.  The problem and the solution are much more radical than we often would like to admit.

We must die.  Yes, this is the teaching of the Lord Jesus.  That is, we need to die to ourselves.  Sin cannot be managed or willed away – it must be eradicated and completely cut out, like the cancer it is.  Transformation can only occur through death.  Jesus uses the familiar example of a seed to communicate his point.  A tiny little seed can grow, break the ground, and develop into something which provides sustenance for others.  It does no good to remain a seed in the ground.

Jesus did not tell others to do with what he himself does not do.  Christ is the ultimate example of the one who died to himself and literally died for us.  Only through suffering and death did he secure deliverance for us.  Through his wounds we are healed.  Through his tortuous death a resurrection became possible – and we must always remember that there must be a death if there is to be a resurrection.  Death always comes before there is life.  There must be suffering before there is glory.

Only through dying to self and following Jesus will there be the kind of transformative change which the world so desperately needs.  If we persist in making puny attempts at trying to straddle the fence in dual/rival kingdoms, we will be spiritually schizophrenic and left with a divided soul.

Following Jesus, leaving all to walk with him, is true repentance and authentic discipleship.  The act of journeying with Christ is the means to having a new life.  Change only happens when we allow Jesus Christ to be the center from which all our life springs.

Maybe you think I’m being too forceful, too insistent about this Jesus stuff.  Yes, you have perceived well.  I am being quite single-minded about the need to die to self and live for Christ.  Somehow, within many corners of Christianity, this wrongheaded notion that suffering is not God’s will has made it into the life of the church.  But I’m here to say, on the authority of God’s Holy Word, that dying to ourselves is necessary and it hurts like hell.  The epistle reading for today bears this out:

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9, NRSV)

We are not above our Master.  Even Christ’s life on this earth, before his death and resurrection, was marked with suffering.  Even Jesus learned obedience through struggle and adversity.  Our Lord himself did what he is now asking us to do.  He gave himself up to do the Father’s will.  We must give up ourselves to submit to King Jesus.  Jesus offered loud cries and tears and submitted to what the Father wanted.  We must do no less.  We don’t get to choose which parts of Christ’s life and teaching we will adhere to and which ones we don’t need to, as if Jesus were some spiritual buffet line.  All who live for Jesus will follow him into the path of suffering, of death to self, and of new life through the power of his resurrection.  In Christ’s own words: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

So, then, how do we follow Jesus through dying to self?  What does that mean for you and me on a practical daily basis?

Thanks for asking.

Surrender

Every moment of every day we can give up ourselves to Jesus.  We have hundreds, maybe thousands of small decisions every day with the use of our time, our money, our energy, and our relationships.  If we have tried to fix what is broken inside of us, we will likely just try to hastily fix the problems and the people in our lives and move on with getting things done on our to do list.  Instead, we need to surrender.  We need to create the sacred space for solitude and silence, prayer and repentance.  Take the time to sit with a person in pain and listen.  Reflect on how to use your money in a way which mirrors kingdom values.  Begin to see your life as a holy rhythm of hearing God and responding to what he says.  It takes intentional surrender to do that.

Sacrifice

Holding-on to our precious stuff and time is the opposite of sacrifice.  Are we truly willing to give-up everything to follow Jesus?  It is more than true that we are not Jesus.  Our sacrifice and suffering are not efficacious, that is, it doesn’t deliver other people from sin.  Only Christ’s death does that.  Yet, we are still called to sacrifice.  The Apostle Paul understood this:

“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24, NRSV)

I’m just going to let you wrestle with that verse and mull it over without comment on my part.

We were not placed on this earth only to strive for happiness.  Our lives are not meant to be lived for ourselves. Jesus has called us to see our places, communities, neighborhoods, and families as our mission field of grace to a world who needs him.  This takes sacrificial love on our part.

Christianity is not really a religion that is for people who have put together neat theological answers and tidy packaged certainties to all of life’s questions.  Rather, Christianity is a dynamic religion of learning to follow Jesus, discovering how to die to self, and struggling to put Christ’s teaching and example into practice.

Those who don’t struggle are in big trouble.  But those who go through the pain of dying to themselves for the sake of their Lord, find that the fruit they end up bearing leads to eternal life.

May you struggle well, my friend.

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