“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Just outside our house are a couple of enormous horse chestnut trees. I’m looking forward to my son being big enough to investigate the spiky shells and discover the beautiful conker inside. But however beautiful the conker, an even greater glory awaits. The greatest glory for a conker is not to smash other conkers to smithereens, or to sit on a windowsill looking beautiful and keeping away spiders (apparently). No, it is to be planted, and to be lost underground so that a magnificent tree may grow.
When you talk about seeds in this way it makes sense to me. And even when you talk about Jesus dying so that there might be new life for everyone – that makes sense to me in a weird kind of way. But what I don’t understand is what it means for us to be seeds – for us to follow him to the cross. What does it look like in real life to carry your cross, to become a kernel of wheat in the ground or to be crucified with Christ?
One of the greatest New Testament commentators, William Barclay, makes it sound so easy. He writes,
“The world owes everything to people who recklessly spent their strength and gave themselves to God and to others. No doubt we will exist longer if we take things easily, if we avoid all strain. No doubt we will exist longer—but we will never live.”
I understand that, I really do. I believe in a God who wants to use us to bring healing and wholeness to the world. I believe that God calls people to the missionary field and asks us to give sacrificially.
But I also believe in a God of blessing. One who created a beautiful world for sheer joy, and his desire is for us to enjoy it too. He is a God of both Sabbath and Jubilee, rest and renewal. He is not just a God of fasting, but a God of feasting too. Jesus spent time at dinner parties. He told funny stories. He loved playing with children and he spent time in gardens.
I’m struggling to hold both of these things at once.
Whatever my confused feelings on the subject and whether I like it or not:
Jesus calls us to come and die.
Firstly, there’s the once and for all death. We’re celebrating Jesus’ once and for all death this week. His death means so many things and here’s just a sample:
- His death means we can be forgiven
- His death means death and hell are defeated
- His death restores our relationship with the Father
- His death paved the way for the Spirit to come
- His death brings us life
Our own ‘once and for all’ death is so small in comparison. It comes when we declare him King of our lives, and we choose to no longer be independent free agents living for ourselves. We have a leader and a cause. We die to living solely for ourselves and instead we live to glorify him. The ‘once and for all’ death is the most important death we can die. It is the life-changing, turn-around, point of surrender moment where we say, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about you.’
But Jesus didn’t call us to die once. He commanded his disciples to pick up their cross and follow him. It is a continuous action. That suggests to me that we need to die many deaths.
So secondly there are the big deaths.
I remember having a conversation with an amazing friend of ours called Mark. It was back in the day when we were all fresh-faced, eager, Easter People people. For some reason we were talking about home ownership, and Mark claimed that he never wanted to own a house – he always wanted to rent. He said that he never wanted to become the kind of person whose greatest goal for the year ahead was to build a BBQ in their garden.
Mark is certainly one of the people who has been called by Jesus to die big deaths. Some people are called to give up the business they have built up in order to share Jesus on another continent. Some people are called by Jesus to work in a part-time, under-paid youth work role. Still others are called to die one of the biggest deaths of all and become the pastor of a church.
Maybe you are called to die big deaths – to recklessly leave behind all that you have and step out without a safety net. But if that’s you, I urge you not to do it alone. Gather a group of people round you who will pray with you and try to discern what God is saying, to test your calling. When Jesus calls us, we must take him seriously.
And so finally there are the little deaths. These are the ones I am struggling to define. And these are for all of us.
If we are serious about following Jesus to the cross we sacrifice a bit of good quality television time in order to pray. We sacrifice a few minutes of reading that novel in order to read the Bible. Jesus went to the cross in order to create the possibility of us having a relationship with him. In our gratitude we choose to make time and space to pursue that relationship in return.
Jesus’ death on the cross means that death and hell are defeated. There are so many things that can cause death and hell in our lives – things that cause us to die spiritually, and in following Jesus to the cross we choose to reject these things and embrace the new life his suffering brings. Knowingly feeding our anger and rage. Cursing other drivers on the road. Watching films, TV or reading magazines and books that leave images in our minds that keep us awake at night or damage our closest relationships. Deliberately indulging in fantasies about things or people that do not belong to us. Manipulating others so they do what we want. None of us are going to be perfect, but over time we can learn to die to these poisonous things, and in doing so we will find spiritual new life.
Jesus died so that our sins might be forgiven. At the cross the door was opened to grace – grace flowing like a river across a parched land. This amazing love and grace means we are free to die to our own self-reliance. The kind of pride that says ‘I can earn my way – I am good enough.’
And if Jesus’ death on the cross means that our sins can be forgiven, his death, funnily enough, means that other people’s sins can be forgiven. If we are to follow him to the cross, this is another death we must die, and one that is particularly painful. You see, choosing to forgive is a bit like choosing to die. We die to our own resentment, our bitterness, our need for revenge and judgment. We die to our rights to payback and our need for pity. Reconciliation may be impossible and we might carry the wounds right through to death, but forgiveness is possible, and very painful.
So today the invitation is to follow Jesus along the painful road to the cross. Each one of us is invited to be buried in the ground – to die once and for all to our own lordship over our lives and acknowledge him as Lord. Some of us are invited to follow him to the cross in a big way – a vocational calling. And all of us are called to be crucified in lots of little ways every minute of every day. Like I always seem to do, I’ve made it sound so easy. It really is not. Jesus suffered unimaginable pain. We too may suffer. But each of these little deaths can open the way for freedom and grace from our own self-imposed prisons.