Parts of us are dying all the time. You probably just lost half a million or so cells just listening to this sentence. Each of our bodies lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, just as many cells reproduce in a healthy body. Our bodies have this constant cycle of dying cells and rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we are regenerated every seven years. What an enormous relief to me. It’s those cells that refuse to die off that pose the real problem, because they cause diseases like cancer. Most pre-cancerous cells die before they can cause cancer. The ones that don’t die continue to mutate. They get in the way and block healthy development of the body.
So, when it comes to our bodies, I am always dying. It’s a great thing. With each breath that enters and leaves my body, with each second, hundreds of thousands of cells die off to allow the possibility for more. I keep dying so life may abound.
The healthy rhythm of existence goes like this: Life leads to death. Death brings new life. Might this hold true in our spiritual and emotional lives as well. Can new life come without death? We know all about death-dealing ways. The failure to forgive leads to death of relationship while anger and bitterness ravage the spirit. Holding on to regret strangles hope. Trying to control events and other people lead to frustration, excessive stress, and exhaustion. What happens when we learn to forgive, to let go, to love enemies and work for compassionate justice? Might we find new life? Let’s look to today’s Gospel passage and see how John’s gospel answers the questions.
In the passage for today, Jesus tells a story about death and life, the rhythm of decay and new growth. It’s Passover time, and hundreds of thousands of people are gathered in Jerusalem. In this wild mass of humanity, some Greek travelers listen in on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. As they listen, they notice that one of the disciples has a Greek accent. And so they approach this disciple, Philip, and they ask him in Greek, “Can we see Jesus?”
Realize this: Jesus has six days left on the earth. He knows how he is going to die. He knows when he is going to die. Only six days left. Any other time, Jesus might answer their request directly. But Jesus is distracted. He’s preoccupied. If you knew you only had six days of life left, where would your mind be? Here’s where Jesus’ mind is. He says, “Unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.”
That’s a weird answer. The Greeks just want to meet Jesus and instead he talks about dead wheat. Maybe there is a connection: If you really want to see Jesus, then you start by recognizing the importance of dying in order to live.
I know, I know, we don’t like to think about death. As W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” But, let’s get real for a moment. How would you feel if you knew for sure you were going to die six days from now? In the few days that you had left, would the thought consume the rest of your life? Would you become philosophical about death? Would you make any amends? Would you have any regrets? Most of us don't know when we are going to die. Oh, it will happen. We just don't know the details. So, with the time I have left, whether it's a few days or many decades, I have an intense desire to make my time on this planet count for something. I want the world to be better because I lived here and loved here. I want to know that my spirit goes on to nourish others – that my body will return to dust and feed this weary earth. As the environmentalist Edward Abbey said, "If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture -- that is immortality enough for me."
In olden days, as in some places and cultures today, communities dug wells where there was deep, abundant, clean water. When the community needed access to water, people didn’t move the well to the city. The city went to the well. The well did not change to accommodate the people. People changed their lives to go to the well. Change was a matter of survival. Spiritually nourishing relationships work the same way. Political structures change over time. So do nations and languages. So do morals and ethics. So do customs, habits, and ways of life. But human need remains the same.
As generations come and go, people still require the inexhaustible abundance of a well. Spiritually speaking . . .
What are the good wells in the lives of our communities?
Where are the deep wells from which you draw waters of life?
Which relationships provide refreshment in your life?
To where do you keep returning when you need some drink in these parched and arid times?
Some wells are no good. They are dry and empty, or the water is stale and polluted.
Do our communities draw from wells that harm us?
Do you keep trying to draw water from dry wells, hoping that it will be different each time you return there?
Is it time to stop drinking from unhealthy waters or some toxic relationships?
Is it time to abandon a poisoned pit in order to find refreshment and abundance at another well?
These questions have to do with the rhythms of death and life, decay and growth. Accepting that change happens. Change is dangerous. And it hurts. And it’s part of the script of life. The world must perish so that beings can bounce back, deal with the new, and live again.
A comic I read online, called Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal puts it this way:
Here is something true: one day you will be dead.
Here is something false: you only live once.
It takes about seven years to master something.
If you live to be 88, after age 11, you have 11 opportunities to be great at something.
These are your lifetimes.
Most people never let themselves die.
Some are afraid of death.
Some think they are already ghosts.
But you have many lives.
Spend a life writing poems.
Spend another building things.
Spend a life looking for facts.
And another looking for truths.
These are your lifetimes.
Jesus puts it another way: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat. For whoever will find life will lose it, but whoever loses life will find it. If anyone would serve me, they must follow me. They must follow me in death.”
Science Watch, March/April 2000 http://www.sciencewatch.com/march-april2000/sw_march-april2000_page3.htm